I spent the day – well the first half of the day – talking about liveability with the people from the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission (VCEC) and other invited guests. It was an enjoyable half day so I’m glad I was asked. One thing that struck me was how almost no-one else talked about the aesthetics of liveability. When I brought it up, when I suggested that the ‘B’ word – that’s ‘beauty’ by the way – hadn’t figured much at all (nor had trees, parks or congestion) someone suggested that people disagree about beauty – which is true enough.
Anyway, it prompted your correspondent to deep ruminations on the state we’re in. Deep and dark – or just vague and uneasy. Who can ever tell what goes on the heart of a mango? Anyway, I thought I might write up some profound thoughts on the subject for the benefit of Troppodillians. (I have finally persuaded my spellchecker that ‘Troppodillians’ is not misspelt. Now it says ‘spellchecker’ is misspelt – one step forward, one somewhat larger step back. But I digress).
Anyway, I can’t quite summon up any profundity, so I’ll try to be (very slightly) useful instead. (I decided on trading off profundity for usefulness some time ago, which I hope you will agree is a sensible response to my own limitations.)
In any event, while pretty much everyone at the workshop was discussing liveability indicators (which is fair enough in the context) I wanted to circle round to the subject using some concrete examples. In a way these are those $100 bills sitting on the pavement – things, often small things, that should be being done, because they’re pretty much a no-brainer, they don’t hurt anyone much and generally make things better, but which are not being done for some institutional reason, small or large. In my first post on liveability I suggested that the opportunity to design things well was a $100 bill sitting on the pavement – an opportunity to make something better at minimal and sometimes negative marginal cost. The trick is to work out what institutional innovation might help bring it about. That’s not always so easy.
Anyway, in the same spirit I show you a satellite photo of Firbank College in Melbourne’s leafy and very friendly bayside suburb of Brighton. I used to see a bit of the grounds because our daughter used to go there – till we took her out on account of the school being unwilling to take seriously certain dark goings on amongst the seven year old girls in our daughter’s class.
If you look at the photo, you will see that Middle Crescent bisects the school. This is reasonably functional because the junior school is on one side and the senior school is on the other – which probably happened that way as an adaptation to the road being there. But Middle Crescent is not a heavily used road. So, I think the road should be made into a strip of grass, a pedestrian thoroughfare between the two sub-campuses. As you will see it is only the North East corner of the crescent that is needed to provide access to houses and the grassed thoroughfare could commence at that point, giving the owners access to their house.
If you look at the map, you’ll see that there’s much more land on either side of the road that’s basically just going largely idle as the ‘shoulder’ of the road and its accoutrements. You’d get a lot of newly usable land out of that. So I reckon it’s a Good Idea. The question is, why hasn’t it happened?
I’m just speculating, but I think there are probably a bunch of reasons. For instance
- there’d be the question of ownership. Who would own the land that was the road? This is a genuinely difficult problem. Ideally the school should offer to buy the land at market prices. Even then it’s pretty likely it wouldn’t easy to swing things, but the school is most unlikely to do this. And actually I take back the suggestion that this is a good idea, because it would be even more ideal if the school could use it but it was also a public thoroughfare.
- a few people would get upset – but very few, because very few would be inconvenienced. And I suspect a lot more people would like the idea.
- no-one’s thought of it. Unlikely, but . . . that leads me to what I think is the best guess which is . . .
- those who have though of it have pretty quickly written it off as impossible, because a road is a road. It’s not a school.
Following on from the last dot point, the obstacles to the commonsensical path being taken means that people might stop themselves having the thought, and if they had the thought, they’d think that there was no-one to take it to, because the Education Department wouldn’t regard it as core business – it’s not even a government school – likewise the Dept of Main Roads or whatever it might be called these days (Department of Geolocated Autonomously Navigated Transport Substrates perhaps). And the Department of Planning – well they’ve already done the planning. And so on.
Of course the political level exists and it’s a reasonable way to deal with these things, but it’s a relatively small, low key, thing. And a local member mightn’t have much luck battling the Department of Geolocated Autonomously Navigated Transport Substrates. And it’s not the kind of thing that can build up a political head of steam, because it’s in one electorate and no-one’s going to get too upset about it. And of course Firbank is a rich school. It would be much harder for a poorer government school. (At Beacon Cove where I live, the relevant department removed some incredibly noisy alarm bells at the light rail crossing near the rich people – replacing it with a beam that was lowered when a tram came along, but left the bells at the poor people’s crossing for two years before replacing them with a beam – and somewhat less noisy bells!)
So what’s my solution? Well firstly we can’t be sure we’ve got a problem. Perhaps no-one really has thought of it. If Firbank thought of it they should have trotted down to their local member and tried to get something done. So presuming that a few quiet words have been had along those lines in the past, perhaps we have a problem. What’s the solution?
I don’t know. In a sense this kind of small thing lacks an institutional champion and is up against a thousand obstacles – most small but some possibly large. In a similar circumstance but thinking about regulation and innovation (pdf) Lateral Economics mooted the idea of an institutional champion for innovation and innovators amongst the thicket of regulatory silos in the world of government.
But it’s such a small thing that it’s probably dumb to set up an entire institutional champion just to try to make this kind of thing happen. On the other hand there are a lot of regulations and administrative apparatus and a lot of small improvements such as I’ve suggested could add up to a lot of benefits and a much more dynamic city with a sense that anything’s possible – hopefully anything that seems reasonably sensible is possible. At least one would like the relevant institutions to be more open to this kind of thing, and for those who think of them to have some confidence that they’d be considered thoughtfully rather than in the blinkered way that is all too common. Right now, I wouldn’t bother taking the idea to anyone – except as an example of something which might have wider currency if only things could be considered more on their merits and not according to the usual silo bound practices.