Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Imagination and the role of questions in public policy

In Two (on the face of it) stories of lack of imagination, even common sense, Neil Whitfield (ninglun)referred in part to the conflict that has arisen in Sydney over agricultural land vs housing. This issue is not unique to Sydney; big cities round the world are chewing up countryside as they expand. In the Sydney case, the land under threat is prime agricultural land that not only has in place in Australia's history, but is also an integral part of the Sydney life style.

Neil's title and especially lack of imagination actually captures one of my core criticisms of current approaches, something that I summarise as mechanistic management. Essentially this involves action based around simple measurable things, often a multiplicity of measurable things, with action focused on the achievement of target. In the NSW planning case, trends indicate this population in these places. How do we get the land to build the houses to fit the people?

In an Armidale Express column, Belshaw's world: a new direction in migration policy?, I talked about the increase in the Australian population. Forget my conclusion - this was actually pretty mechanistic in itself - and focus instead on one key number: an estimated 439,000 people (2.1%) were added to the Australian population in the year to the end of March 2009. This is a very big number. You can see why the NSW Government is focused on getting the land to fit the people. The problem is that it is asking the wrong questions.

Creative policy depends in part upon the questions you ask. New questions force new answers.

In a comment on Neil's post, I said that the question the Government has asked and is trying to answer is how does the city fit x people? Instead, I would ask two different questions.

The first is whether the city should fit x people? This is, I suggested, where decentralisation comes in.

The word decentralisation, once popular, has dropped out of usage in recent years. It simply means moving people and activities away from the metro cities to achieve a more balanced growth.

Take inland Northern NSW. You could comfortably add 100,000 people there in a relatively short period without creating environmental or other problems. Indeed, it would improve life styles. One hundred thousand may not be a large number, but it would take a fair bit of pressure of Sydney.

When I raise this issue, people always point to the impediments, the problems that have to be overcome. Nobody engages in discussion on the question as to how it might be made to happen.

The second question I suggested should be asked is this: is if the city is to fit x people, what is required to make the city fit for those people? Once this question has been answered, then the original question (how to fit the people into Sydney) can be addressed.

It seems to me that preservation of agriculture around Sydney is important not just for food supply, but also for life style/livability reasons, as well as preservation of links to Sydney’s past. Given this position, the issue becomes how do we preserve it while also accommodating growth.

If we cannot do this, then growth should be constrained. Alternatively, the costs of growth should be explicitly recognised.


H. Nizam said...


I seems that big cities around the world are facing problems which are basically the same; and also making problems for surrounding area.

Same like Jakarta, until 20 years ago its surrounding area used to be plantations, paddy fields, and other green area. After private % foreign entrepreneurs were allowed to open industrial estates in 1989 the green area were changed to industrial and housing estates. As a result, so many people moved there causing social problems and damages to nature e.g floods, heavy pollution for Jakarta and said neighboring area.


Jim Belshaw said...

That's a good example, Harry. We cannot stop urbanisation, but we can learn how to better manage the process. Otherwise, how do we have cities fit for people to live?