‘Ticking the Boxes’ – Town planners and architects working together

Apr 16, 2018 Architecture

Architects and designers regularly complain about town planners, and working through the ever increasing ‘planning maze’. Award-winning architects front up to counters at local councils, only to be told their design doesn’t meet the appropriate town planning regulations.

In the early 1980s, when I worked as a junior town planner at a suburban local council, I can still recall architect Nonda Katsalidis presenting his modest scheme for a low-rise office building. The response to the scheme from the senior planner was, ‘We don’t do architecture here!’ Maybe that was one reason I left the planning profession to pursue more creative fields.

Fast-forward several decades and this writer still finds that many of the town planning issues faced then, still apply today. Leading town planner Tim Biles, director of Message Consultants, still recalls the title given to town planners by Professor Leonie Sandercock, head of Graduate Urban Studies at Macquarie University from 1981 until 1986, before moving to Los Angeles – ‘amenity police’. “Town Planners don’t learn about design any more. The system is based on a series of ‘silos’,” says Biles, referring to the various categories or silos: waste disposal, traffic management or ESD principles. “It’s about ticking boxes,” says Biles, who sees the same frustration from today’s architects as those who worked in the 1960s and ‘70s.

However, what has changed dramatically in the planning landscape has been the scale of developments. “In the 1960s and ‘70s, you had architects such as Graeme Gunn creating housing subdivisions with Merchant Builders. Now, it’s more complex. The 1970s apartments were often just over three levels and villa units were either single or double storey. Today, there are high-rise developments in many of the middle-ring suburbs, as well as in the inner-city,” says Biles. “Architects now have to ‘stich’ together all these complex variables or silos and create something that captures the imagination, as well as adheres to all the regulations,” he adds.

Local objection can lead to hesitation by town planners

Some town planners are even reticent to talk about the problem of town planning, at least with this writer or others wanting to record some of the issues. Not wanting to be named, one planner, a director of a leading company, sees a myriad of issues. There are 26 different councils (after Victorian Liberal leader Jeff Kennett amalgamated these in the 1990s) and each one follows the planning guidelines and regulations. “The problem is that many of the regulations can be interpreted in different ways. Planners from the City of Port Philip may have one interpretation, while the City of Yarra may see things in a different way.”

According to the media-shy director, “politics invariably comes into play”. A design from an award-winning architect may be considered to be extremely attractive by planners: however, objections from locals come in and the application ends up going to VCAT. “Politicians don’t want to upset their constituents.”

Town Planner Paul O’Shea, director of CS Town Planning Services, is far from reticent in coming forward. He sees many of the town planning issues stemming from Melbourne’s continued growth. “The detached house on the quarter-acre block has become too expensive for many people, so there’s been a surge in multi-residential developments, particularly in middle-distance suburbs, such as Mt Waverly, Glen Waverly, Burwood and areas such as Altona. Planners at local government level have been resisting those changes,” says O’Shea, who sees the other problem being the conservatism of planners. “They’re not encouraged to take in more innovative design proposals. When they’re presented with a new building, they often want it to resemble the other buildings that have gone up in the last five to 10 years,” adds O’Shea, who left a local government position in 2010, one which failed to embrace contemporary design.

Town planners are inundated with applications 

Award-winning architect Robert Simeoni sees the challenges in sometimes having to convince a local, and sometimes junior, planner of a scheme’s merit. “As an architect, you are dealing with several variables, from a concept to a client’s expectations and aspirations. Then there are the budgets and importantly, responding to planning guidelines,” says Simeoni, who sees many layers in a design that isn’t often appreciated by planners. “We might want to express something that maybe fairly iconic in an area, and express this in a contemporary way,” he adds.

The time it takes to explain a concept to a planner, whether it’s over the counter or on site, also takes time, something that isn’t available to a planner handling numerous applications. “Having that discussion isn’t always possible. The planner is often inundated with applications,” says Simeoni.

Photo credit: John Gollings

‘Ticking boxes’ still takes priority 

For this writer, who started his career as a town planner, architecture and design wasn’t something that gained much attention at the local government level. And although the media landscape is now much richer and the general audience more design savvy, some of the best architectural projects don’t get approval. As Biles says, “Things are still fairly black and white, and ‘ticking boxes’ still rules the roost.”

Hear more from Robert Simeoni along with Michael McCormack of Milieu Property Group and Simon Knott from BKK Architects as they debate the topic of architects working with town planners at DesignBUILD 2018. On Wednesday 3 May at 2pm the Seminar Theatre hosts: Stuck in Planning: How town planners and architects are effectively working together to achieve mutual outcomes. Seats are limited, book yours today.

About the Author: Stephen Crafti

Stephen Crafti has been writing about design and architecture since the early 1990’s and is a regular contributor to DesignBUILD. Inspired by the architecture around him in Melbourne, Australia, he was keen to share the things he saw, whether buildings, furniture, fashion or other stunning pieces of contemporary design. After many years of writing about his favourite things, and with numerous books and articles behind him, Crafti still delights in discovering and promoting exhilarating design. He is a regular contributor to several Australian newspapers and local and international design magazines.

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