An appointment with Vince

Vince is a town planner for the Marrickville Council. I first met him at the resident feedback session some weeks back, where he gave me the big printed maps I’ve been using to chart the boundaries of Petersham. I decided to pay him a visit down at the council offices on Fisher Street.

The council has a cool ticketing system for when you need to talk to them about your rates, pay a fine, or get your dog released from the pound [see footnote]. It’s a bit like down at the RTA, except there are only about three chairs, so my guess is that enquiries would be processed just as well with a less sophisticated queueing system. Be that as it may, I was pushed right to the front, given my exceptional foresight in having phoned ahead for an appointment with Vince.

While I waited for Vince to fetch me, I nosed through the array of brochures on display near the incredible coffee and tea machine at reception. I’m serious: it’s the kind of appliance my Dad had at his corporate office in 1982, with individual chutes for tea, coffee, sugar and milk. You turn a knob (a bit like the channel selector on an old TV set) and a measured quantity of your choice of beverage powder shoots out into your polystyrene cup. My visual memory is not sophisticated enough to recall the exact colour of this labour-saving device, but if pressed, I would hazard a guess at solid orange, with brown-tinted transparent plastic holding the powders.

Vince arrived, and took me up to a meeting room. Actually, it was a kind of cubicle, more than a room. For the whole time we were in there, I had the sense of activity buzzing all around me, with only a slim particle-board membrane separating us from the hum of the council’s well-oiled machinery. To tell the truth, I was a bit disappointed. I had hoped that Vince would take me to his very own office, so I could see how a town-planner lays out the ergonomics of his own workspace. Would it be a complete mess? – revealing the workings of a nutty professor type – textbooks, manila folders with papers spilling out of them and hardbound copies of landmark planning cases piled high, and only enough room for an old wooden chair to wedge in? Or would it be scrupulously tidy, all surfaces meticulously dust-free, and standardised, alphabetically ordered, plasticated archive boxes lining the walls, revealing a mind as rigid as it is well-organised? I’ll never know. But perhaps Vince’s decision to meet with me in a room set aside expressly for the purpose of public consultation tells you all you need to know about this thoughtful professional.

I started with the issue of the boundaries. I’ve been walking the boundaries of the ‘sham, trying to locate the exact points where they lie. Sometimes, they run down the middle of roads, sometimes along one side; often the boundary divides adjacent properties via their rear fencelines, but on other occasions, the line seems to select one house as part of (say) Marrickville, on a street otherwise entirely within Petersham. What was the reason for this seemingly arbitrary allocation of borders?

For a start, Vince said, individual suburb borders are not allocated by local council. They are decided by state government, and the council is left to administrate what is given to them. Second, there are lots of historical reasons for the lines to be drawn where they are – change is laid upon incremental change – which results in kooky and sometimes unfathomable boundaries. And if you feel really strongly that a border has been misdrawn, you can actually apply to have it moved! The Geographical Names Board takes care of such enquiries. Mainly, changes are requested when a particular building, business, school, etc, located right at the border, feels itself to be much more a part of the suburb on the other side of the line. (In my case, I could apply to have the Video Ezy moved from “Stanmore”, into Petersham where it really belongs). Obviously, over time, such alliegences allegiances can wax and wane, and what we are left with is an idiosyncratic graphical division. Some of these divisions, as I discovered on the south and west sides of the ‘sham, may eventually become meaningless. Vince disappeared for a moment, re-emerging with a beautiful big blueprint map of the whole of the Marrickville area, for me to borrow.

Moving onto even trickier issues, I asked Vince about the relationship between individual lives lived, and the construction of planning policies.

[NB: I’ve been sitting here at the keyboard for twenty minutes trying to re-assemble the exchange that we had about this. Perhaps I should have taken better notes. Possibly the best I can do is to try and ask the questions I would like to have answers for now – rather than remember what we talked about yesterday…And maybe if Vince comes online, and is feeling generous with his time, he can try and address a few of these. Or maybe others can…]

So here are my questions: you have a whole bunch of people (over 6000 in Petersham) and they all live particular lives and have individual experiences. How do you extract what is essential from these experiences, and construct the best policy in order to plan for the future? Whose interests should you take into account? How do you know if the same demographic is going to be there in fifteen years when the plan takes effect? And how can you tell whether people even know themselves what’s “best” for them? In essence, the question is: how do we reconcile the life of a person on the ground, with the lofty birds-eye view of a planner’s charts and maps?

As a “citizen” my questions to myself at the recent strategic planning sessions were: How do I know whether my opinion is even going to be listened to? How can I begin to formulate an opinion if I don’t know the system of decision-making through which it will be channeled? And: have I become so disillusioned with the possibility of change, that I have entirely lost the ability to imagine how I’d like my local environment to be? Is all that remains for me the instinct to react negatively against things I think I won’t like in the short term?

Vince emphasised that the role of the planner was non-political. He will state his professional case on proposed changes, independent of the current party in power. He felt that his job was respected within the council, and that he was able to do this without any pressure to toe the line. Having said that, he said that some other councils become stacked with real estate agents and local businessmen, who serve a year or two as councillors, then step down. After this they know the inner workings of the beaurocracy bureaucracy, and are able to push through proposals and developments with relative ease. Thankfully, Vince didn’t think Marrickville suffers from this particular malady.

I asked him about the process of development applications – say, when a proposal is lodged to extend the opening hours and alter the business of a shop, or to add a level onto a house. I pointed out that I’d heard a few stories about real animosity being generated between neighbours over this kind of thing. Vince agreed. Far worse than large apartment constructions, he said, are the “neighbour-v-neighbour” conflicts. It’s often very difficult for a resident to understand the lofty intentions, and appreciate the domestic dreams, of the guy next door, when it means that a bit of sunlight will be blocked, or a window will overlook “my backyard”. For this reason, objections to DAs are often petty, off the point, and unable to be taken seriously. On the other hand, for those who have lodged a DA, an objection can be like a slap in the face. How dare you tell me what I should be doing on my own land?

We talked about aesthetics, about greedy developers, and about density versus sprawl. Again and again, Vince kept coming back to the idea of “experience.” When faced with a particular proposal, he is able to weigh it up against a whole host of previous, similar examples, and project into the future, visualising how it might turn out, how it might look in ten years’ time, what kind of transformations it could introduce into the area. None of these things would be readable without many years of seeing the transition from idea, to plan, to built product. On the other hand, no two cases are ever exactly the same, so an “educated guess” is often called for. Planning is not an exact science.

I would have liked to ask Vince about the difference between property owners and tenants, when it comes to citizen-feedback. I seem to remember I was the only renter at the recent feedback session, and I suppose the reason for this is that we tenants move around a lot. Thus it stands to reason that we would have less to offer to a meeting that is about long-term planning. But if a large proportion of residents are renters, then surely their way of life should be considered too? But how could you harness these transient opinions?

However, our hour was up, and my brain was pretty full anyway. As I was leaving, I told Vince about the upcoming talk at the MCA by Teddy Cruz. Teddy is an architect from San Diego, who sometimes deliberately breaks local planning regulations to accommodate the communal lifestyles of Mexican immigrants. Recently, the councils there have gotten wind of his mischief. But rather than cracking down on him, it turns out they like what he’s doing, and are now bringing him in as a consultant on zoning law.

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[footnote]:
I’m not joking. While I was waiting for Vince at reception, I found a brochure “Your Pets and the Law” which states:

All dogs in a public place which are not on a lead (under effective control) may be seized and impounded.
All dogs seized and impounded by Council must be microchipped and registered before being released.

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