Born to Die

by Laura Szyman


I would like to suggest an alternative reading of the urban wasteland, or perhaps an addendum to the existing meaning, and put forward that in Melbourne, currently, ruination is the starting point of our newly built peripheral suburbs.
A short series published last year by The Guardian Australia1,2 unpacked the state of young suburbs, Truganina and Oran Park, as case studies representative of a wider condition in both Melbourne and Sydney. The prevailing tone of this series was one of specific exasperation and existential concern in the face of a suburban condition that, to quote Michael Buxton from the same series, “‘handed over the future design of outer Melbourne to the development industry’ and set up ‘vast swathes of Melbourne to fail’”3,4. This state of failure-upon-arrival is the current focus of my research.
Ruin is to the realm of things as allegory is to the realm of thought, a mortification of matter that now only alludes to the ideology it originated in. Ruin, as put forth in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project5, is “the form in which the wish-images of the past century appear as rubble in the present”6. These wish-images refer to the dream of the collective when faced with new technologies and developments, and their rubble appears embedded in the technologies that follow. For example, in the Melbourne suburban context, a dominant pile of rubble in our established suburbs is that of the Garden City movement, with the current peripheral incarnations maintaining tree-lined boulevards while reducing private backyards down to 2-3 square metres deep. The rubble of the Garden City becomes a visual allegory in planning submissions that promise the same lifestyle in a contemporary context that cannot sustain it.
Mediaeval castles with tumbling crenelations no longer hold dynasties and banquets and furniture and death, but they can be used as an allegory for the romantic dream of the period. In the same way, allegory is the ruined form of thought, taking Venus, the goddess of love and figure of worship in the Roman pantheon, but, in literature written under Christianity, making her an allegory for the notion of love, to be employed only as a symbol in service of other narratives, the ruined form of herself. The vague terrain is in the matter as it is in the thought.
My hypothesis was this: if we are constructing suburbs as failure-on-arrival ruins, then there should be corresponding allegories in the language that defines them.

1. Houses are built right to the perimeter, finishing like cliffs facing out onto next years developable plot of land | Laura Szyman

The strangeness of this condition is how unencumbered greenfield sites are by the general traces of a city. The subject site I address later on, Cloverton, had one train station (Donnybrook station), the Merri Creek along the east and south-east edges, and two highways that form its border and intersect at the south western corner. There is minimal existing matter to negotiate, no suburban fabric to be maintained, no neighbourhood character to uphold. And yet, it is still encumbered by the same expectations we have for the established, desirable suburbs: Hawthorn, Balaclava, Armadale, Malvern. Tree lined streets with houses set back from the perimeter with generous gardens and houses, each their own domain.
Houses on the periphery are sold off the plan, in the context of aspirational planning documents that depend upon certain utopian ideas perpetuated from the established suburbs: the garden city, a man and his castle, the Australian quarter-acre dream. To accompany these we have train stations, corner stores, schools and parks. The basic matter of public life dressed up for an advertisement starring the house-and-land package. A simplified explanation of the business case for these suburbs would go thusly: by selling the initial run of land for housing, the suburbs would have enough residents to fund the development and construction of commercial and public infrastructure.
A density of around 35 dwellings per hectare (d/ha) is often cited7,8 as necessary to support the urban features and character we both need and desire: walkable commercial spaces, parks, schools, high quality mass transit, among others. But the actual matter of the housing stock currently being constructed does not support this. The density of Truganina, for example, is less than half that number, at around 16 d/ha1. For comparison, Tokyo has approximately 110 d/ha, and London has around 60 d/ha. There are of course issues with this assessment, as it does not take into account the demographic mix of the area. A suburb with 35 d/ha made up of families with two or more children would have a different kind of housing than a mix made up of mostly professional singles. But nonetheless the relationship is clear: with a great population density a greater mix of things (retail, restaurants, commercial ventures, neighbours, etc.) in a neighbourhood can exist, which means that a person in that area can interact with a great number of activities and people in the same day.
The comparison between the two numbers above, the ideal 35 and the current 16, is simple but telling: from the very outset it can be shown that the promises of those aspirational documents will not come to pass, the economics do not add up, and the planning aims are simply allegorical devices employed to indicate the kind of lifestyle the developer would like to sell. A train station in the story of the neighbourhood is the fulcrum around which a lifestyle can be built, but without the necessary densities the train station is absent from the matter of the suburb, and thus the lifestyle sold is ruined from the outset, the aesthetic of the suburb conjuring an idea of walkable connectivity, but entirely dependent on the car and road.
Beyond the developers own aspirations, the high-level planning documents (from Plan Melbourne 2017-20509, to the Precinct Structural Plans10, to the local design guidelines11) employ aspirational language in their guidance of development. It’s not just the train stations and local schools that go unrealised, but other less tangible ideas: sustainability, choice, community. These are the allegories, they rely on the colloquial meaning to invoke positive feelings toward the lifestyle on show, but in their specifics refer to another set of ideas entirely.

2. Despite the lack of available commercial space, businesses exist out of garages and living rooms, advertised on this wooden board at the single road leading out of the suburb | Laura Szyman

I have surveyed the language employed in planning and aspiration documents that pertain to Cloverton in Melbourne’s North. This site was chosen for the case study as the publicly available information on the development was fairly positive. It will be a 20-minute city, walkable, with shops and schools and a future train station planned, along with a variety of housing stock. At some undefined point in the future it will house around 40,000 people in an area roughly five times the size of the Melbourne CBD12.
But “will be” is “might be” in this context, depending on whether the business case shakes out.
I worked through each of the planning documents, identifying language that could potentially be allegorical. For example, though “sustainable” and its derivatives are used 78 times in the Plan Melbourne 2017-2050, it's never made clear exactly what we are sustaining, and why sustainability is beneficial. In fact, the allegorical form “sustainable” in Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 invokes the sense of positivity and forward-thinking that is associated with projects tackling the climate crisis, but in just under 40% of cases it is used instead with reference to “sustainable communities”, which are another set of ideas entirely, ideas that relate to prosperity, jobs and services, liveability, economic growth, and tourism. The actions one takes to bring jobs and services to an area are not those that one takes to reduce the carbon footprint of a development, and though they are linked in the way that all complex urban systems are, this reveals the key instability caused by the use of these allegorical forms.
So we have a suburban fabric that relies on businesses cases that are going unfulfilled, leaving the resulting fabric as a ruin of the vision that sold them, and we have a set of aspirational planning documents that rely on un-actionable allegorical language that fails to filter down into the Growth Plans or PSPs.

What I am proposing is an alternative mode of planning these suburbs, one that steps away from the positivistic but ruinous language of the current modes of planning. Stefano Moroni, planning professor at Milan Polytechnic, has proposed a new mode of planning, nomocratic planning, a mode that proposes planning the relationships of an environment, over the current teleocratic mode which instead plans for an idealistic future condition. A nomocratic mode of planning replaces the directional rules (ones that guide a specific direction in planning) with relational rules that are: “impersonal, simple, and stable”13,14.
Impersonal rules are “abstract…and general…and moreover they must be prevalently negative”, applying generally and preventing certain undesirable outcomes, rather than alluding to specific positive outcomes. This provides more room within the scheme to respond to the issues raised, ie. sustainability isn’t simply a matter of planting more trees, but the carbon footprint of developments can be addressed differently by different stakeholders.
Simple rules are “plain and unambiguous”, rules that are binary which removes the need for ad hoc interpretation (or misinterpretation). As opposed to the allegorical aspirations which shift in meaning as you track them through the documents, the simple rules move away from “technicality, complexity, and indeterminacy”, simplifying the process of responding to requirements of planning for both government and community.
Stable rules are those that are set permanently, so the individuals and stakeholder groups can be confident in their expectations of others, and of the governing bodies. This would enable longer-term planning and investment, which is crucial for all stakeholders to project their vision for the area. Compare this with the allegorical forms which, in their misinterpretation, are less stable. These stable rules, by their nature, must be abstract and general, dealing with the bread strokes, rather than the fine details, and must be unambiguous to avoid critical misinterpretation.
The fun begins here, in defining the relationships in these terms, because the mechanisms through which we are able to affect the fabric of the periphery expand out to encompass a much broader field, and it is a field rich with potential for radical responses. My current investigations live here, for now, examining how the macro and micro, how the plan for infrastructure in an area can affect the size of a bathroom. I will consider it a success if exploring this relational mode can lead to changes in the matter of architecture.

3. The high-level relationships here depend on infrastructure, how people will navigate their environment. Each block is within 800m of a train station or bus route, and 200m away from a bike-dominant road, or car-dominan road. Rather than eliminating cars, they are reprioritised | Laura Szyman

4. The current matter of the suburb has small businesses dotted throughout, located in garages, back kitchens, and living rooms. The typology is set: 3-5 bedroom family homes on 300sqm blocks | Laura Szyman

5. Instead of zoning for use and typology, a relational plan would instead guide adjacencies. By overlaying the infrastructure pattern onto the new neighbourhood the opportunity for typological intensification emerges, instead of commercial ventures in living rooms, we have retail and commercial ventures locating themselves. While the corridor along the bus/car priority road creates intersections that are valuable for commercial investment, the increased density means corridors along bike routes can be widened to allow for boulevards (eg. Canning St, Fitzroy) | Laura Szyman

When we bring these three rules back to the initial idea of this paper, of ruin and allegory, a mechanism for shifting the allegories out of allusion and into action emerges. If we strip “sustainability” of all the ancillary narrative weight placed on it by, for example, Plan Melbourne 2017-2050, and address its core we have a reduction of emissions.
This reduction, applied abstractly and generally would mean the burden would fall evenly across the suburb. Applied simply it would become a very simple set of urban design principles: walkable, with available public transport, and provision for the generation of power locally through renewable resources. Applied stabley it would be a long-term plan for the carbon neutrality of the suburb which could be factored into all forward projections.
It would no longer be an allegory, that hides its intentions behind positivistic allusion, but a set of actionable guidelines with potential for radical response.
So, my addendum to the terrain vague is this: our current planning scheme leaves too much room for these ruined suburbs, those that are the “city no longer” from the moment of completion. By shifting the allegorical forms into more literal forms, more general, simple, and stable, then the terrain vague of the planning scheme can be shaped into a new form. The rubble of the ruined city is only a problem if it is left on the ground for us to trip over. Instead, pick it up and use it to build the next iteration.


Laura Szyman↩


1. Visontay, E. A broken dream: outer Melbourne has affordable houses but no train or school. The Guardian (2021).

2. Davies, A. ‘Ultimately uninhabitable’: western Sydney’s legacy of planning failure. The Guardian (2021).

3. Michael Buxton, Geoffrey Falk, Jim Holdsworth, Mike Scott, Steve Thorne, Maxine Cooper, Bruce Echberg, Stephen Pelosi. GROWING PAINS: Planning for Better Neighbourhoods, (link↩)

4. Michael Buxton, Geoffrey Falk, Jim Holdsworth, Mike Scott, Steve Thorne, Maxine Cooper, Bruce Echberg, Stephen Pelosi. GROWING PAINS: The Crisis in Growth Area Planning, (link↩)

5. Benjamin, W. The Arcades Project. (Harvard University Press, 1999).

6. Buck-Morss, S. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. (MIT Press, 1991).

7. Boulange, C. et al. Examining associations between urban design attributes and transport mode choice for walking, cycling, public transport and private motor vehicle trips. J. Transp. Health 6, 155–166 (2017).
8. Giles-Corti, B., Hooper, P., Foster, S., Koohsari, M. J. & Francis, J. Low density development: Impacts on physical activity and associated health outcomes, (link↩)

9. The State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. Plan Melbourne 2017-2050. (2017).

10. Donnybrook– Woodstock Precinct Structure Plan, (link↩)

11. Cloverton Lifestyle Guidelines.pdf. (link↩)

12. Stockland. Cloverton Town Centre: THE NEW CENTRE OF MELBOURNE’S NORTHERN GROWTH AREA, (link↩)

13. Moroni, S. Urban density after Jane Jacobs: the crucial role of diversity and emergence. City, Territory and Architecture 3, 1–8 (2016).

14. Alexander, E. R., Mazza, L. & Moroni, S. Planning without plans? Nomocracy or teleocracy for social-spatial ordering. Prog. Plann. 77, 37–87 (2012).