Section 6.1 We think like mayflies

The Romans built a bridge, marched across the Rhine River, beat up the barbarians and then marched back again, destroying the bridge on the way. All part of a good weekend’s work. It served to remind the barbarians that they were not safe!

This story is unusual, as bridges last a lifetime – typically around 80 years. Some railway bridges in the UK are celebrated, as they are hundreds of years old. A boring, old bridge may outlast us all.

Keep this in mind when you consider Minister Steel’s dilemma. As a politician, your life expectancy is just to the end of the next electoral cycle. Four years is not a long time in the bigger scheme of things. Minister Steel is often questioned about the John Gorton Drive Bridge. By the time the bridge is finished, he may have moved on from politics, and before it is replaced, we all will likely be with the angels. John Gorton Drive Bridge is almost certain to outlive all of us. Minister Steel must get a little bored at times talking about this bridge.

As we tend to think of ourselves as the centre of the universe, it is hard to appreciate that we are surrounded by things that will outlive us all. We are surrounded by man-made artefacts that existed in this world before we arrived, and they will exist after we are gone. Our lives are ephemeral.

Cities are neither ephemeral nor static. One of the challenges of urban planning in our political environment is the limited horizon of our thinking. We think that because we have lived in an area for five years it belongs to us. We struggle to look five years into the future, let alone conceive the expanse of time that the suburb will exist. We are not owners of a suburb but temporary visitors. It will be inhabited by others later after we have gone.

When we design and build a suburb we should be thinking far out, as what is set in concrete now will still be there in 60 years. In stratified systems theory we call that “task completion time”. It can take many decades before the ACT Government gets around to considering the renewal of the infrastructure, or in the world of cycling, before safe network paths are finally built or completed. The ACT Government is in a race to expand the city fast enough to provide for the growing population. It has little time to waste thinking about what already exists.

We need good cycling infrastructure in Canberra, but it will take decades to build it. The Netherlands has been working on the cycling project since the 1970s (50 years = half a century = 5 decades) and achieved much, but they still have not redesigned all the car-centric roads that were so typical of the 1950s. Cities were a man-made machine moving motorists. Now we would like to make space for bicycles and other travel modes, too. Cities that cater for both “movement” and that create a “place” to live.

The challenge of urban planning is stretching our mind and designing for perpetuity, when we live like mayflies!

Photo by Egor Kamelev on

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