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Lesson: The defining physical and sociocultural origins of today’s cities continue to influence their redevelopment.
Principle 3: We Can See it All in the Company Town, Evolved (Broken Hill, Australia)
The company town is often cited as another one-stop venue for urban planning precedent. While sometimes lumped with utopian efforts, this paternalistic, industry-developed community is also often referenced for its summary inclusion of the common elements of any urban place. These elements include housing, work, recreation, environmental concerns and public safety.
Today, Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia provides a snapshot of a major company town, in evolution from its former dependence on the country’s largest mining concern, BHP. The structure and function of the industry-based daily life is still clear in the layout of the town and in the brown slag outcropping that still dramatically dominates the landscape (photo on left). A thriving artist’s community, contemporary restaurants, retail businesses and social service agencies are also apparent.
In sum, what once was at the center of daily life now merges with present-day artistic and tourism activities in this gateway to the Outback. We should look to such places as bellwethers of cities in transition.
Lesson: Urban places convened around the need for human capital are not new, and remain laboratories for documenting change.
Principle 4: We Can Learn from Simple, Small-Scale Stories of Adaptation (White Cliffs, Australia)
Amid demonstrable instances of climate change worldwide, adaptations to harsh weather show examples of human ingenuity. Not far from Broken Hill, residents of the Australian Outback use alternative forms of shelter (known as dugouts, descendants of the opal mining days) to offset extreme heat. Conveniently, in White Cliffs, the Underground Motel (left) exploits the potential of this local building practice in the form of a novelty tourist attraction.
Surveying the landscape of White Cliffs and exploring the underground lodging halls may for now satisfy vacation curiosities, but there is a larger message inherent in a visit to such outlier venues. When we see examples of alternative forms of settlement, we also witness the ongoing potential — and likely increasing need — for adaptation in urban environments everywhere.
Lesson: Humans are capable of dynamic change and innovative adaptation — good news for tasks ahead.
Principle 5: Some Universal Urban Icons Reflect Human Nature as Much as Place
Finally, given the rich, authentic relationships between people and places described above, should we be disappointed by the increasingly standardized symbols of urban evolution around the world? For instance, the ferris wheel has reentered the international urban imagination, and is seemingly omnipresent in cities competing on the world stage. The Seattle Great Wheel (next page, bottom), built as a private business venture, but adopted as a symbol of the city’s emerging waterfront, here contrasts with an under construction version in Melbourne, Australia (nest page, top).
Why are these “observation wheels” achieving a kind of landmark status in some places when other, more vernacular gestures might better fit the context of a place?
My answer is not to cynically decry these wheels, but to consider them as the same exciting, moving observation points first described by seventeenth century journalists. Understanding their ongoing success — premised on fun and excitement — is consistent with my opening call for more studied reflection about relationships of people and the communities around them.
Lesson: Some urban icons remind us of an important and universal truth about our experience of place — the need for outright enjoyment in the process.
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