#69: Poem – Stories In Planning

Stories In Planning

Today when planners tell stories,
We do so remembering history.

What would histories be without stories,
When words connect memories to space, and time
Embedding themselves onto space, remembering times –

Like dirt tracks that become raging roads,
Like cargo wharves hosting art shows,
And acreage that become quarter acre blocks.

We tell stories,
to fill the gaps in our memories
of space through time.

But some histories are too young.
Some memories too short.

Remembering is not possible.

So we borrow time,
Embedding our space with another story,
Living another planners history.

-Hans Lee

Can planners really use stories to help us understand the city?

This is a Brain Dump:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. The potential for stories to embed themselves in the landscape. Planners, invoke these narratives to build spaces for communities. Learning how to recognise these stories is an important skill for planners then as stewards of the cultural heritage of cities.

Part of this curiosity came about through reading books set in cities through time. The most memorable books I’ve read centre around the experience of residents in the Middle Eastern and Central Asian cities. In recent history, these groups of people have undergone displacement and expulsions from their places and cities. Yet the long history of these places means that it is difficult to divorce their identity from the landscape so their stories of being are tied back to their experiences within their cities/spaces.

Their stories are like different coloured strands in history that help build the rainbow complexity of cities and this complexity of stories builds their connection to the city. So when I write:

“Like dirt tracks that become raging roads,
Like cargo wharves hosting art shows,
And acreage that become quarter acre blocks.”

What I am trying to invoke is the idea that everything that is part of our landscape, or what we understand to be our current landscape, it tied to a part of a history that made us.

Even stories told to me about how someone experienced a city often shines a new light on a particular space within the city. It gives life to the space. It is not longer just an old road, or a decrepit building. I liken those moments of enlightenment to those in Disney Animated movies where a wave of the fairy godmothers wand whisks a fresh coat of colour onto the stale, dark and grey.

But in new cities, stories take time to formulate a beginning, middle, and end.

“But some histories are too young.
Some memories too short.”

What happens then when there are no stories? I am slowly developing an opinion that says ‘in the absence of history, we borrow stories’. Place makers say ‘I saw this type of space there, it would look great here’. In the translocation of idealised places, they borrow, as it were, the stories from those other places, which is what I mean by:

“So we borrow time,
Embedding our space with another story,
Living another planners history.”

In relatively young cities with an underdeveloped legacy of a planning history, there is often a marked difference in the landscape. Nations in the Global South (and Middle Earth) share this in common, with slums, or ‘settlements’, appearing as prominent features in the city-scape. I can’t say this is bad or good. It’s just a different urban-ess It’s a picture of their unique development history.

Stories illustrate the causes of their urban development patterns. In Port Moresby, for instance, fragmentation and disjuncture underly the city’s form. It was a city created and designed with it’s purpose rooted to a specific objective with it’s own political conversations.

I grew up reading stories that talked about the structured ‘rascist’ policies in Port Moresby. How natives weren’t allowed into the city unnecessarily. But I have also read Hansard Reports from Queensland and Canberra during that time that attest to reasons of why it would not be ideal to expose the natives to western practices. The colonial administrators as it were recognised the impact the displacement of Indigenous peoples in Australia had had on their development so there was quite a radical shift in the approach taken in PNG. (Many Papua New Guineans would be too proud to relate to this version of the truth, so I will conclude that this is a very controversial version of).

Perhaps it racist, but it the way they saw it, it was in the interest of the natives, unfortunately, for all parties involved, the end of the colonisers era was fast dawning. While they were still trying to figure our which path to take, they were leaving nation. The voids the Australian administrators left were wide, with much of the vast interior of the country still under-exposed to modernity.

The takeaway message then is that the Government started the treacherous road to post-colonial Independence on back-foot. Governance underpinning development and planning is radically different because the power dynamics were never centralised within the Government to the degree where they could not be challenged.

Urban Planning, Regional Planning and development, then needs to be viewed through a unique lens that takes into account the historical position of development players as weak power players. Unlike Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or the UK, where the power lies within the regulator as the agent of Governance, PNG’s development history did not radically embed these powers within the Government.

I share an unpopular view that explores an alternative reality where customary lands were alienated by the state. Of course Papua New Guineans celebrate this right embedded within our constitution that gives us dominion over a majority of the lands within Papua New Guinea. Development then cannot be conceptualised without a reference to customary land, or dare I say it bluntly, the prohibitive royalty payments.

This is also the bane of our experience.

Our lands, are the root of our development challenges.

Developers chasing capital extraction create the modern urban aesthetics that defines our urban world but certain logics underpin these activities. Key among them is the security of tenure over land, without this, it difficult to create the urban landscape of modern urbanity. This is how I read the juxtaposition that is presented of Port Moresby as a contradictory city. I don’t think it is contradictory. The landscape is an embodiment of it’s land tenure struggles. The urban centre of the city has the most secure tenure whereas the customary landowners within the city share in a very volatile (insecure) land tenure profile that by its nature cannot attract capital.

Screen-Shot-2014-12-03-at-12.43.15-pm
Source: PNG Blogs

I’ll leave that for now though. It is another opinion that I am still formulating. What is important to note is that there are stories that draw the beginnings of a history explaining the current predicament in Port Moresby’s urban landscape.

The ability to read the landscape is important for planners (development professionals) working across multiple geographies. Thought regulatory frameworks may standardise planning mechanisms, unique landscapes carry with them unique stories with them. Being able to grasp at these stories quickly is important to understanding development.

 

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