On track to utopia

Aren’t you lonely

Up there in utopia

– Katy Perry ‘Chained to the Rhythm’

Utopians are a lonely few in 2018. The notion that a perfected set of all-encompassing economic and social arrangements could be purposefully pursued has been largely abandoned in scholarly and popular imaginings, in favour of much more contingent modes of managing human affairs. The abandonment of utopianism has been a prominent feature of both left and right politics since the 1960s. The right has advocated persistently for social configurations to be determined by market forces, via the preferences of the elite. The left’s acceptance of social categories as constructed, fluid and open to contestation makes it difficult to articulate a singular utopian vision. The notion that an idealised future society might be collectively imagined and then realised is something for the lonely. At most, utopian dreaming is fodder for satirical television series.

Cities have been the focus of utopian thinking since early capitalist industrialisation manifested as rapidly expanding urban slums. From around 1750, disenfranchised rural populations flocked to cities, taking up work in unregulated, overcrowded factories or on dangerous construction sites. The vast majority experienced extreme poverty and were forced to live in crowded, unsanitary housing. Australia’s nineteenth-century cities were not as industrialised as those in Europe or the USA, but the inadequacy of housing and sanitation, along with not infrequent economic depressions, meant urban conditions were often comparable to those in the northern hemisphere. Bourgeois urban worriers appalled by the ‘dreadful night’ of the modern metropolis began to agitate for a future where order and technology would triumph over want and misery. Their new movement – urban planning – became the instrument through which such dreams were pursued.

Two utopian visions dominated urban planning in this period. The first, offered by Ebenezer Howard in his 1898 manifesto Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, proposed a dispersed ‘garden city’ in which housing and industry are separated by extensive parklands, yet connected by fast railways. He proposed detached dwellings to avoid overcrowding, set within ample gardens to ensure clean air and close connection to nature. Howard’s vision became the template for much twentieth-century suburban development, even if land costs in Australia often shrank dwelling and lot sizes to a quarter acre.

The second model was offered by architect Le Corbusier. His ‘radiant city’ involved demolishing congested city cores, starting with Paris, and replacing them with modern high-rise towers separated by wide freeways, along which shining new automobiles would cruise. Le Corbusier’s was a hierarchical utopian vision: his high-rise, car-based city would be reserved for the elite, while workers would dwell far beyond in low-rise garden cities (echoing Howard’s model) and be conveyed to work via fast rail. Le Corbusier’s idea served as the template for the second half of the twentieth century, though with its social configuration inverted so that the poor would dwell in modernist social-housing towers, while the elites reposed among the leafy suburban gardens. Moreover, the freeway model was adopted as the universal form of urban transport in both American and Australian cities, an approach that – despite its manifest failures – remains entrenched.

While these utopian visions were enacted only partially or perversely, they achieved some success in transforming urban living. Not all of this depended on a visionary urban form. Gross urban squalor, disease and degradation greatly diminished in industrialised cities during the twentieth century, primarily due to increased housing provision, investments in sanitary infrastructure and better environmental regulation. The establishment of welfare states of varying configurations also brought significant benefits, most notably in housing and healthcare.

At the core of modernist utopian thought was an emphasis on the collective foundations of the future city. Howard, for instance, recognised that the ills of the capitalist city stemmed from more than just technological deficits; he argued for property to be placed in collective ownership so that capital gains could be used for public purposes rather than private speculation. Le Corbusier initially saw the private sector as the agent of the radiant city, but changed his position in 1929, arguing instead that the state was the only social actor that could realise the type of urban reconstruction he was promoting.

In the latter decades of the twentieth century, the state’s role in welfare provision and urban planning began to be questioned. From the 1970s onward, a free-market economy was increasingly regarded as that natural regulator of social development, with private actors taking over more and more government programs. State-led urban planning became a key target of neoliberal antagonism. Since this period, decisive, vision-oriented planning has been usurped by private-sector urban development. Private capital, liberated from state constraint, has been let loose as the principal agent of development. Cities have become entrepreneurial agents vying to attract and cajole mobile global capital to revitalise their urban landscapes through various ‘renewal’ projects.

More recently, a particularly pernicious variant of neoliberalism – the ‘Californian ideology’ – has taken a utopian turn by pairing libertarianism with technological accelerationism. The ideology has taken root in urban planning, spawning visions of ‘smart’ cities. This movement desires a future in which vast streams of sensor data are fed into wondrous artificial intelligence that beneficently and autonomously monitor and optimise flows of people, vehicles, water, electrons and waste through ubiquitous and seamless urban infrastructures. Major urban centres – Amsterdam, Dublin, Seoul, Taipei, one hundred cities across India, the whole of Singapore, Australia – have been beguiled by the promise of ‘smart’ technologies and various strategies for digital transformation are now being implemented. Often these involve handing control of key urban functions – transportation, waste management, community services – to private technology companies who then run the operating systems. The risk of complex, often secret algorithms serving private rather than public interests is yet to be grasped by many governments.

Australian cities have been occasional objects of utopian planning imaginaries. There was no shortage of urban reformists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but their schemes were often partial and incremental rather than comprehensive and transformative. The development of public housing, for example, largely derives from the efforts of practical reformers, such as Frederick Oswald Barnett in the 1930s, who pressured governments to address the dire state of inner-city housing, most of which was built during the nineteenth century. Although some of their advocacy took on an evangelical zeal, it was rarely couched in wider aspirations for economic and social transformation. The newly emerging town-planning profession experimented with Howard’s model in the 1930s, most notably via Melbourne’s Garden City suburb at Fisherman’s Bend. Even today that neighbourhood is pleasant enough, but hardly suburban perfection. The architects who designed Melbourne’s 1960s high-rise social housing no doubt drew partial inspiration from Le Corbusier’s modernist monoliths, but as with the Garden City imitations, the inner-city commission estates fall far short of utopia.

Perhaps the most utopian ambition here was found not amid the housing and land-use planners, but among the road engineers, who from the 1950s promised to ferry urban populations from congested dilapidation to prosperous open spaces on the suburban frontier. The 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan, which proposed a Los Angeles-style grid of freeways, anticipated that expanded road infrastructure would resolve problems stemming from an increasingly dispersed population. But the promise of easy automobile travel has proven misguided: just a quarter of travel in Melbourne in 1954 was by car, but the expansion of freeways saw this grow to more than four-fifths by 1996, bringing with it congestion, pollution and social stress. Prioritising freeway expansion over public transport has left much of post-1950s suburbia entirely dependent on cars and exposed to chronic social isolation and oil shocks. Freeways have also come at the cost of Melbourne’s suburban creeks, many of which were converted into traffic sewers.

In the early twentieth century, formal urban planning struggled to establish a foothold as a necessary enterprise for prosperous cities in which human wellbeing could flourish. Melbourne has had a series of policies devised to shape its growth since the first formal city scheme was gazetted in 1954. But the content of these schemes has often been piecemeal and regulatory rather than inventive. Suburban expansion served by freeways has been the dominant long-term program. By the mid 1990s, urban planning in Melbourne was almost defunct, with the Kennett government’s 1995 Living Suburbs plan widely derided for its vapid rhetoric on transformation, but almost complete absence of material action. The Bracks government’s Melbourne 2030 strategy, released in 2002, began well, by inviting extensive public input, but then reneged on this goodwill by paving the way for market-led urban consolidation and continuing to promote freeways over public preference for improved public transport. Subsequent plans have perpetuated this disdainful view of public input. The current Plan Melbourne offers business-as-usual intensification of inner-urban development combined with suburban expansion, pursued by lightly restrained private developers.

Although the quality and content of Melbourne’s planning has long provoked academic critique, it has rarely captured the attention of the broader community. Yet Australia’s national broadcaster granted Melbourne’s planners the rare ignominy of a satirical television show, Utopia, in which the city’s ‘currency of grand dreams’ is lampooned. The show’s scriptwriters found ample inspiration in the dashed hopes of the city’s contemporary planning effort. And, in turn, the planners winced collectively at the biting representation of their efforts. So much forlorn material has Melbourne provided to Utopia’s writers that three seasons have been needed to portray the broken dreams of its city-builders.

Given this dismal history, we might ask if planning in Melbourne has ever had a true utopian frame. The closest we came was an independent plan published by the Communist Party of Australia over three volumes in the early 1970s. Authored by community advocates Ruth and Maurie Crow (and available digitally via Victoria University), the plan offered an alternative vision to technocratic freeway-based suburbanisation. It’s a remarkable document, for it portended many planning questions with which Melbourne is still wrestling.

In the initial volume on ‘planning principles’, the Crows posed three major questions: freeway development or public transport; high density housing or suburban sprawl; a bigger city or decentralisation to regional towns? These questions persist nearly fifty years later. The Crows were broadly supportive of extended suburbia, but decried the failure of community services to follow the sprawl and feared the isolating effects of this deficit on community life. The Crows also worried about the decline of Melbourne’s CBD as a site of social and community activity and advocated for its revitalisation. They encouraged shared community facilities in suburban neighbourhoods, high-density housing in and around the CBD, and a reinvigoration of public transport. Despite their communist influences, the Crows eschewed a grand transformative vision for the socialisation of the city’s production, distribution and exchange in favour of ‘tackling practical problems’.

Their second volume, released in 1970, moved beyond principles to actions, with the Crows proposing an end to the construction of radial freeways. Instead, they called for inner-city parking restrictions; middle-suburban interchanges that would connect trains, trams, buses and private cars; and reformed cross-suburban bus networks that would complement rather than compete with the rail system. Notably, they argued for a single metropolitan authority to coordinate all of Melbourne’s transport networks so that all future facilities, such as schools, hospitals and supermarkets, would be adequately serviced. Yet they also promoted freeways. Long before private company Transurban conceived of CityLink, the Crows suggested an inner-urban ring freeway; their plan included an extension of the Tullamarine Freeway along the Moonee Ponds Creek that would connect with an extended South-Eastern Freeway (now the Monash Freeway) near the lower Yarra. They also proposed an outer-ring freeway from Sydney Road, through Ringwood to Dandenong; it was built as a private tollway by the Bracks Labor government in 2008. Although the Crows took issue with the 1969 transportation plan, their critique was principally against the radial roads – they had little complaint with ring-roads.

The Crow plan did not offer a comprehensive utopian vision, nor even a particularly communist approach, in which collective needs rather than market forces determine planning decisions. And its formal influence on development was minimal. Though it did have wider impact on thinking in Melbourne’s more radical circles of urban activism, and even today is spoken of in wistful tones by contemporary planners committed to progressive change. And yet, while the Crow plan had little direct influence, many of its recommendations are now part of mainstream planning policy: revitalising the CBD with high-density housing; CityLink and the outer-suburban ring-roads; a network of suburban activity centres; emphasis on provision of community facilities in new estates. The Crow plan even proposed an electric vehicle-sharing scheme that looks presciently like those now proliferating via Uber and Go-Get.

With this forlorn history of planning in Melbourne, who would be a lonely utopian? Those who think a better city is possible might venture to think expansively about Melbourne beyond the dismal bounds of current planning orthodoxy. What if we could fix the city’s planning failings with one simple utopian trick? To do this we might think back to the policy that has most profoundly shaped Melbourne’s development – the 1969 transportation plan, from which most of the city’s freeways and tollways derive.

Transport is fundamental to the shape and form of a city. Cars take space from other uses, require huge sums to maintain infrastructure and detract from amenity through noise, emissions and safety hazards. And as road traffic volumes increase, the quality of travel declines. Freeways also tend to disperse urban activities through access to cheaper peripheral land, encouraging outward spread. Rail networks, in contrast, take up far less space than roads for the same volume of travel and have fewer effects on amenity. Although rail, like roads, is expensive to build, every additional rail traveller adds to the efficiency of rail via their fare revenue, whereas each car detracts from the efficiency of roads through increased congestion. Rail networks also concentrate urban activity around their stations by raising land values. This enables greater density of activity around station precincts and walkable local environments. Current projections suggest Melbourne is heading to a population of eight million by 2025. To the extent that a utopian vision might be imagined for Melbourne, it would be in switching this eight million from road transport to rail transport, or at least a form of urban development centred on public transport. By becoming a rail-based metropolis, Melbourne could unshackle its residents from the tyranny of car ownership. What might be required to achieve this?

Although rail networks require the hard infrastructure of tracks and trains, their fundamental dependence is on the institutional arrangements through which they are planned and delivered. Since the early 1980s, VicRoads has dominated transport planning in Melbourne. It’s time it was abolished in favour of rail planners, or at least pushed back to its prior jurisdiction (before 1983, the authority was called the Country Roads Board). In its place, a metropolitan transport authority should be established with the specific task of accommodating travel growth while achieving a mode shift from car travel to public transport, walking and cycling. This would require an integrated transport plan for Melbourne and sufficient financial investment to cover new rail infrastructure. The legislation for integrated transport planning already exists via the Transport Integration Act 2010 – it has just never been acted upon.

Ideas abound in Melbourne for new rail links. The Andrews government’s own rail development plan proposes five new underground connections over the next few decades. And advocacy groups like Rail Futures have put forward credible schemes that could greatly advance rail planning. But rail is just one element of the puzzle. Not everywhere can be served by rail: improved trams and much better suburban bus networks are required to cover gaps between the lines and to connect passengers to stations.

Public transport isn’t cheap, so where might the funding come from? First there are savings from the cost of building roads that can be poured into public transport. New rail stations also raise land values that can be captured to fund the infrastructure – as the Greater London Authority is doing with its current underground extensions. We could also raise taxes and tolls on car use to fund public transport, though this needs to be done carefully in the short term, so as not to punish less affluent outer-suburban households that have no choice but to rely on cars.

By deliberately shifting Melbourne towards public transport, the city would become more sustainable, more equitable, more efficient and more liveable. This is far from a totalising vision of urban transformation, but it’s much better than the dismal program of car-based urban expansion from which we currently suffer.

Utopians will likely remain a lonely few for a long while. But we can still envision better, cleaner, more integrated cities and work towards a vision of urban planning inspired by social transformation. Perhaps once we have shown we can climb back on track, we can build a more comprehensive program of utopian aspiration.




Read the rest of Overland 230

If you enjoyed this essay, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four outstanding issues for a year

Jago Dodson

Jago Dodson is professor of urban policy and director of the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays