Fifty years ago, in 1972, urban planner and architect, Constantinos Doxiadis, presented a paper to the World Conference on World Peace Through Law titled, The Great Urban Crimes that We Permit by Law.

In his paper, Doxiadis focussed on what he terms two great crimes (he says there are more), “which I am convinced create the most serious problems for everyone and which are responsible for the gravest injustices suffered by weaker citizens, permitting the affluent and powerful to profit at the expense of all others.”

Urban Crimes

Doxiadis defines these crimes as:

  • “The exploitation of urban land and the immense profits obtained from inflated land values.”
  •  “The exploitation of urban space by a minority who build high-rise buildings for their own financial gain.”

Constantinos Doxiadis

Doxiadis was born in Greece in 1913 and studied architecture in Athens. After World War II he was commissioned by the Greek government-in-exile to plan the post-war reconstruction of Greece. For a time Doxiadis lived in Australia[1] but returned to Greece in 1953, where he developed his theory of “Ekistics,” or the science of human settlements: the relationships between people and their physical environments, focusing on creating sustainable and harmonious urban spaces. In the 1960 Doxiadis created the masterplan for Islamabad, the new capital city of Pakistan.

Throughout his career, Doxiadis emphasised the importance of considering social, cultural, and environmental factors in urban planning. He advocated for the involvement of local communities in the decision-making process and emphasised the need for interdisciplinary approaches to address complex urban issues.

The city belongs to all citizens

Doxiadis says in his Great Crimes paper that a city belongs to all citizens, and every citizen should profit from using all urban land and urban space.

But, he says, this does not happen in practice because our systems “allow a small number of landowners to benefit from the total human effort made by all citizens.” This, he says, results in the greatest of urban crimes.

Exploitation of Land for the benefit of a few

The first crime is the exploitation of land for the benefit of the few, which Doxiadis says does not stop because:

  1. “With the continued and inevitable growth of urban systems, land prices increase much more sharply in areas selected for the city’s expansion.
  2. The cost of land is much higher in areas designated for urgently needed highways, roads, water, power networks, etc.
  3. Since growing cities need consistent remodelling, land values are higher in areas destined for publicly financed urban renewal schemes.”

Of landowners, Doxiadis says, 

“No other group of citizens can gain so much by doing nothing. Those who invest in industry or who merely deposit their money in a bank can never make comparable profits.”

What makes the crime even more serious, Doxiadis says, is that it is not punishable.

“Land speculation is far worse than any other kind of speculation. Only in this instance can a small minority make huge profits with no effort, simply because they happen to own land in areas destined for development in city plans or because they were gambling (honestly or otherwise) with this in mind.”

Exploitation of urban space

Doxiadis says the second crime, the exploitation of urban space, is much more dangerous.

“From urban land as a two-dimensional surface we move to the three-dimensional space created by the height of buildings. There was no urban space problem until the 20th Century, when technology gave birth to skyscrapers.”

The Problems with high-rise

High-rise buildings, Doxiadis says, create major problems:

  • They work against nature or the environment by destroying the scale of the landscape and obstructing normal air circulation.
  • They isolate people from others.
  • They work against society because they prevent the units of social importance -the family, the extended family, the neighbourhood, etc., from functioning naturally and normally.
  • They lead to “higher densities, congested roads, difficult and more expensive provision of water supplies.
  • They destroy the urban landscape by eliminating all values which existed in the past. For example, “Human symbols such as churches, mosques, temples of all kinds, and city halls, which once rose above the city, are now below the skyscrapers.”

These problems, Doxiadis says, are ecological, humanistic, social, technological, and cultural, and in some respects, can be termed as a new type of colonisation.

Brisbane in 2023

Doxiadis could have been writing about Brisbane in 2023. It is easy to draw parallels between his assessments of the exploitation of urban land and urban spaces with what has been happening recently with the Kurilpa Sustainable Growth Precinct Plan temporary local planning instrument (TLPI) passed by the Brisbane City Council recently.

These proposed changes have been applauded by Brisbane’s development industry.

The Chief executive of the aptly named developer, Goldfields, Lachlan Thompson, told The Urban Developer recently that “Goldfields hopes these reforms will help attract more private and public investment into Central Brisbane and accelerate planning application assessments and approvals.”

“It is an exciting time for Central Brisbane, and we await the release of additional precinct plans for Albion, Woolloongabba, and other important transport hubs.”

Senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Griffith University, Tony Matthews, told The Urban Developer in the same article, “The whole point is to extract as much floor space as possible out of the existing urban land area.”

Possible Solutions

Doxiadis’ solution will sound radical and fanciful to some. He says the traditional concept of land ownership is no longer valid, and we need to talk about space ownership.

“We must realise that we have entered the era of space ownership and that new legislation, and a new policy is required.”

 He suggests, for example, that besides length and breadth, the height and depth of the land belonging to each landowner must be defined.

“Theoretically, the space above private property should belong to the human community as a whole.”

He proposed that whoever wants to use the space above or below their property must buy it from the real owner (the community).

“If this procedure is followed, motivation for building becomes honest. Space cannot be invaded without payment.”

“The invasion of the air and the land space which belong to all of us must be stopped.”

Phil Heywood, fellow and former President of the Queensland Division of the Planning Institute of Australia, and former Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Queensland University of Technology, said of Doxiadis’ paper.

“These warnings from one of the three or four most significant planning thinkers of the 20th Century are remarkably relevant to the pressing and transformational challenges  now facing all major Australian cities. None is more threatened than Brisbane with its current proposals to encourage residential blocks of unlimited height in designated sites throughout major areas of the city’s inner suburbs, starting with Kurilpa Point. Instead of building liveable and affordable housing clustered around transit nodes throughout the metropolitan area, the city council and property developers are getting together to try to replace city planning by city cramming.

“Fifty years ago Constantin Doxiadis accurately predicted the problems that such unrestricted profit-seeking would pose for the very purpose and character of the city and the basic needs of its communities for light, space amenity and services.  The battle is on not just for the soul and spirit of planning , but for the future of our cities as the home of human scaled and sociable community life.’

“I would give unqualified support to Doxiadis’ idea that the space above private property should be under the custodianship of community as a whole, and developers should be required to give due respect to the community custodians.”

Mr Heywood is the author of Community Planning Integrating social and physical environments, Wiley (2011)

[1] Doxiadis has a Brisbane connection, having lived for about two years as a Greek migrant in Highgate Hill, where he grew tomatoes. I first learned about Doxiadis through an exhibition by Brisbane artist Sam Cranstoun: To Speak of Cities.

The Artist and the Architect: Sam Cranstoun reveals Brisbane’s connection with C A Doxiadis

Cover image by Jan Bowman