A City for People: Liveable, Connected and Vibrant

This article was kindly contributed by Dr Michael Cohen, Director of City People, who will be speaking at the 2018 International Urban Design Conference, held from 12-13 November at SMC Conference and Function Centre, Sydney. 

Place Consultancy City People, recently brought together a powerful team of collaborators to tackle a Gehl “City For People” report:  architects, artists, urban geographers, historians – even the local funeral director.

Turning cities and towns upside down

I still vividly remember the first time I went to a festival in the streets when I was growing up. It was a delicious, topsy-turvy world: neighbours had brought their lounge room furniture onto the footpaths, weird and wonderful artists took over the roads and friends and strangers danced and laughed in each other’s company. That experience really hit home and I decided my life’s pursuit would be to turn the public places of cities and towns upside down with art.

Later, I literally took my art to the street and for about twelve years toured the world.  I performed a solo physical comedy show in streets, town squares, pedestrian malls and parks of towns and cities, big and small.  Often I was invited to perform by arts festivals but I would also often arrive ‘cold’ in a town and seek out places to perform where members of the passing crowd became my customers.  (Incidentally, street performers understand many of the variables of public domain urban design intimately – that is the subject of another blog someday!).

What drove me then still inspires me:  I am interested in how the quality of people’s lives in our shared public places can be changed for the better.  For me, this is most interesting when arts and cultural projects become tools for positively affecting people’s association with places that they live and visit.  It’s now been many years since I performed on the street but creating cultural life in public spaces has always been my trade:  both with festivals and performance, and also with public art and temporary urban interventions.

The Rocks Village BIzarre : photo courtesy Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority

In Australia, many of our public places are going through systemic change.  And some of this work is directly the result of Gehl team members who have done extensive work with various local government authorities.  Sydney, the city in which I live, is currently undergoing a massive transformation of its civic heart with its core arterial roadway now being opened up to pedestrians, and its congested city centre to be unknotted with a major public square.  Similarly Melbourne’s city centre has been through a huge change for the better.  It is now a peopled city whose public places now thrive and prosper – and it’s a far cry from the sparse, narrow footpaths where I tried unsuccessfully to ply my trade in the early 1990s.   So our two major cities in Australia – that house almost half of the country’s population – have had some major liveability boosts with the help of Gehl.

Gehl concept design for Sydney’s George St

The urban innovation accelerator

So it was really exciting for me recently to have the opportunity to work with the city of Wollongong and have a hand in progressing some of the recommended changes that have come about from a City for People report that Gehl developed during 2014-16.  The report assembled hard baseline data on pedestrian behaviour in Wollongong and it set some aspirational goals for how to make the city more liveable, connected and vibrant – with some short and mid-term goals for how to get there.

One of the pitfalls I’ve noticed working with local and state government authorities is that sometimes the impetus for change in our cities stalls before implementation can ever begin.  Whether it’s due to the intricacies of public-private partnerships, the capacity of internal staff or the political whim of the day, often big picture visions can rest on the shelf until they are well out of date.  However, employees of the City of Wollongong have taken an active hand in keeping the vision and intent outlined in their City for People report alive.

City People designed an Urban Innovation Accelerator for Wollongong that used the Gehl City for People report as its mandate to create citywide activation projects.  I brought together a core team of participants to work with me for twelve days:  artists, community activists, designers, urban geographers, a composer – even a funeral director.  Our mission was to devise temporary city activation projects that would bring the vision of the City for People report to life.  We used this laboratory environment to grow ideas for Wollongong that spoke to the place:  its physical character, its communities and its histories and social memories.

Urban Innovation Accelerator concept paste-up by artist Paul Gazzola & designer Ian Tran

A series of provocateurs were invited in: the city’s planners, historians, safety officers, academics and innovation workers all created a hothouse of ideas.  The core team then worked with the opportunities that Wollongong’s cityscape presented:  the bells that are still missing from the local church, the city’s disenfranchised skateboarders, the billboard marooned high on the city skyline – these elements became the creative palette for our collaborators.  They generated a series of terrific activation concepts for Wollongong’s public places that are a real fit with the place.

I can’t spill the beans on the terrific project ideas that emerged but you can get a sneak peak at the Wollongong Urban Innovation Accelerator in this short video clip. We were able to dive deeply into the aspirations of ‘vibrant and connected’ and ask for whom are we improving the city and why?  Who are the people who are not coming into Wollongong?  How can we spend money wisely so that these communities feel at home in our civic heart?  There is a whole range of short and mid-term projects that are meaningfully connected to that city.

The City of Wollongong is now deciding which of the projects it will implement but the benefits are clear.  We have a city that has seized the intent of its City for People report produced with Gehl and it’s not waiting for all the big-ticket items and planning developments to land.  It’s ready to improve the quality of its public life – and it’s happy to turn a few things upside down in order to keep that vision alive.

 

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Shaping Cities: The Design Imperative

The 2018 International Urban Design Conference will be held at the SMC Conference and Function Centre, Sydney, NSW over 12 – 13 November.

The conference will showcase innovations in projects and research embracing and creating transformational change in urban environments.

Joining us at the conference as a keynote speaker is Ms Caroline Stalker,Design Director Urban and Principal, ARUP Australasia (QLD) who will present on ‘Shaping Cities: The Design Imperative’.

Caroline’s Bio

Ms Caroline Stalker

Caroline is a highly skilled designer, communicator and leader of teams for complex urban design and master planning projects. Her career spans 30 years and a range of project types, including new communities, urban regeneration around transport hubs, city and town centres, universities, public spaces, public buildings, mixed use and multi-residential buildings. Throughout her career Caroline has demonstrated a sustained commitment to enhancing people’s connection to the natural world and each other through design, and an outstanding ability to take an holistic approach to the complex design problems of cities. This has been recognised over the years through numerous architecture and planning awards. Caroline is an Adjunct Professor, School of Design, QUT Creative Industries, and has served on and chaired awards juries in both architecture and urban design, and held advisory roles for government.

Abstract

The vast majority of Australians live in places that are untouched by the hands of architects, urban designers, or landscape architects.  Following a childhood in Australia’s great laboratory of urban ideas, Canberra, the idea that the city is shaped by intelligent acts of design seemed the norm to me – until we moved to Brisbane in the late 70s.  Sitting tidily at the opposite end of the city design spectrum from Canberra, late 20th century Brisbane, like other Australian cities, was growing at pace, shaped by the twin forces of escalating private car ownership and use and unshaped urban expansion.   The imperative for design in these two examples represent two extremes: the ‘top down’ design-led city vs the un-designed city of laissez faire individualism.  Each instance paints a different role for design and the designer; prime author or minor player on individual sites.

These days we talk about city design as a collaborative act, a complex deliberative democracy where disciplines and stakeholders sit alongside one another. This more civilised response to urban complexity brings with it important opportunities for integration, multi-disciplinary and multi stakeholder engagement.  The role of design and designer is to provide a platform for this collaboration.  However, reflecting on 30 years of design practice, the great majority of work has also required applying clear and strong design thinking to retrofit ad hoc urban development that doesn’t work well as an urban environment.  The driving imperative here is to structure unstructured settings, provide the unifying community glue of public realm where there is none, and create a distinct whole place for people out of fragments of land so that people can occupy the resulting spaces in new ways.  It’s always collaborative, it’s always complex.  But the collaboration has always needed filtering through a powerful design framework that orchestrates the pieces and the complexity. Without strong design thinking as a platform for bringing together the collaborative effort, the ‘whole place’ puzzle remains unsolved.

As the 21st century unfolds, we have a new raft of megatrends that are shaping cities, while we are still dealing with the legacy issues of 20th century urbanism.  These include the emergence of the digital disruption in transport, retail and work practices, and changes in urban energy systems and our changing urban demographics.  These shifts all demand new thinking, new approaches, new policies to response.  Increasing complexity demands more collaboration, more integrated layers of expertise.  With these demands comes an even greater need for the organising and humanising layer of strong design in shaping cities.

The paper will present project examples from Arup’s global portfolio to illustrate design imperatives in contemporary city making.

For more information on and to join us at the 2018 International Urban Design Conference, please visit the conference website at urbandesignaustralia.com.au

Design crimes: How ‘hostile architecture’ is quietly hurting our cities

It would be hard to find a more blatant and unapologetic attempt to deter loiterers than the Camden Bench — a seemingly innocuous piece of brutalist urban architecture, hidden in plain sight on the streets of London.

Installed by Camden’s local council in 2012, according to UK-based artist Stuart Semple, the benches are the best example of the worst kind of urban design.

“It’s basically a big ugly concrete bench … It’s kind of like its designers are proud of the fact that it’s anti-everything,” he says.

As critic Frank Swain put it, the Camden Bench is the “perfect anti-object” — a largely featureless lump of concrete that is just curved enough, just angled enough and sufficiently solid to deter extended interaction of any kind.

These benches used in Camden are designed to prevent people from getting too comfortable.

“The Camden Bench is a concerted effort to create a non-object … a strange kind of architectural null point,” Mr Swain says.

Despite its imposing concrete brutality, the Camden Bench is in fact one of the more subtle instances of what’s known as “hostile architecture” — a kind of urban design intended to control, coerce and often prohibit interaction and social relations in public space.

Hostile architecture takes many forms, from the overt and aggressive, like metal bars on park benches and anti-homeless spikes, to the seemingly innocuous, such as benches mounted just a little too high, to make lingering uncomfortable.

But if, as urban sociologist Robert Park wrote, in making the city we make ourselves, one might wonder what collective self-conception has produced a city covered in metal spikes, illuminated by blue lights, buzzing with high-frequencies — paranoid, anxious and hostile, by design.

 With his artwork, Semple aims to break down the barriers that impede social life. His latest campaign, calling on people to photograph and share examples of what he calls “design crimes”, is an attempt to document the impact this kind of design has on our urban landscape.

“Very slowly, bus stops get perches so you can’t really sit on them, spikes appear [and] there’s a lot more sound being used now,” Semple says.

“Some councils are actually playing frequencies that are targeted at young people’s ears and it stops teenagers congregating.

“When we talk about hostile design, hostile architecture, make no mistake — there are groups of people spending time, effort and money commissioning this stuff and designing it to be as brutal as possible against human beings.”

“We know this from architecture history — if you start making things look ugly, uninviting, hostile and dangerous, those places start to become like that.”

Who has a right to the city?

The use of disciplinary architecture in public space is nothing new.

It has long been used to control, manipulate and police the ways in which public space is used and the forms of interaction and sociality that are possible within it.

Its use, however, as an instrument for urban segregation — to separate those entitled to access public space from those deemed undesirable — is a growing phenomenon.

“It’s a symptom of a deeper malaise in the way cities are used,” urban designer Malcolm Mackay says.

“Historically, defensive architecture was used to deal with the enemy without — the marauding hordes coming over the horizon, knocking at the city gates and trying to get in.”

Today, he says, that anxiety has been turned inwards.

This shift has accompanied a radical redefinition of public space, one that has seen common ownership transferred to ownership by strata companies or large corporations.

Originally Published by ABC News, continue reading here.

Realising New Knowledge for Cities From Event Based Legacy – a Gold Coast Case Study

Mr Peter Edwards,  Director, Archipelago & Past President Urban Design Alliance Queensland is a Keynote Speaker at this year’s International Urban Design Conference, discussing “Citymaking games: realising new knowledge for cities from event based legacy – a Gold Coast case study”.

Peter Edwards

Secure your seat today to hear Peter speak!

The base building work for the major legacy of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth GamesTM – the Commonwealth Games Village – is complete.

There is no doubt that this is an important moment in the history of the Gold Coast. Cities are often made from important moments, events that create step change; leaps forward.  On the Gold Coast, we are leveraging the moment using infrastructure as a catalyst to create a step change for the city. Part of that is a platform for a stronger entry into the new knowledge economy, the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct.

This citymaking strategy has been in play for some time with its fruits recently realised. Why now? How? And what should we be doing moving forward? How do we win at the game of making cities through seeing, and seizing, the moment.

A discussion on the potential of event based legacy as a catalyst for new knowledge infrastructure demonstrated through the case study of the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct.

This Conference is an opportunity for design professionals to exchange ideas and experiences, to be creative and visionary and to contribute to redesigning our urban futures.

Register for the 2017 International Urban Design Conference here.

 

Reclaiming the Street: A Decade of Recreating America’s Streets and the ‘Sadik-Khan’ Effect

Be inspired by innovations and projects that are transforming cities this November at the 2017 International Urban Design Conference.

Ms Rebecca Finn, Urban Designer Tract will be discussing “Reclaiming the street: A decade of recreating America’s streets and the ‘sadik-khan’ effect”.

In 2007, in response to decades of car-centric planning, New York City’s Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan led change that completely reimagined the city’s streets and drastically improved conditions for pedestrians and cyclists throughout the city.

Rebecca Finn

The most notable project was in Times Square where large swathes of the street were turned into a pedestrian plaza and blocks of Broadway were closed to traffic. The changes happened quickly and the materials were inexpensive. In a stroke of brilliance, New York City Department of Transportation referred to this one and the many other similar projects as ‘pilot projects’.

If they proved not to work they could be removed and the street could easily be returned to its former state. But, for the most part the changes did work. Times Square and other initiatives, including the miles of new dedicated bike lanes have now been turned into permanent features and the public realm in New York City has been transformed.

What Janette Sadik-Khan and her team did in New York City was admirable, but the nation-wide phenomenon that followed is nothing short of incredible. Similar projects popped up all around the country. The mood was euphoric in transportation and design circles. The concept of streets as places solely for the automobile was finally being seriously challenged. While the idea of trying to improve streets wasn’t new, the speed of delivery was. The ‘pop-up’, ‘temporary’, ‘pilot’ culture had arrived. A decade on, this culture has made a huge impact on city streets both around the country and around the world.

In particular, this presentation examines how streets have been reimagined in Los Angeles as a result of this movement. Los Angeles has long been the poster child for the car-centric city, but this image has been seriously challenged over the last decade. Three projects that show this change will be showcased: CicLAvia (LA’s car-free streets program), MyFigueroa (Figueroa Street Streetscape Project) and Sunset Triangle Plaza.

This Conference is an opportunity for design professionals to exchange ideas and experiences, to be creative and visionary and to contribute to redesigning our urban futures.

Register for the 2017 International Urban Design Conference here.