Dr Dorina Pojani: sees the forest and the trees

Dr Dorina Pojani. Image courtesy of iMOVE CRC
Dr Dorina Pojani. Image courtesy of iMOVE CRC

Dr Dorina Pojani is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science, at the University of Queensland. She has a variety of interests in and around transport, including active transport, public transport, mobility and accessibility of vulnerable groups, neighbourhood design, pedestrian areas, parking, affordable housing, compact cities.

Now just to kick things off, could you tell us about the sort of work you’re doing at the moment?

The main project I’m involved in right now has to do with parking in Australian cities. It’s the forgotten part of the transportation system. Even though all our car trips end in a parking space, we don’t think about parking too much. We don’t think about all the cost that parking involves, all the space that it takes up. So we decided to put in a twist in our research, instead of looking at car mobility, we decided to look at car immobility.

This project is funded by the Australian Research Council, and we’ve been working on it for about two years now. The main challenge so far has been, surprisingly enough, to estimate how much parking space we have in our cities. Specifically, we’re looking at the three big cities on the east coast of Australia, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The reality is we don’t know what percentage of land parking takes up in these cities. No-one has thought of estimating the total before.

And over and above your research, on the teaching side, what courses are you teaching?

I teach two main courses, one is Planning Theory, which is a core course of the Urban Planning curriculum. It’s a staple in Planning courses worldwide. It’s a foundational course that connects with all the specialty branches of planning. So transportation planners need to know planning theory, as do social planners, and urban designers. It fits into all of those specialisations.

The other course I teach, and which is also a foundational course, is History of the Built Environment, which focuses on critical elements and patterns in cities over time. It looks at the evolution of cities since civilisation began.

Of that historically-based subject, is there much of an Australian component within the course?

There is very little about Australia because we take a broader look. We usually have one session devoted to the planning of Australian cities, so pre-European settlement and then colonial planning. Just a single session in the whole year, because there is a lot of world and a lot of history to cover!

There is indeed a lot of world, which takes me on to my next question. You did your undergraduate degree in Albania, you’ve since moved on to the USA, the Netherlands, and now Australia. What’s that journey been like, and are you seeing much commonality in terms of urban planning?

I find all these places very different. I’ve noticed that the people in all these countries that I’ve moved to or I’ve lived in, they seem to think that the way their cities are set up is a sort of law of nature, that’s how the world works. But the reality is the differences are due to the different planning systems that these countries have.

I lived in the US for a long time, for about seven or eight years, so that’s been probably my longest foreign residence, in fact I became a US citizen at some point during that journey.

When you say that that’s how their world works, and that they have lived with this world they have constructed for quite some time now, are you seeing an appetite for change in these places?

I think all these places are evolving, but in terms of moving towards a more sustainable urban future, I’ve seen that both the US and Australia have been more reluctant to implement change compared to Europe, especially continental Europe.

I feel that both the US and Australia continue to live in some sort of denial. There is this hope that maybe technology will take care of all urban ills without us as human beings having to change our behaviour at all.Based on my research and based on what I read, that just won’t be the case. I mean major changes in human behaviour will need to take place for the future to be more sustainable than what it’s looking like at the moment.

You say that the USA and Australia are behind Europe, and that’s perhaps fair, but do you see now, again to use the word appetite, are you seeing a stronger appetite for us now to, if not catch up to, get a move on?

To be honest, no. I think as a society, we seem to have become very complacent. I mean we’ve been prone to basing our future predictions based on what the past has been like — and the past has been very good here in Australia. The country has had a long stretch of prosperity and peace, and I think that encourages people to think that it can last forever. But I feel that we are at a moment of crisis now – worldwide. I refer to global warming – we’re reaching a point of crisis and we need to be doing a lot more than we’ve been willing to do.

Well, hopefully it’s things like your work and entities such as iMOVE and the like that will push us along.

I hope so. But I can’t help being sceptical regarding the effectiveness of our mobility policies for reducing automobile dependence. It’s crucial that our politicians come to own the mantra that ‘pedestrians and cyclists go first’.

Now you weren’t born a smart mobility or an urban planning expert, did you decide to go down this path before or during your academic career? When was it you decided upon on urban planning and more particularly, when was it you got interested in transport?

I started as a designer, as an architect, and I thought that’s what I wanted to do throughout my undergraduate degree. But later on I realised that looking at buildings individually was just insufficient, it didn’t provide the broader context of a city. Even though you study that a little bit in architecture programs, I felt like I needed to look at planning theory a lot more, so that’s why I decided to study planning in graduate school.

And then through that course of study, I thought transport was one of the more interesting aspects of the built environment, because it’s so determinant of urban form as well. Also, housing. You can’t talk about housing systems without taking into consideration the transportation systems which connect that housing. And you can’t think of other land uses without considering transportation, and that includes people’s workplaces or services, or even entertainment places. I came to the realisation that transport brings it all together, conceptually as well as literally.

There can be no denying that connection between all of our environments and activities is key in all of this. So, at what stage in your career did you make that switch from being a pure architect into the beginning of your transport involvement?

It wasn’t until my doctorate, so later in my postgraduate studies, I decided that this was the direction I wanted to take.

It helped that I worked at a firm that looked at transit-oriented development. Transit-oriented development is a concept that links both transport and land use. I came to it initially from more of a land-use perspective, which led to me becoming more and more interested in the transport side of things.

I noticed in your university bio a topic called Urban Psychology. What do you think the role of transport is in such a thing as urban psychology to help us feel better about the commute, or getting from one place to another?

Well, before I even get into that kind of detail, I wanted to say that generally all urban planning needs to have some kind of human face in mind. Planning cannot just be about the technical aspects of city building, it always needs to consider human behaviour.

And in my own research, the aspect of psychology connected to transport that I’ve been studying is symbolism, the symbolism that’s contained in different transport modes.

So we know that cars are not simply objects that people possess just for practicality, to get from point A to B, but they also carry all this symbolism. They show who you are, and where you stand socially. That’s partly why it’s so very difficult to change people’s behaviours and perceptions in relation to transport.

It’s probably fair to say it’s more than symbolism isn’t it? It’s also the fact that some people love their cars for things like the sense of freedom they offer, or as an aesthetic object. But there’s not many people out there love the bus they catch.

Yes, and that’s partly to do with, like I said, the practicalities. So you need to get to the bus stop. It might not be near your house, it may not run very frequently, it may not run at all on weekends.

But then, buses also carry a sort of negative symbolism in a lot of people’s minds. Some people, they don’t want to associate with that transport mode, or with the people that use that mode. So yes, I think negative symbolism is partly what brings bus ridership down.

And if I can hit another of the subjects in your bio, Urban Design as Politics. If connected and automated vehicles are taken up on a widespread basis, in terms of land use we’ve probably got quite a big battle coming up about the remix of public and private space. What are your thoughts on what’s ahead of us there?

What we’ve seen in the last few decades is a takeover of public space by private interests. More and more, we see these spaces that look like they’re public, but they’re actually created and owned by private developers. You can access them as a member of the public, but you might have to pay a fee, or perhaps there are more subtle means of exclusion like the way you dress, or the way you look.

So certain people are simply not allowed in, or they don’t fit in in these privatised public spaces. And then we’ve also seen the rise of surveillance and private security to keep certain people out of certain spaces, and that’s not necessarily a positive development.

Privately produced public space has its benefits in the sense that by including private developers, cost to the public comes down. But then, that also comes at a social cost, we lose something by adopting that approach.

Do you think again that that dialogue’s about to change in that a lot of private space might be moving to the public space if we don’t need kerbside parking, parking stations and such?

To be honest, I’m not seeing that changing in the near future. In fact all research is showing that we’re moving in the opposite direction, that inequality in society is becoming more and more pronounced. Private interests are becoming stronger, they’re able to ‘influence’ government decisions in their favour because they’re just more powerful, they have more money.

So, without any sort of strong government intervention, or without the public rising to reassert its rights, I don’t see us moving in that direction, not yet.

And you don’t think that the possibilities and promise of smart mobility is going to change that situation?

It might, but that will require regulation too. We’re seeing now, for example, the rise of driverless cars. According to some predictions, those might decrease the need for individual car ownership, because they’ll be owned by companies like Uber is now – but without the drivers. So, a sort of shared mobility sort of situation.

Some researchers that have started to think a bit more about what driverless cars and shared mobility might mean for the future. Initially it was all, ‘Oh, this will be great, and it will reduce traffic, it will reduce parking space’, but now some people are saying that, ‘Well actually traffic might become worse if everybody all of a sudden owns a driverless car, and then not only they use it when they travel themselves, but they also send the car off to run errands for them any time of the day. This may mean more trips than you could personally do when you’re driving yourself.’

So innovation needs guidance, or need strong policy, regulations, and planning to ensure we don’t see that sort of dystopia in our cities?

Yes. I’m sorry if I’m sounding a bit pessimistic, but I always like to play the devil’s advocate and think about what could go wrong, rather than be overly optimistic and assume that everything will go right.

I guess the positive spin on that is that rather than simply letting things happen, we’ve got to actually be smart and look at all the ramifications.

Yes exactly, that’s exactly the point I want to get across. We need to think about possible dystopias and work to prevent those.

Brisbane, Australia. Image courtesy of iMOVE CRC

Brisbane, Australia. Image courtesy of iMOVE CRC

Right, so let’s move away from that possibly negative sphere, let’s get into the sphere of the hypothetical. So here you are, you’re involved in a project, you’ve got a good timeframe in which to do it, and a very, very good, very high, almost unlimited budget. What would you like to do?

This is a bit like when people ask me what’s my religion, and I say, ‘My religion is the car-free city, that’s the sort of paradise I’m hoping for.’ But then I also realise that that’s not really a technical issue, it’s not even a financial issue, it’s more of a political issue.

But to do such a thing, you would have to spend money, and to do such a thing, you would have to do certain things. What’s the first thing you would do to achieve that aim, or steps towards that aim?

In the city where I live now, which is Brisbane, I would build a state-of-the-art cycling network that connected the whole city.

This is big picture, big change time, you can do whatever you want in this hypothetical.

Yes, that’s what I would do, that would be the first thing I would do.

So, you’d just build a very strong, very efficient, very safe cycling infrastructure?


Okay. And part two of the question, this time it’s a smaller thing to make a big impact, and the budget’s quite finite. What do you think could be done quickly and cheaply yet make a big difference? And if you want to restrict it to Brisbane, that’s fine.

Cheaply and quickly and make a big difference? I would plant a row of trees on both sides of every street in town.

How is Brisbane in terms of its cycling infrastructure?

I’d say our cycling environment is very limited. We have recreational trails along our river, which are very beautiful, but they only serve the needs of weekend cyclists, or at most, the needs of people that live and work along the stretch bordering the river. Other than that, there isn’t much cycling infrastructure at the moment.

I think it’s probably fair to say that every city in Australia, if not bigger regional places, could address the same problem and get the same benefits.

Yes, I believe so. And every time I say that, all I hear is reasons why that wouldn’t work. ‘Oh, but some cities are too cold, some are too hot, some are too hilly, some are too spread out’. I think those are just excuses to stall the conversation.

I think improvement can very easily happen in most Australian cities. In fact, Australian cities are ideal for cycling. We have stable governments, we have substantial public resources, and we have health-conscious residents that like sports and the outdoors.

Most Australian cities have beautiful weather — even accounting for some heatwaves during summers, which, by the way, are directly related to too much driving and too much concrete road pavement. We can easily turn some of that concrete into cycle paths.

Do you think that if there is a bigger take up of electric bicycles that would make those excuses diminish?

Yes, absolutely. That would take care of the ‘hilliness’ excuse, and the ‘long distances’ excuse, and the ‘too hot’ excuse. The technology is all there, it already exists. And the prices will come down as more people buy electric bikes, then we’ll see more people turn to cycling as a more viable, easy, congestion-busting alternative.

Tirana, capital of Albania. Source: Dr Dorina Pojani

Tirana, capital of Albania. Source: Dr Dorina Pojani

Of the work you’ve done anywhere, what is it that you are most proud of to date?

I’m proud of the work I do in Australia, but I feel more strongly about my research on planning in my country of origin, Albania. For example, my dissertation was, I think, a landmark piece on urban transport in Tirana — that’s the capital of Albania.

This is not to say that we don’t need research studies on urban transport in Australia, but here there are like-minded colleagues that do work similar to mine. Albania is much smaller, with a population of only three million people, so there aren’t too many people that specialise in transport, and even fewer that specialise in sustainable transport. So I feel that had quite an impact there, I’ve raised certain issues that hadn’t been thought of before.

And jumping into the present day, how is Albania doing in terms of its transport and planning?

I would say it’s actually gone backwards in some sense. Australian readers will be probably more familiar with post-socialist places like China and Vietnam. Albania was a bit like that during the socialist era which ended in 1990. It was a bicycle paradise, people walked and cycled everywhere, or used buses.

Then, once people were allowed to own private cars, everybody wanted one. Partly to fulfil practical needs, but cars also became a strong symbol of status. So the capital became completely flooded with cars and is dealing with traffic gridlocks on a daily basis.

Many, many other aspects of Albanian economy and society improved in a democratic context compared to the socialist era, but in terms of transport, I feel like we’ve gone backwards. And that’s the nature of urban transport problems, they’re perverse. They tend to worsen as places grow wealthier, while other sectors, such as education or healthcare, improve.

Well let’s hope they change that! And just a final question, so this might be a tricky one for you to answer because you’ve done so many things in so many areas, but other than what you’ve done so far, what’s something new that you’ve not done that you would like to get into?

Up until now, my planning research has mostly looked at transport. But I have done some work in housing as well, and I think in the future I’d want to get more into that area, particularly seeing as in Australia we’ve been going through a housing crisis for at least a decade. I want to look into that in more detail.

It does tie to transport as well because there is such a thing as transport disadvantage, meaning people that just cannot access places they need to access because they don’t have the transport options. They don’t own a car, they don’t live near a train station or near a bus station, they can’t afford Uber… People who suffer from transport disadvantage tend to live in urban peripheries, poor urban outskirts.

We know from existing research that transport disadvantage often goes together with social disadvantage more broadly, including housing disadvantage.

So although that would be doing something new, it’s really is a combination of everything you’ve done.

Yes, absolutely. If you’re a physical planner like me, you can’t disconnect transport from urban design, from housing, from society. You have to look at problems holistically, and most importantly put a human face on planning.

If you’d like to read some of Dr Pojani’s work, here’s a starter list:

Book: The Urban Transport Crisis in Emerging Economies
Article: Cars as a status symbol: Youth attitudes toward sustainable transport in a post-socialist city
Article: How do sprawl and inequality affect well-being in American cities?
Article: Barriers to the pedestrianization of city centres: perspectives from the Global North and the Global South

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