Tag Archives: Plato

On the Merits of Darwin Not Being Copenhagen

A few months back I did a talk at Trading Ideas,  with Joanna Best  from Troppo Architects, Charles Darwin PVC Giselle Byrnes, and one of my favourite Lord Mayors, Katrina Fong Lim. The thing I like most about Darwin is that, unlike so many cities in Australia, it isn’t hell bent on being anything other than what it is.

Reflecting on that, my talk was on the penchant within Australian urban policy to adopted a mythology formed in places like New York, London and, more recently Copenhagen:

Over the last decade or so it’s become popular to talk about ‘Creative Cities’ and the ‘Creative Class’. For a lot of smaller and regional cities, this has become short hand for “Our city is collapsing and we don’t know what to do. Maybe if we use the word ‘creativity’ a lot things will be okay!”

It’s good to be able to name and describe a problem, but this doesn’t really work. One of the reasons for this is that the language of the ‘creative city’ has been shaped by people like Charles Landry, Richard Florida and Jan Gehl, based on their experience in places like New York, Portland and Copenhagen.

If there’s something that’s immediately obvious about Darwin, it’s that it’s not New York or Portland, and its most certainly not Copenhagen. One of the things I think we need to get better at in Australia is recognising that we can’t simply transfer policies and ideas from European and American cities to Australia. I don’t say this in a parochial way. I say this because Australian cities have an economic, demographic, geographical, meteorological and governmental underpinning that is unique.

Comparing Darwin to Copenhagen is a good way to think about this.

Copenhagen was founded as a fishing village in the 10th century and its average temperature is about eight degrees. Copenhagen is about 1,250 km from London and 440 km from Berlin.

Darwin was founded in 1869 and the average temperature is about 32 degrees. Its closest neighbours are Jakarta, Perth and Adelaide, none of which are less than 2500km away.

One of the things I think we need to get better at when we have these conversations is recognising our differences from the cities of the Western Hemisphere. Our historical and geographical isolation is not merely a cosmetic difference. It is a major and unavoidable part of the structure of our cities.

A useful first step is to think about the purposes for which Australian cities were built. In Darwin’s case, we know that when John Macdougal Stuart returned from the Northern Territory in 1861, he told Governor Daly:

…the soil is of the first description; and the grass, although dry, most abundant… this is certainly the finest country I have seen in Australia.


If this country is settled, it will be one of the finest colonies under the crown, suitable for the growth of any and everything – what a splendid country for growing cotton.

When Goyder came up here to survey the future city, he was interested in its port, because that helped the British build a military link to their acquisitions in South East Asia by linking Singapore and Sydney.

Neither Goyder nor Stuart gave much thought to creativity. They didn’t say Darwin was going to be a great place for night markets, cultural festivals, artists and tourists, with innumerable vibrant laneways. They said it was a good place for cattle farming and a naval base.

Those early origins are still evident. Darwin is still a military outpost, and its still a cattle port. It shares its origins with most Australian cities; the historical origins of Australia’s urban centres are almost entirely wrapped up in shipping primary goods back to the British Empire. That, structurally, historically and culturally was their purpose.

Australian cities functioned on this rationale right up until the Seventies. Then in 1971 US President Nixon tore up a thing called the Bretton Woods Agreement and Globalisation happened. This was a rude shock for Australia, because we’d been a nation founded on a system of tariffs design to protect our historical role as a supplier of goods to Britain.

As the global economy re-geared, the way our economy functioned had to change rapidly. Australia actually did pretty well; we floated the Australian dollar on the stock exchange in 1983, we flooded resources into higher education, and we began trying to establish relationships with Asia.

During this time, it became obvious that Australia couldn’t compete with developing nations in manufacturing. We’re still a big farming nation, and we’re still, obviously, a big mining nation, but it became obvious to policy makers by the mid-Eighties that we needed something else; we needed a lot of smart people and we needed those people to be thinking up new ideas; not just new ideas about how to make money, but new ideas about how you take a cities designed for shipping cattle and housing soldiers, into cities designed to compete in a global economy built on knowledge.

And this is where we come to the topic of the creative city.

One of the worst things Australian cities do today is look at successful cities elsewhere and try to mimic what they’ve done. We see this a lot with Jan Gehl’s work. He does some great things, but no matter how much places like Wollongong or Adelaide alter their public domain, they’ll never be a European city with almost a thousand years of history, a high population density and 45 minute flight to the world’s largest economic centres.

Unfortunately, one of the negative impacts I think Gehl, Florida and Landry have had in Australia is to allow policy makers to believe complex problems can be solved with simple fables in which urban design, small bars and laneways full of novelty street furniture will produce a stable demographic and a prosperous economy.

This isn’t to say I don’t think we should change. On the contrary, the other thing I think Australian cities do badly is cling to the idea they can keep doing what they used to do. We’ve been clinging on to our car industry, fossil fuels, suburban growth and building roads everywhere for too long. Australia is no longer a place of manufacturing hubs connected to sleeper suburbs. That model no longer works.

So what do we need to do? Well, the problem we face is that no-one really knows.

When mining and manufacturing fail, we turn to the Landry, Florida and Gehl mythologies at this point simply because we don’t know how else to formulate policy or plan our cities, and they offer us simple solutions to our complex problems.

I don’t have a better simple solution, so instead I thought I’d go back to an earlier era of urban studies. When the first big cities were starting to form, they had the good fortune to house people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In the case of Athens, were all those people lived, the city had a forum that bought all the citizens together, whereupon they would all yell at each other, argue passionately and vote.

When something bad happened to Athens, like the Spartans invaded it, this forum allowed the city to draw together its citizens, pool their ideas, and help them decide what to do. The city only really faltered when it stopped harnessing the collective energy of its citizens. Indeed, the word for city, ‘polis’, doesn’t have anything to do with the built environment. It draws from ‘politea’, or the community of citizens.

The Roman word for this was civitas, providing the origin for our modern words ‘city’ and ‘citizen. The city was not a product of its design, its industries or its architecture. On the contrary, those were by-products made possibly only by its citizenship. Quite literally the city was its citizens. When I think about cultural policy and the purposes of a creative city, this is what I think we should be aiming for; mechanisms that allow cities to bring together, combine and amplify the voices and ideas of their citizens.

A Book Review: Gorgias, by Plato, Penguin Classics, 2004.

Travelling by airliner is deeply emblematic of the modern age. All that steel and heat inexplicably hurtling through the atmosphere would be unthinkable in any age other than our own. Naturally, I find it a pretty gruelling affair. For the first few hours, I’m thrilled at the idea. Then I realise I’m stuck in a steel tube with hundreds of my fellow humans. In such an environment it seems inevitable that civilization will break down. Perhaps that’s why they strap you into those horrible little seats and feed you gruel every few hours.

Ironically, the upside of such an environment is it isolates you completely from the other modern horrors you’d have to deal with during every-day life. I usually get a lot of reading done on long flights, which is quite good. On my flight to Kuala Lumpur I read all of Plato’s Gorgias. This follows from a recent run on Plato; I read The Symposium and Protagorus and Meno a while back, and I’ve been working towards The Republic.

Plato is good reading for those with a day job, for the simple reason that a lot of his works are comparatively short, written as dialogues, easy to read and entirely comprehensible. The Penguin Classics versions have superb introductions for those, like myself, who went to state schools and were thus denied their education in the Classics.

A bit like Wodehouse, they all follow roughly the same plot and conventions. Instead of Jeeves, Plato substitutes Socrates, who invariably goes to someone’s house, asks them a bunch of questions and then they eventually say, “Geeze, Socrates. You sure are wise!” I find this regularity very comforting.

Plato was a student of Socrates, and wrote about him as a means of immortalising him. Moreover, it was a way of getting back at the Athenians who’d condemned Socrates to death for “not acknowledging the gods which the city acknowledges, but introducing new divinities and corrupting the youth’.

Plato obviously didn’t accept his tutor’s guilt and harboured a lot of discontent as to the way decisions were made in Athens; through a mixture of group consensus and elaborate public speaking. The dialogues are, in varying degrees, a critique of the language of power and examination on how language alters logic. There’s a great quote in Chris Emlyn-Jones’ introduction to Gorgias, supposedly taken from a letter Plato wrote shortly after Socrates’ execution:

…I, who began full of enthusiasm for a political career, ended by growing dizzy at the spectacle of universal confusion…

It’s a pretty adept summary of the discourse that permeates governance. There’s a perception that law, regulation and policy is the product of logic, research and democratic debate, whereas the more I rub up against it, the more I realise it’s in roughly the same class as pre-modern myth and fable.

Take the flurry of Richard Florida influenced urban planning, and the fetish for ‘place making’; these ideologies are wildly popular, instituted all over the world and provide a central pillar of much contemporary urban planning and regeneration policy. Yet even after Florida admitted his theories don’t work, they remain popular. The notion that installing some vibrant laneways will fundamentally alter the demographic and economic structure of a city makes about as much sense as sacrificing a lamb in an attempt to ward off a marauding army. From Plato, I take this simple lesson: whilst there’s a relationship between language, logic and power, it’s not a causal relationship.