Friday, 30 September 2011

A day in the life of a Strategic Urban Planner

As I’m sure you know by now, I work as a Senior Strategic Urban Planner for a local government in the western suburbs.  As my wife regularly reminds me, not everyone is aware of what a strategic urban planner does, day-to-day (actually, I’ve substituted ‘aware of’ for ‘interested in’, but I’m sure that was just a slip of her tongue).  So I thought I’d provide a brief précis of what I get up to in my work.

I’m lucky enough to be able to focus a lot of my time on place making initiatives.  This means researching the latest innovations from around the world, things like:
  • What Vancouver is doing to achieve a diversity of housing options;
  • How Melbourne is leading the way in using place making strategies to activate it’s laneways and public spaces;
  • What Portland is doing with their public transport system to cope with traffic;
  • How San Francisco and New York are introducing new "parklets" for people to enjoy open space;
  • What Toronto is doing to encourage rooftop gardens; and
  • David Engwicht’s ‘taming traffic’ theories.
The next stage in the process is using that information to develop projects that will make the local area function better, according to Council’s desired outcomes. A big part of bringing these projects to successful fruition is knowing how to make them work in a local government setting.

This means being aware of what pitfalls can strangle a project from the beginning, things like imposing regulations that are confusing or unreasonable, not engaging in proper community consultation, or not devoting proper planning to ensuring build form codes are up to scratch.  So when I say I have experience in getting things done in local government, this is what I mean.

I really do enjoy my work (and I’m not just saying that in case my boss reads this and I find myself abruptly transferred to the refuse department), although I do occasionally buy the odd powerball ticket.  I also think that the fact that I spend a significant part of my waking hours on developing initiatives to make local places better can only be a positive for Fremantle, if I’m elected.

A conflict?

I was surprised to be asked recently whether or not I thought my professional position as a strategic planner in a local government would cause a conflict of interest if I was elected Councillor in Fremantle.  To be perfectly honest, I can only assume the person making the suggestion wasn’t very familiar with local government operations, or alternatively got the wrong end of the stick about what I do for a living. 

You can be sure that the Local Government Act would have precluded local government officers in my position from becoming Councillors if it was ever going to represent a problem – and, given that it’s 382 pages in 10 point font, it’s nothing if not comprehensive.  In fact, some of the best councillors in WA also happen to be local government employees.

To be as unambiguous as possible, there is not even a remote possibility that my professional life will coincide with City of Fremantle business.  In fact, there would be as much likelihood of a conflict of interest if I’d been successful in my boyhood dream of becoming an NBA basketballer for the Boston Celtics – although in that case I’d be running for mayor of a large tropical island in the Caymans rather than City Ward councillor in Freo.

My only vested interest in Fremantle is the fact that it’s my home, and that it’s where my wife and I are going to raise our daughter and I want to play a role in making it live up to its promise.

As All the President’s Men did for journalism, Amelie did for waitresses, and the Dead Poet’s Society did for teachers, I hope this post has provided some enlightenment about the life of a strategic planner, and why my experience in getting things done in a local government setting would be a positive for Freo.

Reduce anti-social behaviour

The most common issue that people have raised with me during this campaign is anti-social behaviour.  It’s clearly a huge problem for Fremantle, something I can personally attest to as a resident of the city centre.  I have a very real and specific interest in making sure that progress is made in reducing anti-social behaviour. 


-  Reclaim our public spaces by providing better infrastructure, which in turn will increase useage and therefore natural surveillance.  Simply getting more people on the streets and in public spaces has been demonstrated to have a profound, positive effect on reducing anti-social behaviour. 

-  Introduce regular events and activities in more of Fremantle's public spaces – not just one or two. 

-  Investigate regular, targeted security patrols and / or supported CCTV systems. 

-  Dedicate more resources to restricting anti-social behaviour through design. 

-  Improve the appearance of Fremantle's streetscape and focus attention on providing better lighting.  In the same way that graffiti has been proven to be contagious, spaces that appear uncared-for or deserted attract undesirable behaviour.   

-  Advocate for greater resources from the police and other state government agencies.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Create better, safer places for everyone to enjoy

Fremantle is lucky enough to have an abundance of public spaces ripe for improvement.  Shopping should be just one of the attractions that gets people to visit Freo - ideally, our city centre should include great, welcoming public spaces where people go to “meet friends, listen to music, learn, entertain and be entertained by their kids, take part in civic life and much more”, in the words of place maker Julian Dobson. 

Freo has always had a strong festival culture, which should continue to be encouraged.  However, such intermittent influxes of visitors ultimately won’t be sufficient to address issues of economic stagnation.  If Fremantle’s city centre can be made more permanently appealing through better use of its public spaces, it would go a long way to remedying many of our problems.

  • Start with some small wins.  Address the aesthic deficiencies of Freo’s public spaces:  peeling paint and rusty chains on bollards outside the town hall, grubby bins and litter, lack of vegetation, lack of lighting, shabby frontages as a result of red tape holding up restoration…all of which combine to make Freo appear tired and unloved.
  • Also in the short to medium term, look at making some bigger additions to our spaces.  For example: public art (preferably interactive to engage children), interesting street furniture that doesn’t need to be taken in over the weekend, some better vegetation to encourage a village atmosphere, some better lights to show off Freo’s heritage buildings, and even a better skate park in a more appropriate area.
  • Complete and publish a public spaces / public life audit of the Fremantle city centre to quantify the current state of play.
  • Ask community members about what’s working and what needs improving in some of Freo’s key public spaces for some good, local ideas, and use the results to prepare a ‘Place Vision’ - an aspirational statement that details the desired outcome - to provide direction for place making plans.  Each plan will be based on trialling small wins and delivering amenities and activities that people will use and enjoy.
  • Prioritise the funding of creating great public spaces around Fremantle.
  • Review Council's administrative setup to identify how it can deliver better place making.
  • Ongoing monitoring and review.

Meet me at Moore & Moore

I’ll be at Moore & Moore on Henry Street from 2pm – 3pm this Sunday 2 October and next Sunday 9 October, for anyone interested in meeting with me to discuss our great city. 

If that doesn’t suit, I can always be contacted via email at or on 0432 932 506.

I hope to meet some of you there for a nice long chat (Sunday is chore day, so you’d be doing me a favour).

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Cut red tape

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I believe that a city trying to encourage innovation in an environment rife with unreasonable red tape is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.

The story about the introduction of alfresco dining to Freo (and therefore to WA) in the eighties provides solid proof about what is possible when local government chooses to facilitate innovation and cut pointless red tape. The other lesson that I took from this story is that traders (and even our bureaucrats) can double as fantastic place makers.

Reducing the type of bad red tape that suffocates innovation and creativity would make it easier for Freo’s retailers, residents, landowners and even bureaucrats to be more innovative, productive and competitive, and the end outcome would be a more attractive city for locals and visitors.

Aspects of red tape that need addressing

  • Reducing the administrative burden.
  • Timeliness and predictability of government services.
  • Improving coordination between the different divisions of the City of Fremantle.
  • Minimising the cumulative burden of regulations. For example, if policy is developed within a silo, the cumulative impact of regulation may be poorly understood and not taken into account.
  • Increasing specific attention to the needs of small business.

  • Introduce a small business impact test applied to new regulations. If impacts are found to be above a given threshold on small business, the City could be required to tailor portions of the regulation to lessen this impact.
  • Start with having conversations with retailers, residents and landowners about their experiences dealing with red tape at the City. 
  • Introduce more consistent front-end analysis of regulations to “catch red tape before it starts” as part of the regulatory development process.
  • Remove superfluous or out-of-date regulations.
  • Introduce ongoing review and reduction mechanisms that measure compliance burden and establish disincentives to add red tape.
  • Publish an annual report on the status of red tape reduction.
  • Innovate to improve service standards, coordination and responsiveness of City of Fremantle regulatory programs.

As a Councillor, I will work towards rewarding innovative ideas, and making sure that the bad, lazy, knee-jerk kind of bureaucracy (which is unfortunately rife, especially when it comes to enforcement) doesn’t mean that good, new initiatives will be hamstrung by red tape.

Promote respect of heritage

As I've previously discussed, I believe it's self-evident that heritage is a big part of what gives Fremantle its unique character. I'm committed to retaining and restoring Fremantle's existing heritage to preserve that special charm, and to ensuring that new developments are high quality and sympathetic to the Freo character.

  • Increase the heritage incentives given to landowners and traders to restore and maintain their buildings.
  • Understand the opportunities that exist for making better use of our heritage buildings and prepare a strategy for their activation.
  • Make Indigenous heritage a more prominent part of Fremantle's overall heritage narrative.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Ensure developers build up to a standard and not down to a price

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
- Winston Churchill

I won’t be telling you anything you don’t already know by saying that the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were not a good time, architecturally speaking, for Fremantle. Freo is rife with examples from this period of what happens when developers are allowed to build down to a price, instead of up to a standard.

It is stating the obvious that redevelopment of these sites must occur, and this time with attractive, sympathetic and liveable buildings that take note of the style of neighbouring structures and are designed with care.


  • Understand the needs and expectations of the residents, landowners and traders, as well as developers.
  • Through a community visioning and engagement process, establish minimum requirements for development. These would primarily focus on how the building presents to the street.
  • A liveability criteria could be prepared to ensure that what is eventually built is liveable. Part of this would be talking with community experts like apartment dwellers and real estate agents about "what works", "what needs improving" and "what isn't working".
  • As mentioned previously, a place making plan and built form codes that are clear, intuitive and workable for residents, developers, planning officers and Councillors are essential.

Revitalise Fremantle by having more people living, working and shopping in the city centre

One of my watershed moments was visiting Fremantle when I was 10 years old during the excitement of the America's Cup. Fremantle back then was a city full of promise, poised on the brink of something truly remarkable.

Twenty four years later, who could have predicted that there would still be the same amount of people living in the city centre? And that the same infrastructure would also remain, only looking a lot shabbier.

830 city centre residents is not enough

It is no longer an option for Fremantle to maintain the status quo. Development must occur if our great city is to avoid a graceful decline. It is also an imperative that we work with the community and developers to ensure that all new development is built up to a standard, and not down to a price.

Equally, careful planning must be undertaken so that infrastructure and community facilities are able to keep up with the influx of new residents.


  • Complete an economic feasibility study and make the results publicly available. This will enable reasonable parameters regarding height, residential, retail, and office space to be set.
  • Undertake community visioning and engagement that treats the people as experts. This will ensure that new development caters for the needs of Fremantle's current inhabitants and traders, as well as those of developers.
  • Understand what new infrastructure and community facilities and services will be required to maintain Freo's liveability.
  • Put into place a policy that will require developers to contribute to the provision of these facilities and services, so that the financial burden doesn't fall solely onto ratepayers.
  • Prepare a place making plan for the city centre, so that our public spaces are not forgotten.
  • Ensure built form codes are prepared prior to any development controls being finalised in a planning scheme.
As Councillor this will be my focus on Council - ensuring that we inject new life into the city centre and that new development in Fremantle is undertaken responsibly.

My goals in brief

For newcomers to my blog, below is a brief list of some of the key issues I will to work towards if elected as a councillor.

  • Revitalise Fremantle by having more people living, working and shopping in the city centre.
  • Ensure developers build up to a standard and not down to a price, so that the outcome is high quality development that fits the Fremantle character.
  • Promote respect of heritage.
  • Cut red tape.
  • Create better, safer places for everyone to enjoy.
  • Address Fremantle's parking problems.
  • Reduce anti-social behaviour.
  • Be an independent voice on Council.

Over the next couple of days, I will be posting a brief synopsis of how I plan to achieve each point.

If you're looking for an independent, local Councillor, I seek your vote to begin working on your behalf to get Fremantle moving again.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

An Independent Voice

Last week, political analyst and Notre Dame senior lecturer Dr Martin Drum was quoted on page 19 of the Herald talking about the benefits of diversity on council.

"You want that competition, otherwise councillors could become complacent.  I'm not saying that council is doing a bad job, but you need that healthy debate, as well as diversity on council so you get better outcomes."  Dr Drum said.

I wholeheartedly agree that a council should reflect the diversity of the community it represents, and I believe that the same applies to council elections.  At the beginning of this campaign, one of the most common questions I was asked was why I didn't switch to a ward with less candidates.

Apart from the fact that it's extremely important to me to run in the ward in which I live, to me a fair and honest contest is nothing to be afraid of.  Being elected councillor is a privilege - a huge privilege - and one that should be earned.

Every candidate should be prepared to work for the votes they get, and ready to prove and test the merit of their ideas.  That happens naturally as a result of a good contest.  Sure, first past the post can mean that candidates with similar opinions can split votes, but I don't think its necessary to nanny voters to the extent that the field needs to be thinned out so that voters are presented with only one or two options.

I know not all Fremantle candidates, or indeed councillors, necessarily share this opinion with me, but I believe it's an essential part of the democratic process.  And like good old Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

A 'green' council?

My wife called my attention to a valid point about party politics in local government after reading a particular paragraph of the article, which ran as follows:

With Fremantle already dubbed a 'green council' Dr Drum is concerned debate could go out the window if more "green members" are elected.

My wife, after reading this, said, "So how are we supposed to know who's a 'green' and who's independent if the candidate chooses not to mention it?"

It was, I believe a very good question, and one without a good answer.  In state and federal elections, candidates' party affiliations are made clear on the ballot paper, but there's no such disclosure necessary in local government elections.

I am not categorically against anyone with an interest in a political party running for Council, but I do believe that the best local government councillors are the ones who serve the interests of the people they represent, exclusively - not those also serving their party, nor those who want to use the City of Fremantle to trampoline into a state or federal political career.

So how can voters tell who they're really voting for?  Asking the question seems to be the only option open to us.  I'm happy to state for the record that I'm completely independent - what you see is really what you get.

Do we really need any City Ward residents on Council?

With both Donna Haney and John Dowson standing down, there will not be a single City Ward resident on Council unless I'm elected.  (I've based that on the electoral roll.)  Given that redevelopment of the city centre is a major priority for Council in the next decade, I believe that it's vital that city centre residents have a voice on council at this moment in time.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Why I believe the local people are the real design experts

The City Ward is going to be the focus of development in Fremantle for at least the next decade. During that time the best part of three thousand new people might be making the city centre their new home. I was interviewed by the Fremantle Herald earlier in the week, and the first and only question on the subject that I was asked was, “How high should new development be?”

Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything = 42

Firstly, I feel uneasy that the debate about new development has been reduced to just numbers.  I feel the community is capable of a more sophisticated and informed discussion than one that is only concerned with ‘4 versus 6 versus 9’.  As a planner and therefore familiar with all of the elements of design that combine to make a development successful or a failure, it makes as much sense to me as trying to define the meaning of life as 42.  I’ve seen six storeys with a mezzanine work well in places with rich heritage and wonderful aesthetics like Paris, and equally I’ve seen three storeys look like a dog’s breakfast.

Secondly, I don’t like being the implication that I should have established my position on this before community consultation has been performed.  To me, the ability to listen to local people and their opinions is vital for a councillor, and if you’ve already made up your mind on the subject before hearing what your constituents have to say, then to me “you’re not doing it right!” (as my nephew is wont to tell me when he watches me fumble around with my new iPhone).

A core philosophy for me is that local people must be at the centre of planning for the future for great places to be created.  I came across a recent interview with Project for Public Spaces founder Fred Kent in which he talked about this very subject:

"Take Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which succeeds spectacularly as an iconic structure, but fails miserably as a public space. Contrast that to Balboa Park in San Diego, which gets 10 million visitors per year without any trendy buildings or fancy design gimmicks. It's just a great park that offers the people the activities and amenities they want."

Who are the real design experts?

I see a great opportunity in the City of Fremantle for exchanging the philosophy of tokenism currently underpinning community consultation with something approaching genuine community engagement. 
Place making theory states that the real design experts are the ordinary people who live and work within a community.  Fred Kent speaks about this at length in his interview (linked at the end of this post), and I wholeheartedly agree with him. 

Put your hand up if you're tired of being spoken down to by architects, urban designers, town planners, bureaucrats or councillors when being presented with a new development strategy.  Keep your hand up if you're still none the wiser after their explanation of architectural excellence and how it relates to additional discretionary height.  Fred Kent feels our pain:

"Place making ... requires the community members to be at the centre of planning. The outcome has to be theirs. Urban designers who respect community wisdom can be enormous assets if they are willing to leave their egos behind and help communities achieve their goals."

As a Councillor, I will work persistently so that community engagement is not a token, tick-the-box performance.  For me, the community will be expected to participate in planning for projects as experts, bringing their ideas, practical knowledge and concerns to the table at the outset rather than at the end.  In this way, I believe that Freo can achieve some truly amazing places. 

Click here for Fred's interview.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

My mother-in-law’s Heritage Tour of Fremantle

My wife and I regularly pass Wesley Church on the corner of Market and Cantonment Streets, and one of her many endearing quirks is that she's unable to walk by without remarking that it's where her auntie got married. I pointed this out to her the other day (purely in a spirit of affection, you understand, and not because it can get quite annoying) and she informed me that it was a family tradition to provide a commentary on key sites around the city.

This is certainly true - her mother, sister and Nana do the same thing, to the extent that the experience is known amongst family ring-ins like me as being taken on a personalised Patriot's Heritage Tour of Fremantle.

My mother-in-law first touched Australian soil in Fremantle, arriving off the boat from the Netherlands in 1951. She grew up in Naval Base, back when there were still brumbies roaming wild on the hill. Fremantle, for my mother-in-law, was 'town'. It meant a macaroon at Culley's and afterwards the chance to choose a Little Golden Book or a pretty card from Shepard's newsagency. Freo was fishing off the harbour with her brothers, going to school at John Curtin High and Fremantle Tech, and later working for P. Hindle & Co in Cliff Street before becoming a teacher. Now uprooted and transplanted to a very different kind of suburb, my mother-in-law remains vociferously, unwaveringly, a Fremantle girl.

What is the Fremantle character?

My mother-in-law’s heritage tours have made me realise that Fremantle’s unique character and heritage can be found in far more diverse places than just its bricks and mortar. It also resides in the Fremantle people; in their shared experiences of Freo in the past, present and future. It is this element that enriches our spaces and buildings with meaning as well as grandeur, and it's why, for my mother-in-law as well as many others, Culley’s is as much of a Fremantle icon as the town hall.

As a strategic urban planner and place maker by profession, I think this is the reason why iconic, impressive architecture doesn’t necessarily equate to a great place. Places planned without people in mind often fail to be successful - the Perth Convention Centre is a good example. I don’t think the need for a building or space to be architecturally impressive should outweigh its need to be liveable, to cater for what people will find useful and enjoy.

The built environment

Going on one of my mother-in-law’s heritage tours certainly opens your eyes to the richness and charm of Fremantle’s buildings – which, on the flipside, makes the aberrations all the more difficult to bear.

I won’t be telling you anything you don’t already know by saying that the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were not a good time, architecturally speaking, for Fremantle. Freo is rife with examples from this period of what happens when developers are allowed to build down to a price, instead of up to a standard. It is stating the obvious that redevelopment of these sites must occur, and this time with attractive, sympathetic and liveable buildings that take note of the style of neighbouring structures and are designed with care.

How can we ensure that new development is built up to a standard, not down to a price?

Fremantle is currently in the position of having to woo developers, rather than the other way around, and this keenness on the behalf of Council to accommodate the wishes of developers is obvious. However, one of the lessons Freo can take from the '60s, '70s and '80s is that rigorous design guidelines or built form codes aren’t just important – they’re imperative. Quite simply, I firmly believe that it should be a privilege to develop in our city. Establishing a careful, considered and above all clear set of design guidelines can only be a good thing, both from the perspective of attracting development and in protecting the interests of the Fremantle community.

So, to summarise: as a Councillor, one of my focuses will be on ensuring that new development is built up to a standard, one that matches the model established by those grand, historic and built-to-last buildings in the West End. That standard will be based around planning for people and places as well as what suits developers.

Another focus will be protecting, respecting and getting the most out of our existing heritage - not least so my own daughter gets the chance to become a fourth generation family heritage tour guide.

As a final aside: I was walking past Wesley Church with a friend the other day, when I found myself saying, "One of my wife's aunties got married here." I guess it means I’ve really become part of the family.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

What Abraham Lincoln would say about planning for a population influx

"If I was given six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four sharpening my axe."

- Abraham Lincoln

Being a former rail-splitter, Abraham Lincoln knew what he was talking about when it came to chopping down trees and planning for the future.

If all goes to plan, the best part of three thousand people may be living in the city centre in ten to twenty years, as opposed to the current figure of around 830.  This increased growth will hopefully bring a great deal of opportunity, but it will also bring increased costs to manage that growth.

Increasing community amenities to cater for demand

It would be nice to think that community amenities in the city centre will be expanded commensurately to cater for this rise in population, so that people do not have to suffer facilities and services that are not of a high standard or can’t meet demand.  It would also be nice to think that ratepayers will not be the only ones footing the bill.

Other than a public art requirement, it appears that there isn’t anything else in place requiring developers to contribute funds for the betterment of the city centre. With the new strategic sites planning scheme amendment (triggered by the Economic Development Strategy) in the pipeline, this is a serious and conspicuous lack.  

Required Developer Contributions

A policy requiring developer contributions would ensure that uniform and consistent obligations are placed on developers, so that funding the augmentation of community facilities and services needed for Fremantle to remain a great place to live and work doesn't become the sole burden of ratepayers.

As the wooing of developers on a large scale has already begun, some time and energy needs to be spent sharpening the axe, so to speak.  As a candidate for the City Ward, I'm ready to put my nose to the grindstone so that we can maximise the benefits of future development for the community in our ward.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Planning for people: Christmas Lights in Freo

Christmas is a magical time of year. I'm a sucker for trees and lights and decorations, hymns and carols, ham and cherries, hanging out with family and giving presents. Christmas is about to become even more special for my wife and I, because our baby is due on Christmas Day ("You can't argue with me - I'm carrying the next messiah," my wife has become fond of telling me).

Why doesn't Freo have better Christmas lights?

Christmas lights in Paris
(and my wife, all rugged up)
As regular readers will know, I recently served on the City of Fremantle South Terrace Working Group. One of the initiatives that was mooted during a meeting was putting up Christmas lights in the city centre - the sort of display one sees in most great cities, big and small, that have children and adults alike flocking to the streets to soak up some Christmas atmosphere.

It was a short discussion (and that's using the loosest possible definition of the word). "Can't do it." I was flatly informed. "It would ruin the sight lines down South Terrace, and that's an important heritage feature."

This struck me as absurd for a number of reasons, not least because I dispute whether or not South Terrace can be said to possess heritage sight lines of such purity that temporary Christmas lights will ruin them, when fleets of cars and traffic lights are its most obvious visual feature.

And, I might add, when I consulted John Dowson's excellent photographic book 'Old Fremantle', what did I see strung across the street but a significant volume of wires? Page 185 or pages 9 and 23-26 of 'Old Fremantle Childhood' for anyone who wants to look for themselves. Not heritage, indeed.

Planning for people

But no, it was a bigger issue that left me with an uneasy feeling after that particular meeting. Who is being served with an attitude like that? Certainly not residents, nor traders. In fact, it seems that the City of Fremantle is subordinating the interests of its community for the sake of a vague, intangible and much contested abstraction.

I have a serious objection to any argument or organisation that serves an idea over the best interests of people. Broken down to its most elemental purpose, what is - or rather, what should be - the function of any local government? Surely it's to serve the community and their best interests. And yet, Fremantle people are denied a Christmas lights display because of the City's intractable, illogical championing of the cause of heritage over the interests of the very people who fund its existence.

What would a Christmas lights display bring to Fremantle? Pleasure for Fremantle families? It's hard to imagine otherwise. An increased number of visitors and associated benefits for traders? Almost certainly.

Experts at saying no

Let me be clear that I treasure Fremantle's unique character and am a keen supporter of heritage - however, to me this issue has nothing to do with heritage. The argument put forward to me at the working group meeting was singularly unconvincing, even more so once I did some basic research, but it had the effect of shutting down any discussion on the subject. The City of Fremantle has become expert at finding ways and reasons to say no.

Fremantle people might remember that there were Christmas lights in South Terrace last year. For that, we have our traders to thank - specifically, Ivan Dzeba of Benny's, also a candidate for the city ward. (Technically that does make him my rival, but Ivan's work for Freo has my admiration and respect.) Freo's traders were the ones who organised and forked out the money for those lights, and persuaded Council to match their contribution.

My lightbulb moment

I don't want to have to travel to Perth City for my daughter to be able to share in the glory of Christmas lights. Our public spaces can be made much better, and to me what should be at the heart of any improvements - the core consideration - is the people of Fremantle. I respect community wisdom; people don't have to be trained in design to know intuitively where they will spend time and where they won't. As a Councillor I will leave my ego behind and help communities achieve their goals.

And just imagine what might be possible if the City learnt how to say 'yes'?

Friday, 16 September 2011

An aside on why I love Freo

I’d like to share a small but significant example of why I love this place.  My wife has been shedding personal possessions with reckless abandon in the last few weeks – all part of the pregnancy process, she tells me – and most recently it was her much-treasured iPad she left behind. 

It was Saturday, and we were in a West End café having a muffin with our nephew when my wife looked at me in consternation and squeaked something about having left it on a bench in the park, or if not there, then anywhere else we’d been in the last two hours.  I dashed to the park (no luck), then to the various shops we’d visited.  By the time I reached Wray Avenue, not only did I excite the attention of some passing ambulance officers (“another customer”, I could see them thinking) but I’d pretty much given up hope of recovering the iPad.

However, I struck it lucky in the first shop I checked.  An immensely considerate soul had not only found the iPad on a bench, they’d left their contact details with every trader in the area – every single one – on the off chance we’d come looking in one of the shops.  And when I called the number, they stopped whatever they were doing and met me to return the iPad straight away, to put my mind at rest. 

A community that deserves the name

The experience put me in mind of a similar situation I recently encountered in London. My wife and I were taken out to a pub by some friends, and as we sat down we discovered a wallet that had been left behind.  The group of people that had vacated the table had only just disappeared out the door, so I quickly jumped up to give chase when one of my friends (a London native) put a restraining hand on my shoulder. 
“It’s best not to get involved – you can’t be sure it belonged to them.  Just leave it at the counter and the staff will follow it up.”

I’ve been grateful ever since that I’m lucky enough to live in a community that still deserves the name, where people will put themselves out to help a stranger, and Saturday confirmed it for me.

By the time I returned to the café, there was only a scrap of muffin left and nothing in the tea pot, but I’ve rarely seen my wife so elated and relieved, and my nephew got a lot of enjoyment out of the funny new colour of Uncle Swaney’s face.  He was even happier when I ate the last scrap of muffin – “Look Aunty Ness, Uncle Woney had the bit that went on the floor!”

A chance to recap

We're just over a week into the official campaign and I thought that I'd take a moment to draw breath and summarise a few of the key points from topics I’ve covered in posts so far.  This list is not intended to be all encompassing, but rather a kind of distillation of some of the ideas that I’ve discussed most recently.

A few key points from my posts to date

  I believe it’s vital for Fremantle’s long term success that attention is given to achieving small wins as well as big ones.  There are multitudes of ways our spaces can be maximised in the short term with some place making initiatives, whilst we wait the decade or more necessary for the promise of the Economic Development Strategy to be realised

  Traders can double as fantastic place makers.  Reducing the type of red tape that suffocates innovation and creativity would make it easier for Freo’s retailers to introduce new initiatives and make our city more attractive for visitors and locals alike.

  Anti-social behaviour is a big problem for many Fremantle residents and traders.  There are many options available for better dealing with this complex issue, and targeted place making initiatives would be a good start in certain trouble spots.

  Likewise, more could be done to improve parking.  Better signage of existing parking would be a relatively quick, easy and effective way to maximise what we have.  Expanding cycling facilities and advocating for public transport improvements in the medium term would also be a positive.

  I believe that with community engagement, timing is everything. Consulting the community early on in the lifecycle of a project would enable the views of community members to be better taken into account, and make the process less adversarial.    

  Getting the balance right between focusing on economics and planning for people is imperative.  Our city centre should include great social spaces as well as shops – it would be mutually beneficial for both traders and the community if Freo creates public spaces where people go to ‘meet friends, listen to music, learn, entertain and be entertained by their kids, take part in civic life and much more’, in the words of Julian Dobson.

Watch this space for my thoughts on heritage and development, getting more people living in the city centre, and more.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Fremantle unearthed

As a child, I was fascinated by the world's ancient places, like Pompeii or Skara Brae, which brought the people who created them to life so vividly. A glimpse into what a typical Roman family did to amuse themselves is to me far more interesting than any amount of mummies or monuments.

If climate change overtakes us rather more suddenly than we expect and Freo is preserved like some marvellous Atlantis for a future generation to discover, I wonder what they'd think of us? What would the places and spaces we'd leave behind say about what we valued?

I can see future archaeologists being impressed with the level of our sociable instinct, as evidenced by the number of cafes and restaurants. Clearly, friends, family and good times are important in Freo. Equally, the number of galleries, clothes shops, bookshops and music venues we have, along with the footy oval, would hint that Fremantle was a place where art, fashion and entertainment were part of everyday life.

The ratio of office to retail space would probably suggest Fremantle was more a place for frivolity than industry, although the harbour does present a different side to the story. Likewise, our West End university lends us an air of learning and intellect - Freo's not just a place of 'bread and circuses'.

And what of the way we're governed? The good news is that apparently archaeologists measure a city not just by size or population, but by the complexity of its administrative structure, so Fremantle's sure to impress them in that respect (the only example of excessive red tape adding to a place's distinction).

The story told by our public spaces will be slightly more complex, depending on what time of day or night disaster strikes. By day, most community spaces in the city centre will seem relatively vibrant - relative, that is, to how they would appear if we're consumed by volcanic ash after dark. I can imagine archaeologists sucking their pencils and wondering why no one was spending their summer evening relaxing with family and friends in our community spaces? (Their discovery of the television set would tell only half the story.)

The actual buildings of the city centre would present another interesting conundrum. The West End would suggest that we were a people who valued our past, and were prosperous enough to place importance on our surroundings. However, a short walk east would somewhat confound this theory. I wonder what conclusions future generations would reach? Perhaps that Fremantle was a city whose fortunes had seen a recent decline? That we had enjoyed a period of expansion only to then contract - and that neglect had begun to nibble at the edges of our city?

Overall, though, I think that archaeologists would conclude that we were a pretty lucky bunch in Freo - and the books they'd write about us would be of the sort that a young boy might read at bedtime, before drifting into a happy reverie of what it would have been like to be alive in Fremantle in 2011.

Afterword: If Fremantle is suddenly fixed in time for future generations to scrutinise and lay bare, and those generations have access to computers, I would just like to make the following statement: our apartment is not always this messy. It's been a busy week, and cleaning day is Sunday, so it's starting to pile up. If the rising sea water or poisonous volcanic ash had caught us next week, you would have been impressed.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The forgotten side of Freo

I received an email from a Freo resident last week who lives in the East End near Clancy’s Fish Pub and boy, it made me sad.

The person who emailed me was a relative newcomer to Freo, having recently bought in the East End and moved in with their young family.  However, anti-social behaviour has meant that they now regularly resort to taking taxis home from the Cappuccino Strip at night.

“The danger/interactions we’ve faced…really limits our night time enjoyment of what we expected for city living in Freo.”   The email said.  “After having lived within larger cities that did not have a negative/dead zone like this I feel like we've ended up in a nice building on the forgotten side of Freo.”

The email continues.  “The park near us often hosts semi-nude arguments and drunkenness that limits my ability to take our young child out on walks.  It’s frustrating to say the least.”

The best place in the world?

Like all Freo-philes, I want new people to love this place, to think it’s one of the best they’ve ever visited.  Faced with someone who’s never visited, I immediately start gushing about Freo’s virtues in a way that my wife says makes me sound like I’m recruiting for a cult, or an Amway salesman.  But I can’t help it.

That’s why when I hear something like this, something that makes me lift up the rose-coloured glasses for a moment, it makes me really sad that things have deteriorated to this extent.  I might admit, amongst the safety of fellow Freo-philes, that there are some problems we should probably do something about, but it’s a bit like pointing out flaws in a family member – it’s ok for you to do it, ok in fact for you to really go to town sometimes, but when outsiders say something and you recognise that yes, it’s true… it can be a little bit heartbreaking.

And I know what this person said is true, because I’ve experienced it myself.  I’ve probably even passed that family on the odd occasions I do walk up to the eastern point of Cantonment Street, but I’ve never even nodded a hello because we’re all doing the ‘East End shuffle’ – you know, that special “I hope that the drunks don't notice me and single me out for abuse" walk.

What’s being done, and why isn’t it working?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve let Council know of specific incidents of anti-social behaviour that I’ve witnessed, and the responses I’ve received have been vague and unsatisfactory – they’ve talked about how they’re trying to solve anti-social behaviour as a whole with working groups, and how difficult it is, how it will be a long process, etc.

To me, this is a poor excuse for delay. I believe there are some problems that the City can fix, and some they can’t – and that this is one that they can.

I think it’s a disgrace that the park next to Clancy’s has basically been sacrificed to the anti-social element without the City taking some action.

I feel like our East End of town is being used as a dumping ground by the City for the type of people and behaviour they don’t want to have in the tourist precinct.

The grand plan for the East End

The City is promising that great things will happen to the East End as a result of the Economic Development Strategy, in, say, ten or fifteen years time - but I’ve been left wondering about what's going to happen in the meantime before this occurs? Until that time, one can only assume they're prepared to let the East End continue as it is now: a dangerous, unsightly place for the least, the last and the lost.

To say I'm not happy with this doesn't begin to cover my feelings on the subject. It's reprehensible that a family new to Freo should be compelled to take taxis for a distance of 200 metres because the City quite simply is ignoring its responsibility to East End residents and traders.

Surely we all deserve better than that.

What can – what must – we do?

One of the best options available to the City to stop anti-social behaviour in the park is by reclaiming the space with some basic place making strategies to get activity happening in that area again. It’s not rocket science:

- The City should look at introducing regular events into the space – off the top of my head, things like community barbeques, bouncy castles, open air movies during the summer.  A lot of families already visit Clancy’s, especially on the weekends, and I’m sure they’d be the first to join in with activities in the park.
- In the medium term, the space should be improved with some better infrastructure – a community garden, some play equipment, maybe even a really great skate park, seeing as the area's already popular for that. 
- The City should also be simultaneously working with the police to send a clear message that it’s not ok to get drunk and behave in an anti-social manner in that park.
- Doing something about the derelict building opposite would also be a positive.  Having those kind of empty, vandalised structures in an area is one of the quickest ways to create a dead zone.

It would make my day if, in a year's time, I take my daughter for a play in the park next to Clancy's and we get chatting with another young family who live across the road - because the eastern end of Cantonment Street is no longer a place where you have to avoid meeting anyone's eye.

Monday, 12 September 2011

What my grocer can tell us about welcoming places

I'm the cook at home, both because I enjoy it and to pre-empt having my meals cooked for me. To say my wife is bad at cooking would be an injustice - she possesses a kind of dark talent, being able to take three or four innocent ingredients and, with some malign chemistry, combine them to form the most stomach-churning dish you've ever tasted. Thankfully, she is also completely unenthusiastic about anything to do with cooking and happily surrenders the kitchen to me.

A welcoming place

As the household chef, I prefer to do my grocery shopping at Lee's in the Woolstores shopping centre. Besides the good quality fruit and vegetables, whenever my wife and I enter we always get a wave and big friendly smile from Lee and his lovely wife Maria. We're also enjoying watching their young son, Brian, grow up. Brian is now almost 3 years old and is fast becoming a real man about town on his little motorised trike. It's not unusual to see Brian rolling out of the front of the shop towards sweet freedom - before you hear something urgent said in Vietnamese and Lee or Maria appear too, quickly running after him.

I love going to this shop - like all the best places, it's friendly and memorable. My wife and I go there to shop, yes, but we also go there for a quick catch-up with people who over the years have become our friends. It got me thinking: are we doing enough to make Fremantle welcoming?

A focus on planning for people

I believe that many of Freo's public places need a little of Lee and Maria's fairy dust. I'm not convinced that Fremantle is as welcoming as it could be and I'm not entirely comfortable with the single-minded focus on economics that is characteristic of the Economic Development Strategy (and I'm still wondering why there was never any community visioning that fed into this plan?).

I'm not saying that a focus on economics is bad; I'm just saying that we need to strike the right balance. I read something on Twitter by Julian Dobson yesterday that summed it up perfectly (or click here for the full article):

"To me the problem is that our town centres have become the domain of the property owners and planners, not the public. There's a peculiar poverty of thinking in the notion that the main thing any of us should want to do in town centres is to shop.

Instead we need to re-imagine them as social spaces where we do the stuff we want to do - meet friends, listen to music, learn, entertain and be entertained by our kids, take part in civic life and much more. It is around these social purposes that markets and trading will develop and thrive, while much of our routine shopping is likely to remain in supermarkets or online."

In all of the recently published literature that I have read on Fremantle, I have felt there to be an absence of the philosophy of planning for people and places. This is particularly evident in the new Economic Development Strategy, which I was given an insight into at a presentation on Tuesday night (a big thank you to the Fremantle Inner City Residents Association for organising the event).

I'll make myself clear: I'm not satisfied with my backyard being turned into a shopping amusement park above all else, with little thought given to creating great community places. I think that the future of Fremantle is dependent on the degree to which Council can plan for a people-powered city centre. We need to get the balance right.

If you think that the future of the city centre should be focused on great public spaces as well as more retail and office space, then I'm your candidate. If you're into good kale, then I'm glad to tell you that, after listening to the people, Lee and Maria are now selling it (say hello to Brian for me). Guess who isn't cooking tonight.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Q & A - round two

How could you have an impact on getting the City of Fremantle to take better care of the small things?

One thing that is almost certain to have gotten under the skin of anyone who's a resident or a trader in our fair city is the lack of attention to the small things. I'm talking about every bin in the city centre overflowing like a smelly Mt Vesuvius on public holidays, street lights out for weeks on end, the tortuously worded fine print on the residential parking permit. (I caught my wife flexing her facial muscles into all sorts of odd contortions after she read it - when I asked what she was doing, "checking I haven't had a stroke and forgotten how to understand English" was the answer.)

So, what can be done to improve the City's strike rate on getting the small things right? (Clue to any councillors reading: it's not forming a working group.) A change in attitude would be a great start - in essence, bringing back the care factor.

The Captain

One of the most successful initiatives I've seen in my professional experience was the introduction of a person whose sole job was to walk around the city centre streets, engaging with visitors, residents and traders, observing what was going on and (above all) listening. He dressed in a safari suit, wore a flourishing moustache had the lovably goofy title of 'the Captain'. He was on duty for only a couple of hours at a time.

After his forays into the city, the Captain would return to our office and report back. "There're bins that haven't been emptied in such-and-such lane." He might say. Or, "I spoke with someone who got a parking ticket because she misinterpreted a sign - and she's right, it's not very clearly marked." Or, "those louts are hanging around X Street again."

What a great thing it was for the town that the Captain was around.

I believe that any similar initiative would be a great start to bringing back the care factor to Freo.

What's your experience with the community consultation process?

My mother was fond of giving me the following piece of advice when I was growing up: "You have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that proportion." I believe that this should be writ large in the office of anyone engaged in community consultation.

The Process

The community consultation process, like many of the arms of bureaucracy, has both good and bad incarnations. At it's worst, community consultation is conducted in a perfunctory, tick-the-box-and-move-on way. Unfortunately for all involved the process will often go like this:

- It begins with bureaucrats investing a prolonged period of resources and time forming their opinions and getting them down on paper in the form of a draft master plan.
- The community is then presented with this draft document and is basically given one shot to critique it. The opportunity to make significant additions or changes to the direction of the plan is, by this stage, pretty limited, but people are given the false expectation that their input is going to be acted upon.
- When the finalised plan is put before Council and people discover their comments have been disregarded they feel - justifiably - disillusioned.

A perfect example of this was the City of Freo's consultation on the 2010-2015 Strategic Plan. I went along to the workshop they held to get the community's feedback on the plan. And just what did the City of Fremantle do with the information we gave them? I think the fact that the plan was approved shortly afterwards without any real change says it all.

Well, that's a couple of hours of my life I wouldn't mind having back. If I wanted to be asked my opinions on something only to be patted on the head and ignored, I'd go clothes shopping with my wife.

Better engagement

I believe that, with community engagement, timing is everything. Imagine what could happen if, rather than getting the community involved in the final stages of the process, they were instead asked to participate from the very beginning - in the stages of creation?

Before, in fact, Councillors and administrators had spent 6 to 12 months making up their minds and were still receptive to new ideas?

In my professional capacity as a strategic urban planner and place maker in local government, I have first hand experience of how beneficial involving the community early on in a project can be. And yes, in my office there's a home-made poster stuck on the wall that says, "You have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that proportion." (Thanks, mum.)

What would you do about anti-social behaviour?

I received an email about this topic last week that really got me thinking. It's too long to include in a Q & A, but I'll post it as a separate piece tomorrow.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Planting the seed: retail and red tape

It was a sunny summer Saturday when my wife and I first saw our apartment in the Woodson’s Building on Cantonment Street.  I only had to glance at the town hall clock, visible over some rooftops from the living room window, before I knew this was the place for us. 

After we left the building, we strolled around Freo for a while in a kind of dazed stupor – elated that we’d found our first home and simultaneously giddy at the prospect of signing up for a mortgage that spelt the end of my happy fantasy of being able to chuck my job and take off travelling for 12 months if the mood ever grabbed me.

Our backyard

We headed for Market Street, which was bustling.  Kakulas’ window seemed like a portal to a Middle Eastern bazaar – sacks of grains and dried beans open on the floor, the air rich with mysterious spices.  As we made for the train station, we were drawn inexorably into each shop we passed: Lick Clothing, the pretty French kitsch of Store and then Long Macc, oohing and aahing at each new interior.

Of course we’d been up Market Street before (although it was the first time my wife had managed to get me into either Lick or Store), but our new status as almost-homeowners changed things.  It seemed like this was part of our new territory.  We’d seen the house, and now we were inspecting the backyard.  It was ours, and it was beautiful.

Then and now, traders are a big part of what makes Freo special.  That’s why it makes me sad when I hear and see how tough it can be.  And it’s not just those uncontrollable events like the GFC that makes a trader’s life difficult.  In Fremantle, there’s strangulating red tape, anti-social behaviour, parking issues, and the petty, eccentric and downright illogical stifling of innovative ideas and new initiatives.

Moore & Moore

I have in mind a specific example as I write this – Moore & Moore.  Moore & Moore has a special place in my affections, not only because it’s my regular haunt on weekends.  I have a friend who’s the epitome of Melbourne-hipster-cool (in my admittedly inexpert opinion, anyway), and the single time in our years-long friendship that I’ve managed to impress him with my taste in anything was when I took him to Moore & Moore. 

Moore & Moore has had the brakes seriously applied to its ability to hold evening functions by the City, apparently on the back of just a couple of complaints about noise.  Roel Loopers expresses the situation far better than I could on his blog: click here for a refresher.

Moore & Moore is currently being allowed to expand its alfresco area, which is just fantastic – but this ‘giving with one hand and taking away with the other’ behaviour from the City seems bizarre to say the least. 

Clearly, if we’re going to facilitate expansion of the retail and food sectors of Freo, a comprehensive strategy that deals with all the factors that influence a business’s success is needed – not the current ad hoc approach.  The City should be rewarding innovative ideas, and making sure that the bad, lazy, knee-jerk kind of bureaucracy (which is unfortunately rife, especially when it comes to enforcement) doesn’t mean that good, new initiatives will be hamstrung by red tape. 

Once again, this post has become much longer than I intended – but like most things Freo, this is a personal issue for me.  It’s my backyard I’m talking about, after all.