John Toon's speech for postgraduate graduation ceremony

23 May 2007

Chancellor, fellow academics, graduates, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Yes, I am writing, writing, writing. I feel I have had such a rewarding career that I should put to paper the principles I have evolved, the challenges I have had to face as practitioner and theoretician, the outcomes that I have helped to shape and the hurdles faced in the implementation of innovative concepts.

I was talking about my writing to one of my academic colleagues and I jokingly said  that I thought of calling the book "My Brilliant Career". Of course, I would never do that. It would be far too presumptuous.

But my colleague said "why not "A Brilliant Career". I was immediately attracted to that idea.

So watch this space.

To-day, as you have witnessed the incredible array of degrees that have been presented, you may have been surprised, even amazed, at the diversity in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning.

And yet we in the Faculty all do the same thing. What we do is manipulate the environment to create shelter. We extract from the environment resources that we assemble in various ways to create shelter to protect us from environmental hazards. We manipulate, we manage, we adapt and we create environments that provide shelter for all manner of human activities.

We can trace the origins of shelter from the earliest civilizations. Indeed shelter and civilization are virtually synonymous. It is a great tradition from which we draw inspiration. Not in order to replicate the past but to learn how new problems led to innovative outcomes.  

Look around you at this wonderful structure. It is a superb example of environmental adaptation. It provides shelter from rain, sun and noise. It is dry. It is moderately well lit. It is very poorly ventilated. The acoustics are not good. It’s performance as shelter is fair. It is adaptable to numerous purposes; some may even recall sitting exams in this very place. But more than mere shelter it is an uplifting space. The marble floor, the sandstone walls, the magnificent hammer beam roof and the fascinating detailing all combine to transcend mere shelter. It is a statement about aspiration.

As an architectural student in the late 1940’s in England the main concerns were to minimize resource utilization and to create an equitable social environment. An array of plastic materials promised light-weight structures that could be quickly assembled to assist in providing housing for those displaced by the ravages of war. Housing estates and whole new towns were laid out in a manner that ensured easy access to schools, shops and public transport; and in the case of new towns, new industries were established so that there were jobs for all. My first work experiences were all concerned with housing. I became a town planner and my first job was preparing designs for housing estates for the bomb devastated areas of east end of London. I loved every minute of it.

I was appointed a lecturer in this University in 1960. I quickly discovered that Australia had gone down a similar path, creating new residential suburbs, and a new town called Elizabeth in South Australia, for the rapidly expanding population. The guiding plan for Sydney, The County of Cumberland Planning Scheme, was in essence a social plan. It aimed to create equitable well serviced residential areas with easy access to playing fields, schools, shops and employment. It was successful until the rate of population growth overtook it. How to accommodate continued population growth became a major policy issue.

I was delighted to be part of the process of searching for the best method of managing metropolitan expansion. It is not an exaggeration to claim that much of the exploratory work searching for solutions took place in the Department of Town and Country Planning, as it was then known, in this University. That tradition  continues right up to the present, guided by Professor Ed Blakely and Martin Payne.   

We have achieved much. Orderly growth combined with the provision of services and facilities are the hallmarks of good metropolitan planning. We have achieved a much improved system of environmental management. Protecting bio-diversity, managing urban drainage, protecting fragile coastal eco-systems and riparian lands, improving air quality are all indicative of good environmental management.

The one significant failure is that we have been unable to create a fair and equitable metro-region. The distributive consequences of the present system are grossly unfair. The unearned increments arising from increases in property values are highly skewed towards the wealthy. And we have failed to develop an equitable system of funding and distributing infrastructure.

I consider our achievements to be creditable.

But there are three significant seismic shifts taking place that will require us to totally rethink how we manage the environment.

The most significant seismic event occurred in the 1960’s when we were mesmerised by putting a man on the moon. But the really significant event was the sideshow, the image of spaceship earth spinning in space. This image brought home the recognition that planet earth is a closed eco-system with finite resources. The spaceship analogy heightened awareness that life was maintained on earth seemingly effortlessly whereas to sustain life in a spaceship required inordinately complex processes.

But gradually, all too slowly, we have come to recognize that sustaining life on earth is not effortless. Earth is not a resource that can be plundered at will. Earth is not forgiving. Earth requires constant nurturing. The implications of this have yet to be worked through. What is apparent is that many of our environmental management procedures are based on the assumption that earth is resilient, is forgiving. We now know that not to be true. If you doubt this, look at the vast areas that have become deserts due to human activity. I predict the task will preoccupy us for most of this century

The second seismic event is the breaking down of ethnic hegemonies; we are many but we are also one. I do not mean in Australia; I mean the world.

National borders are barriers to oneness and reinforce inequities between ethnic or religious communities. The use of barriers to protect privilege or to perpetuate poverty is neither morally nor practically defensible. The task of environmental management becomes more complex when overlaid with different values and different cultures. An environmental creed may achieve some level of universal support but the evidence so far is that impoverished societies are unlikely to act to nurture their environment. We may have to plan for major migrations from zones of environmental degradation to zones of environmental surplus, if such exist. Or we will have to devise methods of sharing environmental goods more equitably. These global shifts will inevitably impact on environmentally well-endowed societies such as in Australia. I predict this will become a progressively more critical issue, confronting values in environmental management, particularly in land management and in creating shelter.          

The third seismic event is in the communication revolution. Institutions such as this university were built around the notion that information was a scarce resource, that harnessing information for a purpose required the acquisition of skills under supervision and that adding to the fund of knowledge could only take place in a seat of learning. But that position no longer holds true. Information is ubiquitous and no longer place specific; understanding, however imperfect, is commonplace and use is unconstrained. Adding to the fund of knowledge is almost a backyard industry. Place is no longer relevant to knowledge. We communicate in cyberspace. Mel Webber referred to this as the non-place urban realm. The control of information is one of the reasons for the existence of cities. The communication revolution is challenging our precepts of cities. This is the very heart of the intellectual challenge facing urbanists.     

The consequence of these events is that the paradigms of settlement that we have inherited have less relevance, indeed may even be irrelevant, as models for the future. We need to be constructing new paradigms that respond to these seismic shifts.

For those of you who are graduating to-day this is your challenge. It is an exciting challenge. You will have to exercise independent thinking in shaping the outcomes of tomorrow. You will have to respond to new questions; you will have to generate new answers. You will need to maintain a healthy scepticism about ideas and data that is presented to you 

If you, the graduates, get the same sense of satisfaction as I have from generating solutions to the array of new problems that are emerging

Then you too may have a brilliant career.

Good luck.

John Toon

University of Sydney

4 May 2007.