The case for a national master plan with people and the environment at the heart by Scott Davies – Senior Associate, HASSELL

A national master plan. It sounds crazy. How could anyone possibly master plan an entire country? Especially one the size of a continent, with varied jurisdictions, State laws and Federal requirements.  The constitution aside, why would we even attempt to create a national master plan?

A Short History of the Master Plan

Master plans are wilful. They establish a very clear, but fixed approach to the design of a place generally at the scale of a site, and often times of a city (or part of a city). They should, when done properly, establish a design vision, framework and strategy for development.

Early master plans were focused on physical space – on buildings and curated environments. Often at the behest of a powerful man or group of men, these plans were literally about establishing authority, about demonstrating power and reinforcing who was in charge – think Haussmann’s plan for Paris, L’Enfent’s plan for Washington D.C., Walter Burley-Griffin’s plan for Canberra (the list goes on).  These plans were formal – with large avenues establishing a hierarchy of movement patterns throughout the city. Key axes and vistas extended from palaces and civic buildings.  People could see the seat of power, and importantly, the ‘power’ could see the city laid out before it. These places were designed to impress, to awe.

These master plans of yesterday have become today’s most beautiful cities and some of the most visited places on the planet.

Out of these planning traditions grew the City Beautiful movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many American capitals have at least some of these traditions embedded into them – large Beaux Arts capitol buildings flanked by substantial avenues and public spaces; or in smaller cities, the town hall or courthouse wrapped in a public green, functioning as a town square.

And then, as the automobile age dawned, and modernism sought to prise the city of unnecessary ornamentation to realise efficiency, a new breed of master plan came about. Much like Haussmann ripped through the historic heart of Paris and its slums in the 1800s, modernist master plans of the early 1900s sought to rid the city of urban mess. Le Corbusier with his Radiant City (Ville Radieuse) plan for Paris, thankfully never realised, wanted to create the ‘ideal city’ – a utopia where man is united with an ordered environment. Its influence can be seen in the large towers, expansive open space and free (car) circulation of cities like Brasilia, or even in Woden (Canberra), albeit at a smaller scale.

What the majority of these plans forgot, however, was the most critical element of the city – its people. Resoundingly, all of these ‘master plans’ were designed at the expense of, rather than in the service of, its people. With modernist planning principles, people scaled, comfortable places are almost non-existent. They are based on a theory, an ‘ideal’ way of living, which it turns out, just doesn’t work.

The importance of ‘urban mess’

And so was born the urban advocacy of Jane Jacobs. Her activism and seminal works – The Death and Life of American Cities (1961) and Economy of Cities (1969) – were borne in response to Robert Moses’ plans for expansive expressways driven through the heart of downtown Manhattan, and, Jacobs’ Greenwich Village. In these books, Jacobs critiques top down urbanism and master planning, and argues successfully for community driven city planning. She defines the key generator of successful cities as being diversity, based on Greenwich Village as a case study.

Cities are complex. A richness and diversity of choices, opportunities, and people is inherently ‘messy’, and this is a good thing. Richard Florida champions this mess as the backbone of the creative economy, where the creative community come together to collaborate, mix and rub shoulders; enabling that thing which is elusive, yet powerful – the generation of ideas, innovation – growth.

The role of the National Master Plan

With all of this as a base, the question might be ‘why master plan’? Throughout history, as a process, it has proven to be fraught with unintended and negative outcomes.

There can be a different way though. Focusing on people, and the world we inhabit, the national master plan can be a mechanism to think broadly about systems that go beyond city and even State borders.

Master planning at a national scale, can be targeted to efficiently address the existential problems of our time – global warming, biodiversity resilience, the complex transition to a sustainable future, equal provisioning of resources, and hopefully, creating a closed loop of restoration.

Defining the problem

At their core, master plans are about resolving an understood set of problems. So what’s the problem with Australia? We’re a rich nation, with high standards of living, a generally prosperous people and a positive outlook.

Well… the Australian National Outlook 2019, suggests otherwise.  Prepared by CSIRO together with 50 leaders in business, academia and NGOs, the National Outlook identifies Australia is at the crossroads. We risk ‘drifting into the future’ if we do not respond to the challenges of our fast-changing world.

The report defines the problems that a national master plan would need to address, and a national master plan can provide a framework for the future – a touchstone for national decision making – with people and the environment at its heart.

Learning from Country and its People

Fundamentally, our approach to a national master plan would not be top down. We’ve learnt from the past. And we think there is a far richer, deeper and more considered knowledge base to draw upon: from First Nations people, and from the community at large.

We need to learn from the practices undertaken over thousands of years to better provide for and manage this land. We need to provide a way of balancing productive needs with environmental needs, and that might mean significant changes to the way we consume products. We need to depart from a practice of single use and ‘churn and burn’.

To strengthen our collective narrative, we need to stop designing for people and start designing with people. But how can this be achieved at a national scale? Engagement is expensive and time consuming. Well, we think there is power in social platforms to provide a space for community engagement, debate and the socialisation of ideas. By engendering a national community conversation through social media, this oft maligned apparatus can be – as it should be – a change for good.

A resilient and sustainable future

We know the world is changing. The recent Global Climate Strike demonstrates the importance of fundamentally changing the way we live to ensure a sustainable future. A national master plan can provide a framework for that future – one that ensures biodiversity is not just protected but regenerated at a national scale. One that provides for greening of urban habitats to ensure cooler environments. One that enables sustainable energy generation and movement patterns, so we can shift to a green economy.

By pure definition, a master plan is a ‘comprehensive plan of action’. As designers, architects, urbanists, politicians, residents this is our challenge. To develop a comprehensive plan of action. Not a national master plan for its own sake, but a framework for a sustainable future.

HASSELL is a leading international design practice. We judge the success of the buildings and places we design by the way people use and enjoy them – the clients who commission them, the people who inhabit them. Good design is about helping clients meet their needs and objectives. It is also about the way people feel when they experience it, a sense of meaning, connection and belonging.

Natalie O’Brien & CO specialises in providing insights and powers of observation to develop strategic advice with the customer at the centre.