Planning vertigo sends us mad

In early 1890s France there were few horrors as immediate as the dreaded ‘bicycle face’.

The invention of the pneumatic tyre had transformed travel by the once treacherous two-wheeled contraption into a popular pastime. Swifter journeys between distant suburbs, even villages, were now possible. Many predicted a revolution in social relations as the masses gained greater freedom of travel. Others predicted dire consequences. ‘Bicycle face’ was one.

Some experts supposed the unnatural speeds clocked by bikes transfigured the face. Others attributed the malady to the strain of balancing at breakneck velocities of 10km an hour. At any rate, “the cult of speed” left riders marked by a zombie-like stare and tormented visage.

If speed was the terror of the 19th century’s last decade, it seems height will afflict 21st century urbanites.

As multi-faceted Danish guru, architect and planner Jan Gehl surmises in his most recent book, high rise residential buildings are alienating and may even cause mental illness. “I would say that anyone living over the fifth floor ought generally to be referring to the airspace authorities,” he pronounces.

Gehl reckons humans need to see each other without too much rubber necking. “You’re not part of the earth any more because you can’t see what’s going on on the ground and the people on the ground can’t see where you are,” he explains.

Gehl is quite right, but he doesn’t go far enough.

At least humans can look after themselves. Clearly the finger of any sane soul will quiver over all elevator buttons marked six or higher. But who will look after our furry friends, incarcerated by their owners (or ‘pet parents’ as they’re known in the US) in multi-storey prisons?

Blessedly, the answer is local government.

One council has stipulated that domestic dogs should enjoy clear sight lines to the street from new homes (whether inside or on balconies), as well as access to sunlight and shade “at all times”. It’s not clear why such rules apply only to cuddly canines. What about equality of ground control for Major Tom (cat)?

I suppose consistency is not the defining touchstone of local government rules.

As warnings about ‘bicycle face’ or Gehl’s musings reveal, rule makers and experts are tempted to treat us as infants who need to be bossed about. And the biggest of the bossy boots are the controllers of planning systems.

In Planning Gone Mad, the Property Council tells the fictionalised story of one citizen’s trials within the mad, bad and ridiculous warren of development rules in NSW. The story is faithfully informed by the daily experiences of Property Council members. Here’s a few snippets:

  • One major council conditioned the approval of a brothel with a requirement to provide an adequate supply of condoms – in three sizes, no less
  • A consent authority required shadow diagrams for an earthworks proposal
  • A council demanded the applicant submit shadow diagrams to demonstrate their clothesline would receive enough sunlight
  • A council required an applicant to prepare a Bandicoot Management Plan to accompany their swimming pool application
  • Another council specified the colouring of construction site hoardings – in this case, sandstone and a lovely sea green
  • A condition of consent was imposed on a restaurant that specified meals should be served on crockery
  • One council required the applicant to prepare a Social Impact Statement to justify why Department of Defence workers should be allowed to live in an approved residential development.
  • One development approval variation for an industrial site was referred to the Department of Primary Industry due to the sighting of a fish in a storm water drain running adjacent to the site.

Then there’s the issue of definitions. A horse in Sutherland is not necessarily a horse in Broken Hill, where it can also be an ass. Luckily, in Sutherland, “a mare with foal at foot shall be deemed to be only one horse for the purpose of this Plan.”

Members outside NSW have already shouted a collective “that’s nothing, you should experience [insert local council]”.

In a nation crying out for a productivity-boosting wave of targeted micro economic reform, our planning systems should top the reform agenda.

The Productivity Commission says so, numerous independent reports say so, Federal and State Treasuries say so, the examples in Planning Gone Mad say so.

For your copy of Planning Gone Mad please visit