Opinion

Andrew Feeney: Community Economy

May 1, 2013

Much of the criticism levelled at the way our cities are developing has become fixated on form. Andrew Feeney asks: is this a case of treating the symptom rather than the cause?

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There’s a saying in business, that what gets measured gets done. There’s a lot of ‘doing’ in cities, and there are a lot of cities ‘being done’; literally, at an alarming rate in China, for example, but also figuratively: we are witnessing social, economic and environmental decline in cities the world over. I wonder just what measures enable their production.

One of the essential troubles with cities as we know them is that they have become a means unto themselves. The novelist Alex Miller once said that he has learnt that it is the writer who serves the story, not the other way round. What do our cities exist for? Who do they serve? Our city making is less about the ‘story’ of citizens, and more about the story of the ‘city’; of ‘growth’ and ‘development’ – but of what, and for who, exactly? Our city making has its own activity, and produces its own output: ‘product’. Our review of city making, our measure of assessment, is obsessively focused on the ‘product’. There is even a whole planning and ‘design’ language that has been created to describe it: building height and massing, density, distribution — stories of storeys.

But height is yield, massing is yield, density is yield, distribution is yield — of real estate, for property development. A city made and sold for the business of consumption, supported by the business of the ‘built environment’ professions; city making as the business of businesses. Just what kind of city is being ‘made’ here?

If cities are about exchange, are cities merely the sum of these exchanges? Is urban life determined by and confined to just what these businesses offer up? And do we continue to look to these commodities as the only measure of the city? The only means by which we can know, change and improve upon the way we are to live?

Unfortunately, urban life is a consequence of investments in property development that are mostly unrelated to our preferred modes of living, because these modes are inconsequential to the objectives of those businesses making those investments.

But could an intention determine ways of exchanging? And be the measure of the making?

What if consumption was a vital part of living?

My grandfather lived that way. As a policeman stationed in Balmain for 25 years, he had a vested interest in the safety of his inner city neighbours; ‘walking the beat’ he knew every single street by name. In his past-time, he made things — a loft for pigeon racing, a shed for materials, an ant bed tennis court for social and recreational gatherings, a fish pond for interest, his own vegetable garden for his family’s sustenance, and a rose and carnation front garden to provide flowers for the house and the street. These things were the evidence of what he valued and how he wanted to live. Added to this were his rituals — cutting hair for mates, enjoying the trust of having the key to the local harbour baths, a drink or two at the local pub. And all this back in the days when the area was ‘working-class’ — long before it became fashionable, along with vegetable gardens and chesty bond singlets. What he produced was what he needed to live. What he consumed was what he produced. His consumption was living.

What if whole communities were asked what they valued and how they wished to live? If our living was desired, envisioned, and enabled through strategic investment in that living? What if this was imagined as a designed local community economy? If business invested in this economy, this way of living, rather than a separate living to be had from investment entirely unrelated to community?

Height, massing, yield and distribution would be determined by community economy, a natural consequence of a way of living and a mode of production related to that living, not an aesthetic argument relating to someone else’s business venture.

Could this be the intention for our cities? An intention that could make for good business, what was referred to in the UK after the GFC and ensuing riots as ‘good capitalism’? An intention enabling a local community economy for the production and sharing of broad forms of wealth — what cities should really be for, after all — the business of community; a measure of the city.

Andrew Feeney is an urban designer currently working for a local government authority in Melbourne. He has also lived and practiced in Sydney, Brisbane, London and Rotterdam. He writes about cities and design at envisagedcity.com.

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