Unspeaking the metropolis
Published in Design Philosophy Politics, 2008

by Linda Carroli

There was a half hour or so to fill until the panel discussion addressing urban density and themed ‘Sardine City’ commenced*. Wandering through Borders, I stumbled on Steven Poole’s Unspeak, which discusses contemporary rhetoric and linguistic strategy as it applies to “the names of things that also contain political arguments in a way that alternative names do not” (see http://unspeak.net/introduction). In the idiom of post-structuralism and postmodernism, these devices might be called language regimes or language games. The examples he provides are ‘pro-choice’, ‘tax relief’ or ‘Friends of the Earth’. As he argues, “to talk of ‘tax relief’ [for example] … is already to take a position on socially desirable levels of taxation. One is relieved of a load, or a pain, or an illness.” Poole describes such terms as “names that smuggle in a political opinion”. They can seem proscriptive and pre-emptory.  The name is a ‘sound bite’ that compresses social and political meaning and intention.

Standing in Borders, reading Poole’s introduction, I adopt the posture of a reader, somehow interpolated with the text. My stance shifts from left foot to right foot and back again. My mind drifts to consider an unspeak of the urban environment or urbanism. What of the language of policy, engineering and planning? Is there a kind of ‘unspeak’ developing in relation to the urban environment? If so, whose interests is it serving? Unspeak, as Poole explains,

carries a whole unspoken argument … that it does not set out explicitly. It represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak – in the sense of erasing, or silencing – any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem.

As I walk up the city street, with the peak hour traffic moving at its usual snail’s pace, to the panel discussion, I continue to pose questions about unspeak. Is ‘urban consolidation’ a political argument? Is ‘urban sprawl’ a political argument? More importantly, how are environmental concerns brought to bear on and inflected in these arguments? Do they spawn other, more compelling unspoken political arguments, like ‘urban village’?

As a postgraduate student enrolled in an urban planning program, I recount much political posturing about density – fundamentally couched as the comparative merits of urban consolidation against urban sprawl. Here, I am addressing the discourse, the ways we as laypeople, journalists, policy writers or urban environment professionals talk about and posit the ideal urban density. I am concerned with what that binary discourse produces or constructs. Consolidation – tight, unified, compact, efficient, orderly, strong, responsible and sustainable. Sprawl – unruly, spreading, irregular, straggly, unkempt, wasteful, irresponsible and unsustainable. These are indeed heavily laden linguistic arguments in their own right - it is very difficult to justify sprawl or disavow consolidation. One is controlled or controllable while the other is out of control. To put it another way, urbanism is virtuous and utopian while suburbanism is not. Simplistic pontification ensues and creates a city divided by density. Some decades ago, suburbia was utopian too – a dream realised - while the inner city was frightening and unpredictable, a ‘rat race’.

Brisbane is a growing city in a growing region and it is acknowledged that fresh thinking is required to plan ahead for the challenges of both population growth and potential population decline. A cornerstone of the strategy for dealing with growth is increased density in the inner city. However, if space is at a premium and sustainment is a goal, changes are equally urgent in the city’s aging and outer suburbs. If long term and better planning is required then thinking plays an integral role. Urban consolidation is presented as the right answer to a complex of questions. According to Edward De Bono, “when you have reached the answer, you stop thinking … when thinking has done its work you lay aside the process” (Thinking Managers. ‘Thinking Techniques’ at http://www.thinkingmanagers.com/management/thinking-techniques). Because urban consolidation – higher density, ‘precinctification’ etc - is repeatedly presented as the right answer, thought stops and cities continue to build on their own ruins. De Bono advocates the value of ‘additional thinking’ and writes, “You cannot really choose the best if you have no choice. If you only have one answer, how can you choose the best answer?” If unspeak presents the right answer then there is no point in continuing to think and this will mean the question has not been been fully dealt with. Integral to new thinking is new language – thought and language experiments - preferably not of the unspeaking variety.

Due to environmental and economic pressures, the case for radical change is gaining momentum. If urban consolidation is the only answer, what opportunities are there for thinking and visioning it anew? Like unspeak, one-size-fits-all planning results in fairly low road approaches; just as one-size-fits-all solutions, such as ‘urban villages’, are imbued by a determinism that evokes an idealised, almost utopian, existence. Urban unspeak seems to package its solutions with yes/no or good/bad ease. The unspeak – the thought that stops thinking - justifies ever more expenditure on the inner city and concentration or uneven distribution of resources.

In the imagining of a utopian and agonistic urban village life, it is as if urban consolidation and inner city living, are available to everyone. It’s presumed feasible to sell the family home to buy an inner city apartment or two by the river, accrue carbon credits by cycling, walking and using public transport, dining and meeting in the streetside eateries, and living a mere river reach from work. Those who can afford that lifestyle choice have done the right thing, they are part of the solution. When consolidation arguments were first posed some decades ago, those arguments were more ordinarily economic arguments focused on revitalising downtowns (as a result of the donut effect), encouraging investment, generating business and making city centres more competitive and inviting. More recently, those arguments have taken a decidedly green hue. When such compelling options as ‘urban villages’ and ‘environmental sustainment’ are on offer, how can suburbanites (call them sprawlers) justify their lifestyle choices and, more importantly, why should public money fund those choices?

What emerges from the unspeak of urban density – the pitting of the urban against the suburban - is fear and resistance to change. Consultant planner Mary Maher observes that people intellectually support density but emotionally reject it. With financial resources focused on the inner city, the funds are not available to change the minds and capture the hearts of residents citywide. Buckminster-Fuller advocated doing more or better with less, using resources for the best possible result and the least waste. However, it’s not plausible or even logical, even given the issue of population growth, that the best possible result in land use is necessarily housing or building in whatever densities in whatever part of the city. There is some need to think that maybe building isn’t always the answer. The unspeak of consolidation/sprawl constrains our collective ability to think through and around the issues of urban growth and management. As Maher said, liveability needs to be an action word and I add that environmental sustainment also needs to be action oriented. South East Queensland’s regional plan, for example, presents an argument for the loss of significant amounts of bushland. In venturing around the city, I bear witness to the walled housing estates with their token water sensitive urban designed park and play space butted against established and earmarked-for-future-development urban bushland.

The contradictions are glaringly obvious. The suburbs are silenced, even obliterated, under the blanket of unspeak – people are ‘out there’ on their own, reliant on cars to access or enjoy the centralised cultural and social wealth of this city - while government continues to sanction and permit heavily levied greenfield development further out. Opportunities for consolidation and new urban design exist citywide. It’s not sufficient or sustainable to concentrate resources in the inner city as the herald of city futures while undertaking small scale neighbourhood planning in the suburbs. New realities and visions require new strategies and responses. What does it mean to do more or better with less in the schema of Buckminster-Fuller’s systems thinking? On the one hand it might mean higher densities and on another it might mean urban agriculture; it might mean pockets of rehabilitated bushland, localised storm water capture or localised solar energy collection feeding the grid. It might mean decentralised culture, employment and services to reduce commuting. It might actually mean more diversified lifestyle and work choices, support for telecommuting and home-based business, more social diversity and more connectivity within the city. Under the uni-dimensional offerings of unspeak, choices and opportunities are always diminished. If a city is thinking critically about doing more with less, it is thinking outside the normative and rhetorical underpinnings of unspeak. It is thinking additionally about its form, diversity, design, balance and capacity.

* The sardine city: Living closer together, 29 August 2007, Brisbane. Presented by the Brisbane Institute, The Courier-Mail, Channel 9 and Griffith University's Urban Research Program. The plan for the future is to build density in the inner suburbs, while planning better. How will it work? Where will all the people live? How will the outer suburbs fare? Is the acre block with grass for backyard cricket sustainable in the 21st century? Planning for the ageing suburbs, the social and physical limitations of the city and preserving greenspace are all important issues. The speakers were: Deputy Mayor, David Hinchcliffe; Jim McKnoulty, Managing Director of urban planning and design company, Conics; Geoff Woolcock from the Australian Housing and Research Institute; and Rahyna Sinnathamby from Springfield Land Corporation. Melissa Downes will MC proceedings.


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