Thursday, 2 February 2012

Chewing the fat with...the cool Melbourne guy

My cool Melbourne friend embraces pragmatism - from urbanism to his culinary choices.

I'm having lunch with my cool Melbourne friend (aka Dean Cracknell) and I kick things off with a question I know he probably won't like: what are Freo's worst buildings?

''It's a terrible question,'' he responds, in his softly spoken way.

For me, he is one the best people to answer it. Originally from Melbourne, he also followed a meandering path on his way to becoming an urban planner. More widely travelled than most, he's considered in my circle of friends as the arbiter of what's cool in planning - and what's not.

Dean relents and mentions one of Freo's greatest abominations: the Myer building. Then almost if the pressure valve has been released he rapidly lists additional atrocities.

"The Officeworks building, the Point Street car park, the Westgate Mall, even the Woolstores Shopping Centre, those really ugly buildings across from Kings Square on Point Street, and what about Council's building next to the Town Hall?"

Dean catches himself and chuckles. "Now I sound like you, Swaney".  (I have no idea what he means, but I let it pass. My wife also has a cute habit of making similarly irrelevant asides.)

We both met during our urban planning studies at Curtin University in 2006. Back then I was fresh out of my teaching career, a newlywed with a spring in my step, ready to apply the lessons of playing many hours of Sim City as a teenager.

For Dean, discovering his inner town planner involved creating and destroying towns in his backyard sandpit as well as spending ten years accruing life experiences by traveling the world.

"I created and destroyed lots of sand towns! I guess I was always interested in development, change and what was going on around me. Since I started studying planning, I've been hooked. Most days I feel that this is what I am supposed to be doing with my life."

Dean's trademark is the way he approaches urban planning issues sensibly and realistically, based on practical rather than theoretical considerations. His down-to-earth pragmatism is one of the qualities that makes him such a good planner.

Today we're chewing the fat at Moore & Moore Cafe in the rear courtyard of the historic Moore's building. The cafe has become a West End landmark as much for its setting as for its great coffee, food and service. As we sit back and cast our eyes over the courtyard, gradually the cafe's magic settles over us as gently as pollen. Since arriving in Perth almost a decade ago, Dean has regularly visited Freo and he still loves the place. I can tell as it is usually about this time that he gets this look in his eye and the gushing about Freo begins.

"I appreciate the architecture, walkable streets and atmosphere more now that I am an urban planner. My memories of Freo were light, heat, the Freo Doctor blowing in the afternoon and the uniquely intimate streets of the West End. Freo felt very different from the eastern states with its pedestrian friendly streets, heritage architecture, stone buildings and activity. I also loved the Norfolk Island pines on the Esplanade."

My stomach has been emitting noisy gurgles of distress for a while, indicating that it's time to order. Dean as usual orders sparingly: a flat white. I order the tapas plate, one of M&M's refreshing and cooling iced teas and splurge on a honeycomb affogato. Having ordered, we launch back into our conversation about urban planning and Freo. Dean is back from six months traveling overseas and I'm excited to hear his placemaking stories from London, Berlin, New York and how they can be used in Freo.

And with that our order arrives. I tuck ravenously into the chorizo before gulping down my iced tea.

I've moved on to daintily sipping my affogato when we begin discussing Scheme Amendment 49. Since returning from his overseas sojourn, he has been catching up on all things Freo, so I'm interested to hear his initial thoughts on the proposed amendment.

"I think that it talks the talk - it says all the right things that urban designers say all round the world - but does not 'personalise' the requirements for Freo conditions. What 'look and feel' can I build as a developer? Does it have to blend with Freo's character? Can I build ultra-modern design? Do we care? And then there are some other disappointing aspects: No mention of blank walls; No mention of articulation; No mention of balconies; No requirement for mixed use; No requirement to have corner features or that buildings need to present well to all streets and laneways."

We discuss the ludicrous absence of design guidelines which provokes a lengthy impassioned discourse on my behalf on the missing design guidelines for the East End scheme amendment. By that stage, Dean decides that some cooling off is required and we move onto our predictions for the footy in 2012.

As we go on our separate ways I ask him about what he is reading at the moment and he responds, "I just finished re-reading A Better Way to Zone."

What a planning nerd. I'm still chuckling to myself when I get home, where my wife points out that I'm halfway through Parking Management Best Practices for the second time. One of her cute irrelevant asides again, but like Dean's, I let it pass.


Dean has kindly accepted my offer to put a burning Freo issue under the microscope each month on my blog as well as listing some ideas for Freo from some of the different cities he visited last year.

Watch this space!

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