Sunday, 7 June 2015

Breaking the bureaucrats' rules - a thought on urban regeneration


The always interesting John Sanphillippo, writes in New Geography about the sale of plots on Hawaii's lava flows:

Soon after the lava cools a new kind of pioneer species arrives to colonize the rocks. Before the lava flow the land had already been carved up into farms and subdivisions which were covered over. Once the lava cooled the old lots were resurveyed and sold off at bargain prices. Lots began at $1,000. When I asked one resident about the precarious nature of the location he explained, “You pay your dollar and you take your chances.”

Sanphillippo goes on to describe how these pioneers build homes on the lava despite there being no roads, no connection to standard utilities and the ever present risk of another lava flow destroying those homes.

There’s no city water supply. No complex sewer system was installed ahead of development. There are no paved roads. No banks have financed any of these buildings. No insurance company provided coverage. There are no building codes, zoning regulations, or government inspections.

What we have is a perfect illustration of how settlement starts. The world's great cities - Rome, London, Athens, Tokyo and so on - didn't start with pre-installed services into which developers and city managers can, in the manner of Sim City, plus homes and businesses. And we know that this colonising of unused space is a feature of urbanisation the world over - we call them slums, shanty towns, favelas and a thousand other terms. We turn our nose up at them and see them as places of crime, ill-heath and poverty not as nascent places for tomorrow's growth.

Sanphillippo asks whether there's a lesson in this Hawaiian recolonisation for urban regeneration, perhaps a different route to reusing redundant land that the planned, designed, regulated and sanitised approach our city leaders prefer. Maybe instead of commissioning masterplans and procuring development agreements for brownfield land in our cities, we should parcel it up into lots and turn a blind eye to what people build on that land. Some of it would be ugly and utilitarian, little more than a place to park a caravan or a hacked about shipping container but from out of this approach might come some creativity and a real community response to the provision of homes for people who want to live and work in the city.

As Sanphillippo concludes:

These lava homes provide a glimpse into what town building used to look like and could look like again if the banks, regulators, and Upright Citizens Brigade cut people a bit more slack. I’m not counting on that, but it’s good to see obscure demonstrations of the historical pattern playing out in forgotten corners to remind us of how things were done before the days of the production home builder, the master planned community, and the seventeen volume building code.

I don't hold out much hope of this sort of thing happening but it would be great if, for once, we allowed people to just get on with it rather than make them jump through ever higher and ever more costly hoops to do any development at all.


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