Don’t tell my mother I’m an urban planner – she thinks I play the piano in a brothel

Oh dear, did I just write ‘brothel’ in a School blog post? Well, it is a legitimate land use, isn’t it? Anyway. The original version of the title quote comes from the French author Jacques Seguela, and refers to working in advertising, not planning, but aren’t we planners a lot like publicists, anyway? Let me entertain that idea for the life of this post.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me now, this is not about criticising planning research. No. I’ll just troll practitioners, that’s easier. Ha. Which I assume you’re concerned about, if you are a student reading this, because there aren’t nearly enough jobs in academia, so chances are you will have to eventually work in the profession of your choice. Yes, the moment will arrive when you finally graduate from feeling grand, and begin feeling a little shame as well. Like I do. I know what I’m talking about, I had to run back to School, breath some PhD. Ha ha.

So why advertising. To make my point, just pick up any city’s strategic land use plan. This is the ad they all run: the city will be sustainable in five years, jobs will triple, and every neighbourhood will be walkable, liveable and affordable. Photoshop George Clooney in, you’ll suddenly see it for the commercial-grade piece I’m talking about.

I get it that plans are all about vision. I can see that (I know, terrible pun). But. Strategic visions of this kind we know to be promises that can’t be kept. Hence the guilt (hopefully you do feel some). And whilst it is in the business of politics to run on promises, the business of planning should be something else. I, personally, signed up on the idea that planners were all about imagining solutions, but also about ground-truthing, about calling risk where we see it, about plan B, and oh yes about taming the impetus of development politics whenever appropriate.

One of the few honest planner-to-planner conversations I’ve had in the last years went like this (below). My old boss and dear friend took us for a drive to the outermost, newly built residential villages north of Perth, in WA:

“For the people buying here, it will be a daily 2-hour commute, for the rest of their lives” he said.

“Well how about the train? That’ll help” I replied, still full of naïve planning enthusiasm.

“The train will never come here”. ($$$)

“Jobs might move here then”. (Decentralisation of jobs, I read it in the regional plan).

“No, they won’t”.

“Why would people buy houses here, then?!”.

“Well, I guess they think if the government approved these developments, that they will eventually bring all their infrastructure here, and jobs will magically follow, and one day they’ll be the next gentrifying suburb, and the commuting will pay off in the way of higher house sale prices”.

“And that’s not happening…?”

“Not in their lifetime”.

“And why are we planners not talking about this publicly, like, all the time?”.

“I don’t know, it’s just not…”.

… What we do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not entirely disillusioned. I do still feel the thrill of the city, all that chaos of lurking possibilities, the grail of sustainability, the alchemic search for the right mix of heights and densities. But while we’re still writing plans like this, if you see my mom, please…

Author: Isabel Ceron Castano, UQ – Urban Planning PhD Candidate

One thought on “Don’t tell my mother I’m an urban planner – she thinks I play the piano in a brothel

  1. Isabel, Thank you for this commentary. While it brought a smile to my face, it reminded me of a similar one I had when I worked for an architecture firm that changed my smile to a frown. The lead architect I was working for was talking about the SEQ plan and the (un)planned sprawling megalopolis that would extend from Byron Bay to Gympie and out to Toowoomba with the major focus upon separated dwellings on traditional housing lots and connected by perpetually expensive car roads with 30 to 50 years before any public transport improvements. Horrified by this I reviewed the SEQ (un) plan at the time and saw what he was sharing was true. The recent SEQ (un) plan I looked at two weeks ago is more of the same only the year number on the front page has changed.

    The recent destroying of nature and putting up a parking lot (AKA the widening of the highway north of Brisbane to Sunshine coast with no planned increase in train/bus services) is an example of this lack of planning that is reminiscent of 1890’s planning throughout the state and nation. However, population increase, climate change and society is vastly different in the 130 years since then.

    As planners we have a responsibility and in my opinion a duty stemming from the privilege of training to influence positive, sustainable initiatives that foster community interactions and change the focus away from the car and separated dwellings.

    I have heard of these housing models – Co housing and ecovillages that have been proven to achieve that aim all over the world and there is groundswell of interest in them in Australia. But please don’t tell the other planners about them as we might be labelled hippies 🙂

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