Adelaide’s been gripped by a number of contentious mystery stories comparable in scope and intrigue to a Sherlock Holmes story or, perhaps more fittingly, one of Raymond Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlow tales, except if Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about town planning and administration, rather than murder. These are now known by the genre title of ‘Vibrant Laneways Mysteries’.
The one currently doing the rounds is the much discussed ‘Curious Incident of the Bike in the Laneway’. Here’s a brief plot synopsis:
A young deviant, Josh Fanning, commits the audacious crime of locking his bike to the railing of his gallery as a form of impromptu signage. This is in flagrant disregard for the other business on Clubhouse Lane – an honest car park which has done the city the service of turning the lane into a Vibrant Dead End.
Fanning, of course, is the cunning mastermind behind such criminal acts as Magazine Gallery and Collect. He’s also a repeat offender. In the past he hatefully mis-used a Council initiative encouraging local business to take ownership of Hindley Street by placing potted geraniums and flowering plants on the street. His intention was, obviously, to give the violent drunks on Hindley Street something to throw at each other. To make matters worse, he’s also painted a terrible and offensive mural on the side of his gallery, so innocent passing motorists making their way to the car park are forced to bear terrible witness to his penchant for ‘street art’.
A diligent council street safety inspector (who’ll most likely be played by Bruce Willis when this finally makes it to the big screen) was patient in those incidents. Bruce Willis threatened Josh with a fine, he took the plants in – although the mural remains.
But when Josh locked the bike on the railing of his shop, it was the last straw. Bruce Willis told him he’d be receiving a fine of $210 under the city’s Vibrant Laneways Penalty ($200) plus a Victims of Vibrant Laneways Fee ($10). Shortly thereafter, a number of major media sources reported on the story, shaming Josh into contrition. Bruce Willis recognised Josh had seen the error of his ways and reduced the fine to $48. Presumably $40 worth of Vibrant Laneways Penalty and $8 of Victims of Vibrant Laneways Fee.
The release of this particular mystery was somewhat dampened by a similar release on the same day, albeit in the genre of science fiction/fantasy, rather than mystery/crime. It was entitled “Idea: Encourage Socialisation by Having Street Art or Furniture That Stimulates Conversation and Cooperation” and published by the Integrated Design Commission’s 5000+ project. It’s a moving work set in the not-too-distant future (about thirty years away), presenting a dystopian world in which our city is no longer protected by the Vibrant Laneways Penalty, and our wealth of existing vibrant laneways are clogged with heinous small businesses and anarchic foot traffic. Sort of like the popular motion picture Escape from New York, in which people paint murals, use bikes as a form of signage and put flowering plants in pots on the streets whilst Kurt Russell wears an eye patch and shoots people.
Their nightmarish vision is nothing compared to that of no less than Stephen Yarwood, Adelaide’s lord mayor who has written a piece of horror fiction comparable only to HP Lovecraft. Yarwood, like Lovecraft and Stephen King, has put out quite a few stories on this topic. In his nightmarish visions, pedestrians will be given priority in the city centre and red tape will be lessened by the use of pilots. It’s like a dreadful nightmare! If there’s more pedestrians where will the cars park!?! And if we don’t have an adequate supply of red tape, how will we prevent more terrible Josh Fannings from clogging the city with their dreadful laneways activation!?!? Oh the humanity! There’ll be unregistered sandwich boards, murals and bicycles everywhere! And the streets will be crawling with humans!
Okay, so I’m being a bit facetious. But look at it this way: We have both the IDC and the Lord Mayor outlining visions of inner city “vibrancy” – or what Craig Allchin so aptly titles ‘Fine Grain’ activity: small, culturally focused business, foot traffic, the possibility for the city to serve as public space rather than just a big mall with a museum and a couple of universities. And we have Josh actually producing that type of city.
And then we have Josh getting fined for producing that city.
There’s an understandable and growing sense frustration that the recent spate of visions and strategies around ‘vibrant cities’ doesn’t seem to be connecting to the actual practice. And there’s an equal volume of frustration that the allocation of resources to visions and strategies seems to have largely bypassed people like Josh, who are working on the front lines of vibrating the city.
In the past I’ve suggested Adelaide has a real need to offer direct incentives to the Josh Fannings of the world through start-up grants to encourage them to start operating and continue operating in the city centre.
And I’ve also suggested that we replicate the incredibly successful TACSI’s Bold Ideas Better Lives Challenge, which funds both Renew Australia and things like Hello Sunday Morning, on a much smaller scale – through, say, $5000 to $10,000 one-off grants and through matching fund programs, assessed against indicators of city and social benefit, and awarded to pilot projects and start-ups, rather than (as is currently the case) against a narrow range of specific arts and community projects with definite deliverables.
When I make that suggestion I get a long list of reasons why such an approach to funding would never work. I’m assured its’ virtually impossible.
Except other cities are already doing those sorts of funding schemes and they’ve already been shown to work.
Case in point, City of Sydney – which, two years ago, was behind Adelaide in terms of innovative approaches to city vibrancy – now offers matching funds up to $10,000 for community driven projects through their Matching Grants scheme. Note that this scheme is run through their development department, not an Arts and community engagement program.
Likewise, their Fine Grain Business Development Matching Grant program does the same thing for businesses exactly like Magazine.
These schemes essentially mimic what Postcode 3000 did in Melbourne back in the nineties, providing direct incentives for the practitioners of city vibrancy to come back to the city centre.
By contrast, in Adelaide, whatever the vision, there’s not only a lack of incentives, there’s an active disincentive – as Josh’s fine proves.
This poses a question: If both state and local government strategies consistently identify people like Josh and spaces like Magazine as key to city vibrancy, why is he still getting fined? And why can’t we bring these funding schemes into place in Adelaide?
Usually when I ask these questions I get told I’m being too bitter or too impatient or too impractical. But if we accept other cities are already doing this, I’d argue I’m being entirely reasonable. If we want a vibrating city, which should provide incentives to the people who vibrate it – not fine them.
I usually get more honest answers to those questions off the record, or when I’m getting drunk and collegial with an adequate mix of shit stirrers both within government and without. Otherwise, the debate gets pulled into a sort of Us vs Them/Government vs Community binary and everyone just starts arguing about how hard done by they are. Let’s just accept for a moment that such a divide is a fiction. As individuals we collectively inhabit the same space, and vote for the same government. This is ‘our’ problem, not something ‘they’ should fix.
So the question isn’t, to my eye, why Josh is getting fined whilst other people are getting extremely well paid to have visions about what he’s doing. That’s an outcome of a particular system. The question is why a system is in place whereby the strategies of those working within a democratic government struggle to connect to the activities of those working outside of government, even when they share the same goals, and what we do about it.
The thing I’ve found over the last two years of batting my head against these sorts of things is that many of those we elect and those they appoint (many, not all. Maybe not even most) share pretty much the same ideological goals when it comes to town planning and regulation. Adelaide has a large cohort of people who believe something has gone wrong in the way we manage cities, which has scaled out those with limited capital, produced socially and economically unsustainable design and has degenerated most Australian cities towards the level of Malls with Museums and Universities.
Hence the visions are remarkably similar to Josh’s practice because we collectively vote for people who address those issues, and they employ senior civil servants and set strategies to pursue that vision. The reason the Lord Mayor’s vision, and the 5000+ vision so closely replicate what Josh actually does is because enough of us took part in a democratic process to appoint people who represented a roughly collective vision of a city that isn’t as dull as dishwater. Those visions are, effectively, ‘our’ visions.
But in between the practice and the strategy, there’s an administration no one seems to understand, fractured into a complex interplay of departmental silos and agencies that don’t talk to each other, and are largely staffed by people who either can’t figure out that labyrinth, aren’t allowed to, or don’t want to risk their jobs doing so. And herein lies the problem.
My theory – and I welcome your critique – is that the major ‘vision’ or ‘strategy’ Adelaide, and Australia more generally needs over the next decade or so is more to do with the governance of place than the specifics of which laneway we need to vibrate or how nice it’d be to have more urban furniture or city gardens. An empowered population will figure out the details. The strategy needs to provide the platform.
The way I see it, we currently have an administrative system brought in by previous governments over the course of the last century which takes its ideological direction and its standard assumptions from a different era; when cities and their citizens were seen as a threat, when ‘city vibrancy’ meant inner city slums, hotbeds of disease and vice and poor or non-existent infrastructure. Inner city plumbing and garbage collection is, after all, a new invention.
The rise of annoying things like uniform building codes, planning policy and Council employees wandering the streets handing out fines is a direct response to slum lords, shoddy construction, endemic poverty and exploitation. The administrative system borne out of those assumptions favours suburban sprawl (which was originally perceived as being a vast improvement on city overcrowding) and suburban shopping malls (within which it was easier to crack down on illegal gambling dens, speakeasies and associated Dens of Inequity.) Australian cities, their planning policies, land management and regulatory frameworks have been founded on a desire to avoid the same inner city slums like Whitechapel in London which produced the same ‘criminal class’ that founded most Australian cities. Getting people out of impoverished slums, into the open air and into accommodation that didn’t result in them dying of disease is a colossal underpinning of Australian urban planning and has been since Governor Phillip passed regulations trying (unsuccessfully) to protect the water purity of the Tank Stream in Sydney.
In South Australia, policies like the Strangways Act were designed to allow new land to be accessible and affordable to the working class. That access to land directly connected to our political status as one of the first places in the world to have full suffrage. Adelaide, more so than most other cities in Australia, was planned to avoid inner city overcrowding and to foster opportunities for cheap, clean suburban housing where the working classes didn’t need to live in shitty tenement blocks with no plumbing or running water. You can still see the early waves of that planning in the city incinerator, behind the Greek on Halifax Street, the memorial to the Infectious Diseases Hospital in the Botanic Gardens and the neat rows of workers cottages in the Southern sections of the city and around Melbourne Street.
People seem to forget this and think urban planning is the province of architects and graphic designers with a penchant for drawing mock-up streetscapes using clunky 3D design software. The discipline of planning is a response to things like The Great Fire of London and the Plague (which last seriously hit Australia in the early 1900s). The administrative system it’s left us with has been designed to keep people clean, free of disease, and housed in such a way they don’t either riot because they’re starving to death or living in the gutter.
It is a system designed to prevent risk. It is, by its very nature, not a system designed to produce ‘vibrancy’. After a hundred years of trying to control and regulate cities, we’re now asking them to become more organic again. When you look at what the systems of governance are designed to do, and you talk to the people trying to work within them, it’s a bit like watching someone try to build a Boeing 747 with tools designed to make sailing ships. Our approach to the governance of place is, to quote planning minister John Rau, “dishevelled, disjointed and inconsistent” with the functions of the 21st century city.
There are a lot of people talking about this, but no one seems to know the answers. Everyone seems to want a clear answer to the mystery. They want to see the line that says “The butler did it” but it’s too complex for that. Hence my theory: perhaps part of the problem is that the visions and strategies are dealing with a governance problem more than a ‘vibrant cities’ problem. After all, if we’ve got the practice of the vibrating city courtesy of people like Josh, and the vision of vibrancy courtesy of people like Stephen Yarwood, the problem would seem to be in the link between the two points.