Designing and governing a great city

It’s pretty uncool to be interested in government, right? It’s easy to hate a lot of political leaders right now. Even talking about politics on social media is something I’ve been told to avoid. Not because it will get me into trouble. But because — according to my younger, cooler sister — it’s just boring.

So it’s probably no surprise that, despite voting being compulsory in Australia, this country just experienced its lowest voting turnout in almost a century. My sister, who lives here but can’t vote (like me), does not know who the Prime Minister is. In Melbourne, which boasts the youngest median age of voters in the country, almost 20 per cent of people on the electoral roll did not even bother to show up and draw a dick on their ballot in last month’s federal election.

Who’s to blame for this failure to capture the interest and respond to the needs of current and future generations? The politicians, the media, schools, parents… They all have something to answer for here. But so do academics. Those who dedicate their lives to studying the institutions and behaviours that govern our lives are not always good at getting others excited about politics and policy. On the contrary, as critical thinkers, political scientists and public administration scholars excel at pointing out the flaws and faults in government.

It was therefore a pleasant surprise to be invited to contribute to a book entitled Great Policy Successes: How Governments Get It Right in a Big Way at Least Some of the Time. Or, as the editors put it in the subtitle, with a nod to Pressman and Wildavsky, ‘A Tale About Why It’s Amazing That Governments Get So Little Credit for Their Many Everyday and Extraordinary Achievements as Told by Sympathetic Observers Who Seek to Create Space for a Less Relentlessly Negative View of Our Pivotal Public Institutions’.

This project from the Netherlands-based Successful Public Governance program (spot my co-author and I on their home page) presents case studies of highly successful public policymaking from around the world. These scholars explain their mission:

Existing research on public governance focuses on its dilemmas, shortcomings, failures, unintended consequences, and inherent limitations. In contrast, our research program purposefully leans the other way … to teach us what to embrace and emulate when we design political and administrative institutions, make public policy decisions, orchestrate service delivery processes, craft public innovations, and develop public sector workers and leaders.

Along with the international volume of Great Policy Successes, co-editors Jo Luetjens and Paul ‘t Hart have collaborated with Michael Mintrom to publish Successful Public Policy: Lessons from Australia and New Zealand. As New Zealand leads the (western) world with its ‘wellbeing budget’, so too this local volume has landed ahead of its international counterpart.

Celebrating the book’s launch in Melbourne this week, Professor Jenny M. Lewis commended the ‘creativity, experimentation and courage to change’ on display in the case studies. She also noted:

It would be downright naive to suggest that all citizens had benefited from these policy successes but we’d be doing the world a disservice if we kept focusing on policy failure.

Jenny Lewis and I co-authored a chapter (in both volumes) on how Melbourne became one of the world’s most liveable cities. We explain how Melbourne transformed from a dull ‘doughnut’ city that was empty in the middle and lifeless after hours into a world-class liveable city through effective collaboration between state and city governments. The dramatic change is summed up by Danish planner Jan Gehl who describes a city brought back to life in the early 2000s, after reporting his first impressions of Melbourne in the 1970s were that it was ‘boring’ and quiet’, and, ‘It was even worse on the weekend — the city centre was as if neutron-bombed.’ (See also this article and book by Kim Dovey and co).

Our chapter on ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, along with the rest of the book, is available to download for free, so you can read the full story there. Here I will simply highlight two examples of how the City of Melbourne successfully experimented with design-led innovation back in the 80s. These examples show that a good way to change perceptions of a city is by making physical changes to the environment and letting people experience them.

First, Postcode 3000 was an ambitious and unique joint effort by the city and state governments to repopulate the city centre after the property market crashed in the late 1980s. At its heart was a demonstration project, where the city council worked with industry partners to convert vacant floors of a historic building into apartments. Despite initial scepticism, the long waiting list of prospective tenants and return on investment exemplified its success in persuading people to live in the CBD. As we note in the chapter, however, this policy success had the unfortunate side effect of contributing to increasing rents and making the city unaffordable for those on lower incomes.

The second example of a successful prototype from the 1980s was the greening of Swanston Street, which sowed the seed for the eventual closure of the major artery of traffic through the city. Inspired by a young designer in the Ministry of Planning sharing an international example, the state government embarked on an experimental initiative to show what was possible. Swanston Street was partially closed to traffic and covered in a carpet of grass for a street party one weekend in 1985. Initially seen as a political stunt, around half a million people came to the central city to experience the event. Tensions between government departments and media criticism prevented more substantial change at the time, but this experiment was credited with leading to Swanston Street being closed to cars seven years later.

As these policies developed, a shared understanding emerged of the importance of high standards of urban design to protect and develop public spaces. It might not officially be the world’s “most liveable city” anymore (whatever those flawed metrics really mean), but this legacy of design-led innovation lives on, with the City of Melbourne continuing to experiment through its innovation lab and initiatives such as Prototype Street at Melbourne Knowledge Week.

Governments at all levels must continue to innovate as they have a vital role to play in our lives — and we should all participate in civic life as best we can. As the book co-editors argue in a recent article in The Conversation:

Without doubt, the current times present major challenges for all governments. And new challenges will surely arise in the years ahead. The negative lexicon has its place in political life. But governments can and do generate much that is good, and that serves our collective interests well.

Update (15 September 2019): The Centre for Public Impact has now also published a case study, ‘Revitalising Melbourne’s City Centre from 1985', based on our chapter and their Public Impact Fundamentals framework.

Pragmatic idealist, working to co-create compassionate systems. emmablomkamp.com

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