Keynote address by…

Professor Dirk Bolt

I am glad to be asked to speak here today and be here in Sydney again. Next week it will be exactly 50 years ago that I saw Sydney for the first time as a very young man. I’d flown in from Holland. At that time, it took 10 days. Now it takes less than one. That is significant to town planning, because this increase in speed by a factor of 10 applies also to transport on the ground.

It means that in the time people have available for travel – taking into account constraints created by the rhythm of night and day – they can travel over much greater distances. Our towns and cities have also grown. Sydney with over four million people today, is indicative of city growth the world-over.

The other big change in the last century has been in communications. It was about 100 years ago the telephone came, and what a difference it made. That was followed by the fax, but it could have been the other way around, because the technology used in the fax was discovered before they were able to make the telephone. For some reason a use for that technology could not be found and it was overlooked because people wanted sound. If that had been reversed, development might have taken a somewhat different course.

A similar occurrence took place in town planning. We have seen cities grow enormously, but growth might have occurred in a different way. About 100 years ago there were several planners who pointed out that urban development could take a different course. But they got by-passed in much the same way that the fax got by-passed. Why, I don’t know. But, we’ll have a look today and we’ll go back to the people who thought step by step about how cities might be built to avoid all the problems we have with growth and big cities today. We will follow the trail of alternative town planning.

There is a word for this alternative called isopolitan planning. What does that mean? Iso means equal and politan means city. So it is a way of thinking about cities with equal values, rather than cities that are large, dominating the urban scene, as in Australia today.

So we will be talking about a different model. What do we mean by a model? In the first picture you see a plan a lovely town in Poland from the 18th century. On the left is the model. What was actually built is on the right. You can see it’s got crooked streets and is not strictly identical to the model, but its essence has been maintained.

Today we will be looking at models, so I will not be proposing that cities be built in exactly this way, but I will be stressing the morphology, or shape, of the basic idea in each model.

I’ll also be focussing on growth and development. Growth is different from development. I often use an analogy to illustrate the difference. For example people grow until they are into their 20s. Growth stops but development continues. We are all here for self-development. So there is a very important difference between growth and development. Growth means more of the same. Development means a gradual unfolding into a more complex whole. So when I use the word development I mean becoming more complex or sophisticated, not getting bigger.

What relates to individual people can also apply to communities. Jung, the Swiss psychologist, devoted much of his time to the idea that communities are like people. We should think of communities like people, because communities are made up of people. So, the manner of growth and the manner of development of communities should perhaps parallel the growth and development of us as people.

So communities should go through a phase of growth, but then stop and development continue. By communities I mean communities related to a locality. This distinction is very important as the word is used in many ways. In this case I will refer to community as people who live in a given place, who meet each other in the centre of that place, or in a market, people who know each other because they live in the same area. We can also refer to that as a geographic community – a community in space.

We will be looking at two things today. On the one hand, the growth of Sydney and its population since 1861. On the other hand, we will look at a concurrent development of thought about how to regulate rates of urban growth and how to give it form.

Sydney had 96,000 inhabitants 140 years ago – a small city. At that time there was a man in England named J.S. Buckingham (1786-1855), who wrote about urban communities and thought they should be focussed on a public square. What did he mean by that?

This next diagram is of an Egyptian hieroglyph for city. The two lines that cross the circle are roads reaching out from the city bounded by the outer perimeter of the city or circle. Where the roads cross is a focus for that community – a place where people meet and exchange common interests. This is why Buckingham said communities should focus on a public square.


Buckingham also said there should be a variety of activities or land uses in the city and that this is a condition of development. In other words, he realised there could be no development without variety.

So communities should have many different activities in them. Each should be a miniaturisation of society as a whole. The whole of Sydney, of New South Wales, of Australia, should be reflected in all local communities here. But that community should not be too large and should have a human scale. Buckingham thought it should have about 10,000 people in it, allow for low densities and be limited to about 1 km radius or grid of 2 x 2 kms. This is because of the diurnal rhythm I referred to earlier – the distance people have to walk to and from work every day. That is about a kilometre or 12 minutes walk.

All human settlements the world over have a walking distance radius. This is because the diurnal rhythm is the same for all people whether they live in South America, Asia, or Africa. Ancient cities, like Athens, also have that 1 km radius. Now, what’s the significance of that?

We live in the 21st century. We might think of Athens in a different way, because Athens was the place where our civilisation was born. Our ideas about beauty, justice, what is right, what is wrong all come from those ancient communities and so they were born in a city of that size. The whole of civilisation came about in cities of about 1km radius. What does that mean?

Our civilisation is like a plant. It grew up in a particular environment or setting – like a ‘greenhouse’. If you take a plant out of the environment it has grown accustomed to and put it somewhere else, it might not survive. That is a danger we face today.

Recent rates of growth in cities have been explosive and so we have a completely different societal environment today to what has existed for thousands of years. We should be careful before we accept without question that our civilisation can survive in such a different environment.

Another man who thought about these problems was E.G. Wakefield (1796-1862). He wrote A Letter from Sydney in 1829 saying that progress in Australia was being held up by the issue of large parcels of land. That was a really different perspective. He said more balance was needed in the ratio between the release of land and supply of labour – things should be done in proportion. This was the first move towards what we call today balanced development – there should be so much of this, so much of that, and only if the mix is right can we have a healthy community.

This impressed the economists of the day and provided a new rationale for planning human settlements. This influenced South Australia and reflected the thinking in New Zealand. So these thoughts about developing healthy communities have been around for a very long time.

Buckingham and Wakefield together developed a principle of pro rata, or proportional development. They saw the significance and value in smaller units and the human scale. We have since learnt there are limits to growth. They understood 100 years ago that for activities to fall within our sphere of influence, they should consist of district built at a scale within reach of direct human experience.

The plan below is of Griffith in NSW by Walter Burley Griffin. It is the perfect example of thinking at the time. There is a community with a dense centre that eases out as you move towards the periphery to a more rural environment. Griffith was seen as a self-contained place where people could work, live and die with the feeling that they had a satisfactory life. It was a balanced community. We will see what happened to that idea of balanced communities later.

We now move to about 100 year ago, to Ebenezer Howard, the man who pioneered the idea of the garden city. This model had a great influence on UK and Australian cities but also cities the world over. Howard’s aim was to make cities slumless and smokeless. Slums and smoke were the curse of cities at that time. He thought urban problems should be resolved as part of a national-wide colonisation program.

Now what did he mean by that? Back to the colonies? No. I referred to Athens earlier. In Greek civilisation if a city had grown to the 1km radius limit it might increase in density a little but it did not grow out any further. After that point a new city was established, thereby providing the original meaning of the word ‘colony’.

Ebenezer Howard thought cities should not grow beyond their natural limit. Beyond that point new cities should be started. That was his colonisation program. He sought to achieve decentralisation, that urbanisation should proceed as a cluster or group of urban communities. Each of these units should be built to a human scale as they are in this diagram, and they should be connected by a public transport system – a new idea too.

What Howard had to say is a message for us today: "That the public transport system would afford each member of the community the enjoyment of easy, rapid communication; so that the advantages that a large city presents in the higher forms of corporate life would be within reach of all, and yet all citizens might be within a few minutes walk of the countryside". So 100 years ago, the idea of livable communities had begun to take shape.

We now move on to 50 years ago, 1951, when the Australian Government decided to build Canberra as the nation’s capital. Menzies was in power and a Commissioner was appointed to get the new city up on its feet. We are going to have a look at Canberra as the original designer, Walter Burley Griffin, intended it. Burley Griffin’s model for Canberra is very different to what was actually built.

What did Burley Griffin do? He created a network of human-scale urban communities. You can see this in his plan. Next to it I have drawn in diagrammatic form, his network of human-scale communities. They were to be connected at their centres to a transport system that would link each of the communities together. Each community was to have a specialised function. There was a diplomatic town, a town for practical things, an administrative town, and so forth. But because they were all part of this whole, they were essential to the viability of the city as a whole. It could not function without any of these units. So, although they were all different, these urban communities were equal in value. This was an isopolitan concept.

The concept was discarded in the 1960s. It was one of the great dramas of town planning in Australia – a real error. Canberra became ‘seven villages in search of a city’. They failed to appreciate the real value of Burley Griffin’s concept. Let us go further and see how that concept was developed.

It was a German, Eric Gloeden, who took this idea much further. He believed you could build large urban units with a type of cell-like structure, or modular assembly. He called this a coordinated city with locally specialised functions supported by a centre to centre network of electrified railways. This is very important – centre to centre – there were no stops in between. If you wanted to catch the train, you walked to the centre, you got on the train and you got out at the next centre.

Incidentally, the lifts in Sydney together cost a fortune, probably very much more than the whole of your public transport system. But how often are you charged to get into the lift, how come that that's free and we have to pay for our public transport? Strange isn't it? I think there might be some new thinking. Perhaps we should have no lifts, perhaps we should have a public transport system like a horizontal lift, and it should be free. He saw the significance of this isometric network – it means a triangular network.

Gloeden believed this model could be used like an overlay on the existing human settlements in Germany where he worked. What were existing urban settlement patterns like in Germany? The Saxon civilisation developed a triangular network of streets rather than a rectangular grid like the Greeks. Wherever the Saxon civilisation went they did this. We can see it in the UK. Gloeden overlaid this configuration on maps and proposed using existing processes of change within these villages to work towards this model. His view basically went like this: You don’t need to start from scratch and build new units all at the same time. You can use existing nuclei to develop in this pattern.

Ebenezer Howard proposed that new units had to be build to bring about his form of colonisation. By contrast Gloeden believed existing urban settlements could be ‘retrofitted’. This approach is more relevant to Sydney as the city already has a network of shopping centres and rail stations that could be used as a basis for a Gloeden-style overlay.

We now go to 1957 where there was a competition for the new capital of Brazil – Brasilia. Like Canberra it was a courageous new step. The first prize was awarded to a scheme that was highly centralised – a very Baroque idea about how cities should be built. I think that the second prize pictured here, was a much better and a far superior entry. This was by the Roberto brothers. They proposed what they called a polynuclear city that was an isopolitan city.

In their plan there were 7 human-scale communities, very much like Burley Griffin’s scheme. There was a balance of labour supply and demand in each of the suburban communities. The office functions of the Federal Government were distributed over all the nuclei. The Roberto brothers said, "We are not going to build big boulevardes with big perspectives. Our interest lies in putting human life above exhibitionism".

Rejection of the polynuclear concept orientated around a public transport system meant that we relied on movement by car instead. This meant energy bills were very high. The amount of fuel needed to sustain this type of city building was enormous. In 1976 there was an energy crisis. In 1977 the National Energy Advisory Commission of Australia was very concerned. They said, and I quote these few words: "Here is a situation where the world energy shortage is potentially of crisis proportions". They made it very clear that our dependency on fuel makes us very vulnerable as a society. We need to reduce our growing dependence on oil. What have we done about it since the 1970s? Not much.

A few years later, in 1981, a conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science focused on the whole question of low cost renewable energy. It’s interesting to see they combined the two – renewable energy and low cost. Why? They believed we could just carry on as we did before. Oil is so cheap. All you have to do is find a different but renewable energy that is the same low cost. You don’t need to change town planning practices so that you don’t need so much fuel to begin with. Well, what happened? Petty, the cartoonist, tells us.

Well, says the Chairman at the end of the meeting, "I think we all agree that low cost renewable interest in fuel crises will run out before the fuel does".

We now go to 10 years ago. The House of Representatives standing committee for long-term strategies held an inquiry into patterns of urban settlement in Australia. When I heard this I thought we are pursuing a pattern of urban development where our vulnerability as a society is increasing every day. We must change. We must draw the committee’s attention to the need to build a more sustainable community.

Let’s come up with a model for making a new pattern or urban settlement. This model should also help us to understand why our present form of city building requires all this energy, how we arrived at this point, why we are so vulnerable and why we have so many negative things associated with large cities.

The model I propose is a model for making another kind of city – the Polynuclear City. The morphology, or shape, of the network connecting the units of urban settlement is quite different. This is a circuit that connects all these units. The advantage of the circuit is that all units around the network are equally advantaged in terms of access. But this configuration is able to do away with the massive congestion that occurs in highly centralised cities.

In this model there are four key-word principles at play. The first is community – a geographical community of about 1 km radius. The second is constellation, which means a circuit of communities ensuring equity without massive congestion. The third is isopolitan,. a system of equal communities – that is, equal in terms of fair treatment, not in terms of being identical. To clarify what this means, a useful analogy can be made. Think of that circuit of communities as a table, and think of these communities as a family of people sitting around that table. Each member of the family is different. Some are big, some are small, and the big ones eat more than the small ones, but they all are entitled to eat. So all those communities have rights. There is an inherent concept of the rights of communities, just like people; once a community is declared, it should have rights. An example of what this means in practice would be that a Post Office couldn’t be closed because it is thought to be inefficient. You cannot deny food to your Grandma who is sitting at the table, because she is thought to be inefficient.

Human rights only make sense in the context of a community. That is the only way human rights can have meaning. There is so much attention given to individuals but never the community that those individuals are a part of. Communities must have rights too.

The fourth principle is that of robustness, or conversely, vulnerability of urban society. We must increase the robustness of our cities – their ability to survive even though their environments may change. Now, the events of September 11 have clearly indicated the vulnerability of modern cities. On the one hand we have a party that consists of independent cells and on the other hand a highly centralised system. The centralised system is really very vulnerable while the other party has a higher degree of survival ability. The cellular structure – which you find in nature too – is more robust. If one cell is destroyed, the rest of the constellation can continue to function. We must not overlook the principle of robustness in our urban societies.

We are going to look at two demonstrations of this from Australia. The first is in the ACT – a proposal for Gungahlin.

Part 2