• ArchiDATUM Dates: Brad Pettitt and His Philosophies for Governing African Cities

Our Date: Brad Pettitt
 Politician, Academic
Location: Perth, Australia
Office: Mayor of Fremantle Port City, Dean of Sustainability at Murdoch University

Zaheer Allam recently met the Mayor of Fremantle, in Australia, and intriguingly enough, for a political figure, he promotes truly sustainable ideologies which would be incredibly valuable to the average African urban fabric. Here is a short interview focussing on his governing philosophies to the African community. Mayor that is loved by its city; one that loves what he does, cycles to work, promotes community exchange  societal values, and protects cultural heritage; it almost feels too good to be true! Brad Pettitt, Dean of Sustainability at Murdoch University, Mayor of the famous Fremantle Port City in Australia, sits with Zaheer Allam and shares his philosophies oriented towards building a truly healthy and sustainable community.

Brad, tell us a bit about yourself, your background and start in politics.
I’ve been Mayor of Fremantle for around 4.5 years. I was re-elected in October but I have been on the council for about 9 years now. It’s been really interesting; before I was Mayor I was the dean of the school of sustainability at Murdoch University where we taught a lot about, obviously sustainability, climate change and urban planning. Before that I worked for the Australian government AID program and also for Oxfam in Cambodia. So, it’s been a bit of a varied career but they all like of come together and help me create better communities and better cities.

What were your aspirations at the start of your career? And how far do you think you’ve achieved them?

For me, one of the things that really inspired me around to become Mayor was how to start to create cities that are both livable and sustainable, and have a great sense of place. In many ways, a lot of my works in communities overseas were really good but I thought part of the problem is that we have international communities that inspire to a development model which can be replicated and are ultimately unsustainable on a global level. For me the inspiration then was in the first world; for which countries like Australia, we need to actually create much better and more sustainable model that, I think, was not only unsustainable in terms of carbon ecological footprint, but also didn’t have much of a strong sense of place and community and liveability.

Your academic background encompasses the themes of sustainability and urbanism. How do you feel you’ve managed to translate those into your current governance?
It’s been one of the great challenges but also one of the interesting parts of the job. In many ways, a lot of the thinking and the academic literature around sustainable urban planning really informs my role, but putting it into practice is much harder. Because often the ideas are complex, often the results are not immediate and part of the challenge of politics is getting that balance between where often people want to see immediate outcomes and immediate results. But the changes that we need to make are actually very slow and incremental.
The academic literature, the theory and my research in the area has very much informed my practice and my priorities. That doesn’t mean there have not been compromises along the way. Politics are all about compromise – the art of the possible as they say. It certainly has been, and hopefully, given me a deeper sense of confidence whereabouts I want to take Fremantle.

Fremantle distinguishes itself from other surrounding towns by its distinct cultural identity. In the face of fast paced developments, how do you go about preserving the cultural heritage of this town?
Fremantle is actually the most intact Victorian port city in the world! It is important that we do need to keep what is so special about it. One of the really good things that have happened over the last couple of decades is; we’ve seen that the idea that we knock down buildings and that we destroy their cultural heritage is gone. There was a big fight for Fremantle over many decades, especially in the late 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s where there was a bit of a sense of progress being made of knocking over our buildings. That idea shifted now. No one is talking about knocking our heritage buildings anymore but the real challenge now is how do we both get those buildings re-used and get them activated, and preserved while erecting new buildings that also have a sense of place. One that also captures the local language of vernacular. Not one that can be built anywhere, but one that can actually talk a little bit about Fremantle, where it comes from and where it wants to go.

I find it very interesting that in an era of centralisation and globalisation, you are still one of the rare few promoting small/individual businesses as opposed to large franchises. This certainly adds to the identity of the place and is in line with the philosophies of Nikos Salingaros in relation to the logic of scale to achieve urban coherence. How did you come about such a strategy?
In many ways I think Fremantle’s success is going to be in its distinctiveness and its strength. It is going to be different from your shopping malls, which is what we are competing in Garden Cities around the world. The future of Fremantle is offering distinctive, not only buildings and places and main streets, but also distinctive retail offerings that are about local producers and businesses that you don’t just find everywhere. Because it’s what people look for.

How far is it working?
Look, it is a slow progress because in many ways, you swim against the tide; which is modernisation. Fremantle cannot and will never be able to compete with acres of car parking surrounding every shopping mall. It will be hard going but one example I will give is the MANY 6160 project near the Town Hall building where we are seeing lots of interest and it is bringing back a lot of people to actually be part of a new kind of retail.

Thank you for inviting me to one of the “Fremantle Network” meetings. I found it very interesting that there are structured platforms to give the population a chance to voice out their opinions on current governance policies. Tell us more about the Fremantle network and just how strongly of future policies are dictated by societal preference
The Fremantle Network plays a very important role because it is about trying to nurture public debate. It is very logical because if you got people together, no matter how diverse they are, into the same room; You are going to have a conversation and actually realise the difference of opinion on certain subjects. It is about engagement with the community. But the important thing with engagement is that you need to engage with a broad range and not only the narrow & very vocal minority. The Fremantle Network enables that to happen.

Your policies seem to be more oriented towards the fulfilment of societal needs as opposed to the traditional governing model of solely chasing economic prosperity. How do you maintain a balance between the two?
It is always a balancing act between the two. You need to make sure that the community understands what your vision is and where you are going with that and that they fully support it. There will need to be practical and pragmatic choices along the way but ultimately as the Mayor, you are here not only to represent your community but also show leadership, and that’s what the balancing act is.

What advice would you give to African developing countries? All too often, in race of economic prosperity, we tend to embrace change but lose our identity and heritage. How can we avoid that?

I’ve seen this all over the world and it is very saddening where we’re too quick to move over what makes us really special. Your long-term path to success will be based around enhancing what really makes you different. That does not mean there is no place for some modernity as well, but don’t bulldoze those things, be it your buildings and your unique culture. Don’t lose all those in the race to modernise because ultimately you are going to end up like everybody else. For those places, their distinctiveness will be their strength in the longer term.

Sustainability is inevitably our future, but relatively new to African countries. How would you advocate towards a smoother transition to sustainable trends?
Sustainability is always a long journey and it is about investment in infrastructures, starting now. That transition will take a long time but in many ways it is a lot of small decisions that will get you in the broad destination you are trying to go. There is no easy answer to that except to say that having a clear vision of where you want to go and making sure that that vision does have sustainability as heart. You have all the small strategies to actually enriching that vision. It is an exciting time for change all around the world. The next area of rapid growth is going to be Africa and its greatest challenge will be making sure that it has sustainable growth that actually enhances what an amazing and unique place it is.

Zaheer Allam is an independent scholar with a background in Green Architecture & Project Management. He currently resides Mauritius and his field of interest lies in ecological utilitarian urbanism

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