University of Melbourne Magazine

Wanted: choreographers to shape our urban destiny

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    I now have little doubt that cities will be key players on the 21st-century stage.

    So why are our cities not appropriately recognised on the national and international stage, despite the fact that they have been increasingly successful in addressing key issues such as climate change, social cohesion, poverty and economic vitality?

    I think the answer lies in the very format of our governments, institutions and international meetings such as the World Economic Forum.

    The forum is structured around 50 separate “council” discussions, each preparing its own pitch and each vying for attention. What this format lacks is a broader context, a structure within which the priorities and actions of each discussion can be framed. The realisation for me was that cities – with their physical reality – were, in fact, the contextual framework that could give meaning to these many debates.

    Indeed, maybe the reason cities were starting to succeed was because their leaders could choreograph a “whole of city” approach, where all those separate issues were seen in a physical context. The reality is that city mayors stand or fall by their ability to co-ordinate these different issues, often achieved through advocacy rather than direct control. This contrasts with the narrower approach of federal or state-level ministers who necessarily focus on their portfolios (e.g. transport, health, land use, education).

    There is undoubtedly an urgent need for enlightened choreography to oversee the development of our cities, and universities are arguably well positioned to facilitate this cultural shift away from the traditional siloed approach of government.

    Just as the University of Cape Town illustrated that trying to build their way out of a problem might not be the best strategy, so universities today can lead the way in developing the urban choreographers needed to help shape our increasingly compact cities.

    The introduction of the “Melbourne model” at the University of Melbourne is a significant step forward in achieving this goal.

    The Melbourne model provides a generalist base for students before they begin to specialise in a field. Like the study of medicine – where doctors are trained to understand the full complexities of the human body before moving on to specialise in one of its many component parts – so too should our built environment professionals be trained in the many complexities of our cities before specialising in one field.

    It is an approach that will provide students with perspective and an appreciation of the bigger picture.

    In 2006, I witnessed first-hand a profound loss of perspective when the highly acclaimed urban design unit set up at Copenhagen University by Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl was closed. There appeared to be no good reason for the closure other than the siloed envy of the traditional disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture and planning. They apparently felt threatened by the success of this new discipline.

    If we are to produce the urban choreographers of the future, the context of urban design – the city – will need to form the platform for our built environment professionals. It can no longer remain a sideshow. Just as leading cities continue to work for greater cohesion and innovation in the delivery of city and global solutions, so too should universities continue to break out of traditional professional silos and produce graduates capable of urban choreography.

    Forty-five years after stepping into this debate I now have little doubt that cities will be key players on the 21st-century stage. Their ability to grapple successfully with the looming challenges of economic vitality, social cohesion and environmental sustainability will be determined by whether our governments, institutions and decisionmakers have the courage and leadership to step out of their comfort zones – out of their narrow 20th-century silos – and onto the big stage. Our future depends on it.

    Will this be signalled in 2015 when our leaders return to Davos? Will cities and their future role be on the agenda?

    Professor Rob Adams AM is Director of City Design at the City of Melbourne.

    Illustrations by Judy Green.