“A crisis poorly seized upon” says Dr Crystal Legacy of urban planning post COVID-19

May 11, 2020
  • Article by Tili Bensley-Nettheim

Dr Crystal Legacy discusses the creative opportunities of re-negotiating urban planning’s prejudices post COVID-19

It can feel tone deaf to focus on the post COVID-19 future when we remain deeply entrenched in the pandemic’s present. But this future will be shaped, and if advocates and urban design experts don’t seize this unprecedented moment to reset, others will.

Crises are equal parts creative opportunities as they are creative challenges, and now is the time to set our priorities of the world we want to return to.  

For the next installment of our Post-Viral Design series we turn to Dr Crystal Legacy, senior lecturer in urban planning at the University of Melbourne.

Dr Crystal Legacy has published widely on the topics of transport politics, urban conflict, citizen participation, strategic plan-making, urban governance and infrastructure planning. 

Her current research interests include urban transport politics where she is working on a substantial body of work that seeks to reframe the role of citizens in transport planning in the ‘urban age’. 

How have you seen citizen’s relationship with urban space change over this pandemic period? 

Dr Crystal Legacy: It has become abundantly clear the important role parks are playing during this time. Less has been said about a different kind of open public space we seem to have an abundance of in Australian cities and that is our public streets. Reports of fewer cars driving leave open the possibility of different ways to use this space. Since it looks like we will have to adhere to social distancing restrictions for some time into the future, recent announcements from the City of Melbourne to give greater space over to cyclists and pedestrians are much welcome. This is the kind of imaginative and bold thinking we need at this time. 

What has worried you and what has given you optimism about future dynamics post-virus? 

CL: As governments look to stimulate our local economies to support the creation of new and more jobs, it is also time to consider how we might use the period of stimulus to nurture and extend some of the more pedestrian oriented ways of living into our future cities and regions. We can widen footpaths, widen and extend bike lanes, locate local shops closer to where people live, connect our open spaces, and even reclaim some public streets back over to people rather than cars. These are all possibilities and mega-projects in their own right that will certainly create plenty of jobs too. 

How should national infrastructure priorities shift after the pandemic? Should the ‘why’ and ‘for whom’ be re-evaluated? 

CL: The Great Pause, as some are calling it, has become for many a time of reflection, finding new daily routines, as we look for novel ways to connect with our communities and nature. This time has also given way to considerable anxiety about creating new jobs and rebuilding our local, national and regional economies. 

After our devastating bushfire season and now the pandemic, using infrastructure building to stimulate our economies will be at the forefront of government’s minds.  But rather than throw money at any ole pipeline of infrastructure projects, it is critical that The Great Pause also results in careful reflection, deliberation and even debate about for what and for whom we are planning for.  There have been many calls from across practice and academe for the building of social housing to become the cornerstone to our recovery efforts.  We have heard calls for more space to be given over to cyclists and pedestrians, and to reimagine a future where working from home can also help revitalise our much loved main streets. These are all imaginative ideas with the power to shift how we think about this next stimulus period.

What would the best case scenario for post-viral infrastructure governance and urban planning look like to you? 

CL: There has been considerable attention directed at the failure of infrastructure governance in recent years. Fiercely contested projects such as East West Link and the locating of an Apple Building at Federation Square in Melbourne, Roe 8 in Perth and Westconnex in Sydney point to a failure of governance and planning to ensure that public benefit is central, and that project rationales are transparent and defensible to open public scrutiny.  In the months and years ahead, it is likely that governments will declare a state of exception and streamline decision-making to ensure that a pipeline of projects are delivered as efficiently and effectively as possible. 

Australian cities, regions and Country have witnessed a devastating start to 2020 with the bushfires, and now the pandemic. Addressing the critical social, economic and environmental challenges this has created demands that we look to new ways of both responding and planning for the future. 

What models for urban planning governance could be useful in a post-pandemic landscape?  

CL: I can recommend a co-productive model that favours public scrutiny, connection to Country, transparency in decision-making and recognising different ways of knowing the challenges of daily living. A co-productive governance model is participatory, but it also demands vision and leadership from our elected representatives. It is grounded in listening to the local stories of how people have adapted during this crisis and learning from those stories. Also, it is about hearing the stories of struggle and learning from those stories. If we do not come out of this time having at least tried to create a fairer, kinder, compassionate and sustainable place for all people to live, it will have been a crisis poorly seized upon.

Many thanks to Dr Crystal Legacy for her commentary.

Stay tuned for more expert predictions in our Post-Viral Design series.

Keep abreast of developments in the A&D industry by following ADR‘s coronavirus coverage.

Conversation • 1 comments

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06 Aug 20 at 8:31 PM • Graham Johnson

The car free streets were very nice but the traffic is back in Sydney. The government has not been learning or changing and all the clever people do not seem able to fix this. What about electric car policies. One of the biggest issues is how to increase the supply of affordable housing and the pandemic and economic downturn may actually be improving the bottom end a bit but a lot of pain at the top, but no program from the government and may never be. Are the clever town planners in favour of lots of heavily subsidized social housing all of which would end up in the cities, centralising in population effect, and a rort for the big builders, but who is talking about other options. Perhaps move all the new unemployed people to ‘refuges’ in the country? Still loosing 2000 people a year from small town NSW, leaving behind inherently affordable housing.

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