When Less is More: Why Smart Planning Will Stymie System Reform

smartplanning

This piece was written for the December 2017 issue of Planning News.

By the time you read this the Smart Planning program will have completed its consultation period after the release of its October discussion paper on the VPPs. The state government will be attempting to roll out its reforms exceptionally quickly, with some material promised by the end of the year and gazettal of a final package of VPP reforms expected by July.

It’s a nerve-rackingly short timeframe. The pace of change invites doubt about the genuineness of the consultation – is there really scope to stop, think, and potentially change course if the consultation raises legitimate issues about the package proposed? Is it long enough to sufficiently “debug” a complex set of changes? I fear not. This is, unfortunately, a deeply problematic set of reforms.

The problem with system reform like this is it all sounds great – yay! Smart! – but the problems are in the detail. This is why the timeframe allowed for the reforms is so challenging; it is also why it is difficult to unpack the issues with this paper in the space available here. Suffice, then, to make a few key points.
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The Hidden Complexity of Smart Planning

The Smart Planning discussion paper has dropped. At some point I expect I’ll take a more detailed run through of what is a complex document that mixes various good ideas with a number of really bad ones. It’s an infuriating read, partly because it is so predictable: in its broad strokes, it’s pretty much exactly what could be envisaged from the Department’s material when I wrote about the program last year.

Rather than exhaustively work through the good and the bad of this new paper now, I wanted to focus on one really weird diagram and use it to unpick the hidden complexities of this document. That diagram is this one, one page 29 of the paper, showing a proposed new assessment to pathway for simpler matters.

smartplanning diagram

Behold the simplicity in all its glorious smartness!

It is presented in contrast to this one, outlining the existing process.

existing process

Booooooooooooooooooo!

Wow, the existing system does look complex. And look at all that glorious white space in the new process – that does seem enticing.

[Edit 1 December – below is my attempt at a more honest reckoning of this system diagram. Excuse my crazy person hand-writing.]

How Smart Planning streams actually work. Click to enlarge.

How Smart Planning streams actually work. Click to enlarge.

Smart Planning system flow diagram

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Smarter Planning

Image by Intrinsic-Image - click for detailsThis article comments on the publicly available material about DELWP’s Smart Planning program as of late March 2017. It is adapted from comments previously provided to DELWP about their proposed work program. I have updated those comments to serve as background and supporting material to my presentation at a VPELA seminar on Smart Planning on 27 March 2017.

It is generally accepted that there is a need to reform the Victorian planning system. This has been couched in terms of varying urgency by various system review over the life of the system. The recent release of a scathing VAGO report into the system – which amongst other things noted the lack of action in response to its similar 2008 review – has increased the sense that the need for reform is more urgent than some previous reviews have acknowledged.

In response to such criticism, the government can point to the existing Smart Planning reform program as a sign that a response is in hand. Yet how likely is this program to address the existing problems? Is it focussing on the right problems or the most constructive solutions? I am concerned that the focus of the early stages of Smart Planning, in particular, are poorly thought out and directed. The comments below outline some concerns with the traditional focus of reform in Victoria – which largely align with the Smart Planning work program – and then try to suggest some more productive approaches.

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My Next Book is Out Soon

It’s been a long time between Victorian Planning System: Practice, Problems and Prospectsposts, I know, but in my defense that’s been largely because I ended up writing two books, one on the heels of another.

My second book is both an introduction to, and a detailed study and critique of, the Victorian planning system. I have put a page up at www.sterow.com/vicplanningbook that gives much more of a detailed breakdown of what it covers. In short, though, I hope it is both a good introduction for those new to the system. and a thought provoking discussion for those familiar with it.

It is already available for pre-order at 12% off from Booktopia, here. It should be available by the end of the month or the first week of February at the latest.

While I’m posting, I will just brag that back in November my first book, Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs, was awarded the Cutting Edge Research Award at the Victorian Planning Awards. The following are extracts form the citation:

This work is an outstanding feat of scholarship… Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs offers a new perspective based on thorough research. It is a formidable academic work that is highly readable… The work is thought provoking about how community views are shaped, how planning seeks to influence day to day life, and how public opinion can be harnessed to guide and implement change.

You can see more detail about that book, including ordering links, at www.sterow.com/movietowns.

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Released: Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs

Movie Towns and Sitcom SuburbsIn an exciting moment my book has been properly published – the photo at right is the unboxing of my author copies. I’m very happy with the final result; now comes the challenge of getting so e people to read it!

The publisher’s page is here and includes links to various e-book options as well as the hard copy. The Amazon page is here and they have a kindle edition. I can confirm that the pictures come up really well on the kindle. It is in the Google Play store here.

The following is a very kind endorsement from Jim Collins, Prfoessor of Film and television at the of the University of Notre Dame:

Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs should be required reading for anyone who wants to explore the relationship between visual culture and urban theory in a rigorous manner. Rowley’s analysis of Disney’s envisioning of the ideal community – from animated entertainment to theme parks to planned communities – is distinguished by meticulous close readings and his theoretical sophistication. He moves so deftly across media because he constructs such elegant paradigms for comparative analysis. This is simply a benchmark work.

There is a more detailed page about the book, including a chapter-by-chapter outline, at www.sterow.com/movietowns.

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Details about My Upcoming Book: Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs

Little Shop of Horrors image
As I mentioned here last year, I have a book coming out later this year looking at media depictions of cities and towns, and how these influence urban planning practice, called Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs: Building Hollywood’s Ideal Communities. I’m currently reviewing the publisher’s copy-edit, and things are on track for the planned release in October. What’s more, there’s now cover art and the book is available for pre-order on Amazon. So it’s all starting to feel pretty real. It therefore seemed like a good moment to add some details of what the book involves on this page. You can see those details (including the cover and a detailed outline) by visiting www.sterow.com/movietowns.

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Links for PIA pre-congress event

Hill Valley

I am speaking tonight at a PIA pre-congress event, and this post should appear by the magic of WordPress as I’m speaking. I thought it may be worth providing links to a few of the pieces of writing that explore things I touch on in my presentation.

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It’s Not So Hard: Ten Simple Planning System Fixes

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It feels like we have gotten stuck when it comes to planning system reform.

Those with a memory of the pre-VPP system, or a passing familiarity with some other jurisdictions, will have some appreciation of our system’s core strengths. We take for granted a consistency across councils, a focus on plain English (albeit a very special VPP brand of it), a logical hierarchy of policy frameworks, and a certain rigour of approach. The VPPs were, and remain, an astonishing achievement.

At the same time, however, we never quite seem to have properly resolved the teething problems. Issues that were quickly apparent – the circuitous double-negative cross referencing, the fetishisation of vague and indecisive language, and a structural bias towards excessive permit triggers – have lingered. The various reviews of the system that have occurred tended to get stuck on a few responses (code assessment, the “three-speed” zones) which came to dominate the reform agenda for a decade and have only come to resolution last year. Other worthwhile reviews (on issues like parking, advertising signs and heritage controls) were ineffectual, only partly implemented, or disappeared completely.

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Planning Nerd Christmas Gift Guide: 2014 Edition

Back in 2008, when we were working on Planning News, Tim Westcott Gilda Di Vincenzo and I put together a “Planning Nerd Christmas Gift Guide.” It proved unexpectedly popular – which in Planning News terms roughly means somebody once mentioned to us that they had read it – so we repeated the exercise in 2009. It seemed like a good concept to dust off, so I have updated those old entries and added new gifts to create a new 2014 version. Thanks to Gilda and Tim for their contribution to the original.

This Christmas season, planners and their kin everywhere will face the eternal question: what to buy for the planning nerd who has everything? Once that special planner in your life has all the PIA merchandise, their own copy of ShadowDraw, and a scale ruler, what else is there? Well, we’re here to help.

The Planner by Tom Campbell

Planners have it rough in popular culture. There’s the planner from the first couple of seasons of Parks and Recreation, Chris Haywood’s dodgy builder / planner in Grass Roots, and then… well, aspiring planner Steven Coren from Seinfeld. However that may be about about to change with the recent publication of Tom Campbell’s The Planner, which may yet do for planners what Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead did for architects and right-wing nutcases.

It follows the life of a young planner in London who is having something of an existential crisis, told in a style that is part Nick Hornby, part Sir Peter Hall. It’s a very entertaining read, full of good one-liners about the life of a planner and a range of unflattering portraits of London.

Availability: You can support local retailing by getting it from Readings or alternately go through Amazon (who do have it for Kindle).

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The Original Draft Plan Melbourne

acdraftI am quoted in this Age story on the original Advisory Committee draft of Plan Melbourne, which has now been released under Freedom of Information laws after an application by former Labor staffer Andrew Herington. The full draft can be found here.

I didn’t have long to review the documents so my comments were quite high-level, but it doesn’t take long comparing the documents to get a sense of the kinds of changes made. The Departmental versions (the May 2014 final, and the October 2013 draft) are broadly similar but strip a lot of the detail out: there’s an all-pervasive softening of the language. The Advisory Committee draft is not perfect either – they were working within a highly problematic process that had, amongst other things, been largely pre-empted by other policy announcements – but it is certainly a more serious policy document.

Hopefully its release will allow more complete and detailed analysis of where the changes were made, and give some insight into the journey from strategy to coffee table book.

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