The case for a national master plan

Could we master plan an entire country?

A national master plan. It sounds crazy. How could anyone possibly master plan an entire country? Especially one the size of a continent, with varied jurisdictions, State laws and Federal requirements. The constitution aside, why would we even attempt to create a national master plan? 

A short history of the master plan

Master plans are wilful. They establish a very clear, but fixed approach to the design of a place generally at the scale of a site, and oftentimes of a city (or part of a city). They should, when done properly, establish a design vision, framework and strategy for development. 

Early master plans were focused on physical space – on buildings and curated environments. Often at the behest of a powerful man or group of men, these plans were literally about establishing authority, about demonstrating power and reinforcing who was in charge – think Haussmann’s plan for Paris, L’Enfent’s plan for Washington D.C., Walter Burley-Griffin’s plan for Canberra (the list goes on). 

These plans were formal – with large avenues establishing a hierarchy of movement patterns throughout the city. Key axes and vistas extended from palaces and civic buildings.  People could see the seat of power, and importantly, the ‘power’ could see the city laid out before it. These places were designed to impress, to awe.

Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s boulevards converging at the Arc de Triomphe. Credit: Hercules Milas / Alamy Stock Photo
Peter Charles L'Enfant's 1791 plan for Washington, D.C. (as revised by Andrew Ellicott in 1792). Source: Library of Congress record

These master plans of yesterday have become today’s most beautiful cities and some of the most visited places on the planet.

Out of these planning traditions grew the City Beautiful movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many American capitals have at least some of these traditions embedded into them – large Beaux Arts capitol buildings flanked by substantial avenues and public spaces; or in smaller cities, the town hall or court house wrapped in a public green, functioning as a town square. 

In Australia, we’ve had colonial survey plans, and international competitions for our capital, Canberra.  Extending beyond City Beautiful, the Griffins’ plan for Canberra was a master plan for a garden city, one inextricably linked to its landscape – the bush capital.

Plan submitted to the Canberra design competition by Walter Burley Griffin, 1911-1912. Source: National Archives of Australia

And then, as the automobile age dawned, and modernism sought to prize the city of unnecessary ornamentation to realise efficiency, a new breed of master plan came about. Much like Haussmann ripped through the historic heart of Paris and its slums in the 1800s, modernist master plans of the early 1900s sought to rid the city of urban mess. Le Corbusier with his Radiant City (Ville Radieuse) plan for Paris, thankfully never realised, wanted to create the ‘ideal city’ – a utopia where man is united with an ordered environment. Its influence can be seen in the large towers, expansive open space and free (car) circulation of cities like Brasilia, or even in Woden (Canberra) albeit at a smaller scale. 

In a different form, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City was a suburban counterpoint to LeCorbusier’s ideas. Focused on acre-sized plots, Wright saw a city almost entirely devoted to car movement, with people spaces confined to the private (and separate) realm.

Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City – overtly suburban and coarse in scale. Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

What the majority of these plans forgot, however, was the most critical element of the city – its people. Resoundingly, all of these ‘master plans’ were designed at the expense of, rather in the service of, its people. With modernist planning principles, people scaled, comfortable places are almost non-existent. They are based on a theory, an ‘ideal’ way of living, which it turns out, just doesn’t work.

The importance of ‘urban mess’

So was born the urban advocacy of Jane Jacobs. Her activism and seminal works – The Death and Life of American Cities (1961) and Economy of Cities (1969) – were borne in response to Robert Moses’ plans for expansive expressways driven through the heart of downtown Manhattan, and in particular, Jacobs’ Greenwich Village. In these books, Jacobs critiques top down urbanism and master planning, and argues successfully for community driven city planning. She defines the key generator of successful cities as being diversity, based on Greenwich Village as a case study.

Cities are complex. A richness and diversity of choices, opportunities, and people is inherently ‘messy’, and this is a good thing. Richard Florida champions this mess as the backbone of the creative economy, where the creative community come together to collaborate, mix and rub shoulders; enabling that thing which is elusive, yet powerful – the generation of ideas, innovation – growth.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. – Jane Jacobs  

Jacobs's Greenwich Village in the 1960s: a place for people, alive with activity and community. Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

The role of the national master plan

You might ask then, ‘why master plan?’ Throughout history, as a process, it has proven to be fraught with unintended and negative outcomes.  

We think there can be a different way. Focussing on people, and the world we inhabit, the national master plan can be a mechanism to think broadly about systems that go beyond city and even state borders.

Master planning at a national scale can be targeted to efficiently address the existential problems of our time – global warming, biodiversity resilience, the complex transition to a sustainable future, equal provisioning of resources, and hopefully, creating a closed loop of restoration. 

Defining the problem

At their core, master plans are about resolving an understood set of problems. So what’s the problem with Australia? We’re a rich nation, with high standards of living, a generally prosperous people and a positive outlook.

But the Australian National Outlook 2019 suggests otherwise. Prepared by CSIRO together with 50 leaders in business, academia and NGOs, the National Outlook identifies Australia is at the crossroads. We risk ‘drifting into the future’ if we do not respond to the challenges of our fast changing world. In short, a business as usual approach is not OK.

Australia has enjoyed nearly three decades of uninterrupted economic growth. Its cities are consistently ranked among the most liveable in the world... However, there is no guarantee that this good fortune will continue into the future. The world is changing rapidly and Australia will need to adapt to keep up. – Australian National Outlook, 2019, CSIRO

The report defines the problems that a national master plan would need to address, and a national master plan can provide a framework for the future – a touchstone for national decision making – with people and the environment at its heart.

Learning from Country and its people

Fundamentally, our approach to a national master plan would not be top down. We’ve learnt from the past. And we think there is a far richer, deeper and more considered knowledge base to draw upon: from First Nations people, and from the community at large.

For tens of thousands of years before European colonisation, First Nations people were custodians of this land. With a fundamental connection to Country (and a deep understanding of place), this approach can be a foundation for future custodianship of the nation – not just for us today, but for future generations.

We need to learn from the practices undertaken over thousands of years to better provide for and manage this land. We need to provide a way of balancing productive needs with environmental needs, and that might mean significant changes to the way we consume products.  We need to depart from a practices of single use and ‘churn and burn’.

We think the best way to achieve this at a national scale is to understand country, and to design with it in mind. The Government Architect NSW has started this conversation at a State level, identifying themes to consider – map country; update recorded history; influence urban planning and design of the built environment; recognise living culture; nurture a duty of care; improve education and improve community health and wellbeing of Aboriginal communities.

To strengthen our collective narrative we need to stop designing for people and start designing with people. But how can this be achieved at a national scale? Engagement is expensive and time consuming. Well, we think there is power in social platforms to provide a space for community engagement, debate and the socialisation of ideas. By engendering a national community conversation through social media, this oft maligned apparatus can be as it should be – a change for good. 

A resilient and sustainable future

We know the world is changing. The recent Global Climate Strike demonstrates the importance of fundamentally changing the way we live to ensure a sustainable future. A national master plan can provide a framework for that future – one that ensures biodiversity is not just protected, but regenerated at a national scale. One that provides for greening of urban habitats to ensure cooler environments. One that enables sustainable energy generation and movement patterns, so we can shift to a green economy.

By pure definition, a master plan is a ‘comprehensive plan of action’. As designers, architects, urbanists, politicians, residents - this is our challenge. To develop a comprehensive plan of action. Not a national master plan for its own sake, but a framework for a sustainable future.