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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Urban Design Ethics Print E-mail

The potential for both enormous profits and great personal gain has turned urban design into an ethical minefield.



The Mayor bought a piece of land which was a dedicated but unformed road. A zoning change was introduced which moved the road from the the mayor's worthless land to a valuable industrial site owned by a pensioner. The Planning Tribunal noted the reprehensible "ethics" of the Council, but declined to move the road back, and declined to award any compensation. The Mayor built a factory and retired a wealthy man. The pensioner's house, which was the oldest in the district, was demolished, and she died in poverty. A gravestone simply records the memory of "the first white baby born in the district".

The Chairman of the Planning Committee bought a farm on the outskirts of a township. The zoning was changed from rural to residential. The Chairman went to see his investment consultant. The ratepayers were unable to afford the community facilities they needed.

In a bitterly contested case the Valuation Tribunal refused to acknowledge that values had fallen following the 1987 stockmarket crash in the same way that they had artificially risen preceding the crash. Then those who had lost their cases found that their valuations were reduced in the next valuation to far less than they had sought in the courtroom.

An illegal reclamation on a public beach was stopped by the Maritime Planning Authority, but soon afterwards the Council began proceedings to seek approval for a similar reclamation to protect private property at public expense.

Following the so called Local Government Reform, with its professed aim of eliminating conflict of interest, the Council initiated a variation to allow the erection of a casino on its own land while recommending against the granting of approval for a competitor's casino site.

A housewife who opposed a marina development had a wreath delivered to her door to add emphasis to the threatening telephone calls which suggested that her children could get injured.

It is not necessary to move beyond the Auckland area to find countless examples which highlight the ethical tensions which exist for an urban designer.

Anyone even thinking of raising ethical issues in an urban design context must consider the possibility of dismisal from their job, as well as the possibility of legal action.
Private support all too often becomes public silence when those who agree with the ethical stance of the designer cannot afford to invite consequential personal risks in their own lives.

Almost daily the tough world out there is getting tougher.


In the sixties all the books on ethics seemed to be written by non-players who nodded their heads wisely, and pontificated about the theoretical issues, usually saying what they would have done. In "Walter Mitty" dreams authors imagined that they would be very ethical if only they had the chance to be part of the game.

The more heroic the situation the more important the "ethical experts" felt. Life and death choices faced by doctors dealing with new high technology equipment were favourite topics for books which were really novels in disguise.

Life and death choices are the easy ones.
Anyone in the real world knows that split second choices made when you are climbing mountains can be extremely clear, even though they may be very painful. A lifetime of experience can be brought into focus when a person is confronted with a disaster. Heroic choices often only seem to be heroic to people who are not involved.

The really difficult decisions are the small mundane choices which do not seem to be choices at all. Choices about life style. Buying a larger house because you need one. Adding a teak deck to your house so that you can be closer to nature. Staying up late and sleeping through the sunrise. Buying honey at a supermarket.

Small incremental ethical choices which when repeated a million times add up to both the stressing of our planet to the point of collapse, and the confirming of an attitude which results in the concept of "stewardship" being deleted from the Resource Management Bill.

Throwing away the possibility of a sustainable real world in order to gain a sustainable unreal economy is no different from the situation in "Stark" where the wealthy are only concerned about making money out of planetary collapse.

The ethical debate of the sixties, like the urban design of the sixties, assumed an ethical society, and debated the nature of the right ethical decision.
Treasury, like much contemporary urban design, assumes that society itself has no ethical base.
Through acting out this myth treasury in a self fulfilling prophecy is actually destroying the ethical base of New Zealand society.


The redefinition of the whole concept of democracy, which is going on all around us, is an ethical as well as a political and cultural issue. Simply having a vote does not make a democracy and passing a vote does not divest the individual of responsibility.

A pessimist looking at our world would suggest that professionalism has died. It is unusual to find a lawyer who is concerned with justice over and above any commitment to an individual client. A government with a vision which extends no further than treasury values cripples any doctor who sees health itself as being more important than the health of any individual patient.

When the professions are no longer professional the degraded status symbol is gathered up by people who could not even conceive of a commitment to anything beyond making money. Land agents call themselves professionals when they would think it ludicrous for them to have a commitment to good urban design.

An optimist looking at our world must see the possibility of a new professionalism. In the "new democracy" which is within our grasp if we have the courage to move into the void between Western consumerism and Eastern dourness, every person would be a professional. Thus every person would have a commitment to issues and values beyond self interest.

It could finally be the commitment of individuals which will highlight the failure of the planning profession to be a bastion of ethical integrity. Planners, of course, see this differently. They do not see that hiding behind statistics, questionaires, and attempts to move professional responsibility onto the people they profess to serve, is simply avoiding the need to take a professional stance.

A high level of community consciousness does not reduce the need for the highly trained professional. On the contrary if there is a high level of awareness of architectural values the best of our architects will be able to do truly great work.

If every person recognises that every time they decide to drive or not to drive their car they are not only making an urban design decision but also making the city less or more liveable for every other person in the city, it becomes possible for the designer of transportation networks to move beyond catering for greed and selfishness.

We are entering an era when it will be both possible and necessary to move beyond restrictive ethics to creative ethics. The fact that we have brought our planet close to collapse and the human race close to extinction needs to be balanced against the fact that growing flowers is more fun than pulling out weeds.

Planners who spend their time studying weeds, on the assumption that urban design is problem initiated, and lawyers who make money out of advocating one weed rather than another, not only become obsessed with weeds but also create voids which are finally an invitation for ever more weeds to grow.


Urban Design is the creative process of bringing into balance and harmony all the elements of the complex urban network. Moral issues are part of that network. Ethical issues are thus integral to the Urban Design process.

On the one hand it is never appropriate to use the planning process to achieve hidden moral agendas. The person who is opposed to a hotel should not attempt to use planning argument to exclude a hotel. Planning hearings are endlessly tedious because a great deal of time is spent talking about one set of concerns when everyone knows perfectly well that the witness is really covering up another set of concerns.

On the other hand the Scheme Statement of the District Scheme should state clearly what the public values of the community are. If there are no moral values in the community it would be better to not have a planning scheme.

The Resource Management Bill fails at the most fundamental level in that it avoids a question such as "stewardship" on the pretext that it is very difficult to define. Market economics is just as difficult to define, but part of the myth is the belief that the meaning is clear. Moral questions are always difficult.

Over time legislation becomes enshrined in urban form. The corner remains as the powerful expression of community in New Zealand. It is simply that a bank now stands where the post office once stood. A community which feels that communication is not as important as money builds a city which enshrines those values.

Cities are a symbol of the values of the people who live in them. The physical form of cities is an expression of priorities. Ethical considerations always an integral part of urban design.


Tony Watkins

(A paper presented at the "Ethics at Work" Conference,
20-22 June 1991, Auckland, New Zealand.)

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