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.



Shaping Cities: The Design Imperative

The upcoming 2018 International Urban Design Conference will be held at the SMC Conference and Function Centre, Sydney, NSW next month 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 is Ms Caroline Stalker, Principal and Australasian Design Director for Urban (Urban), Principal at ARUP who will present on ‘Shaping Cities: The Design Imperative’.


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 represents 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.


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 a 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.

For more information on the 2018 International Urban Design Conference and to secure your spot visit the conference website at urbandesignaustralia.com.au


UD2: Barcelona to Bankstown One Superblock at a Time

The upcoming 2018 International Urban Design Conference will be held at the SMC Conference and Function Centre, Sydney, NSW next month 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 is Mrs Valerie Giammarco, Manager City Design with Canterbury Bankstown Council who will present on ‘UD2: Barcelona to Bankstown One Superblock at a Time: Applying Global Best Practice of Complete Streets and Balanced Transport to a Car-Dominated Strategic Centre’.


Barcelona made headlines with its Superblocks concept, where car traffic is re-directed to the periphery allowing the internal streets to become more pedestrian friendly, social and good for business. Now a similar approach is being pursued in Bankstown, the primary centre in Sydney’s largest Council, with the Bankstown Complete Streets Project.

With proposals for a new high frequency Metro line, university campus, hospital, new commercial and residential towers, and redevelopment of a major shopping mall, Bankstown is on the verge of transformation into a key strategic centre.

However the centre experiences one of the highest rates of car use in Sydney and a number of other transport and public domain issues which, if not addressed in the face of this significant growth, will compromise its ability to flourish as a vibrant, safe, attractive and culturally diverse destination.

The Complete Streets Project is applying the Barcelona model to Bankstown by re-directing the majority of traffic and parking around the CBD edges and re-designing the CBD streets to become safer and more attractive to walk, eat, shop and socialise. This represents a fundamental shift in the policy and cultural context that has existed in Bankstown for the past several decades, but is considered pivotal to the centre’s success in the coming decades.

Valerie Giammarco, Manager City Design at Canterbury-Bankstown Council, will provide a detailed overview of the project process and concept designs and discuss how the team have addressed challenges posed by diverse community opinions, political decisions, legal and technical constraints.


Valerie Giammarco is the Manager City Design at Canterbury Bankstown Council, the largest Council by population in NSW with over 360,000 residents. Valerie is an Urban Designer and Architect who is actively championing place-making, liveability and loveability in Sydney’s melting pot of middle ring suburbs. She values innovation and collaboration particularly when it comes to making cities and embracing change. During her career she has had a variety of roles within the public and private sectors. She has won many awards including a recent commendation at the National Planning Institute of Australia awards for “Best Planning Ideas – Small Project” for Urban Interventions in Bondi Junction.

For more information on the 2018 International Urban Design Conference and to secure your spot visit the conference website at urbandesignaustralia.com.au


UD1: Including Young People in Public Spaces and Active Interfaces; Case Studies from Europe

The upcoming 2018 International Urban Design Conference will be held at the SMC Conference and Function Centre, Sydney, NSW next month 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 is Mr Tim D’Agostino, Landscape Architect with Aspect Studios who will present on ‘UD1: Including Young People in Public Spaces and Active Interfaces; Case Studies from Europe’.


Active interfaces, that open buildings and the activities within them to the public realm, offer an ideal opportunity to bring diverse demographics and practices together. If these spaces are located within accessible areas, they can stimulate social interaction and provide learning opportunities, which seems to be particularly relevant for young people (ages 10-18). Such spaces need to be inclusive of all people, in order to inspire and encourage cultural diversity and understanding, creativity and informal mentoring from older community members.

By challenging the traditional barriers of building footprints (inside) and public realm (outside), more vibrant and resilient communities can be forged. In the lure of screen-oriented play, professions working in the urban environment have an obligation to make public spaces feel inviting and inspiring for the often disenfranchised and underrepresented generation of young people.

In this age group there are key stages of finding our place and passion in the world. In Australia we have a strong focus on designing playgrounds for children 10 and under. However, once we hit our teenage years and outgrow the playground we spend less time with our parents and more time with our friends. Together we search for new spaces to hang out in, be it shopping centres, public or privately owned spaces, somewhere local or somewhere in our capital city.

Professional experience and a study tour of European public spaces will be used to explore the question; “If we do not include, support, or enable young people to be in public spaces, how can we expect them to develop social skills, healthy cultural practices, and learn how to interact with broader society?”. Active interfaces will be explored as an opportunity to address this.


Tim D’Agostino is a Landscape Architect working for ASPECT Studios. After finishing his Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning double degree with Honours at RMIT in 2014, he has worked for multiple local councils developing Master Plans, Strategies and landscape architecture projects in both capital city and rural contexts. Tim has worked with a diversity of communities and key stakeholders to develop and deliver inclusive and considered urban design outcomes.

Tim was awarded a scholarship from Parks and Leisure Australia to undertake a study tour of Europe investigating public spaces inclusive of young people. On this study tour he discovered many precedents of communal and social hubs, rich in public life, mixed use activities and active interfaces, of which he will be presenting on. Tim in his spare time has also been a part of the Community Assembly for the Yarra River Strategic Plan and advocates for socially inclusive and sustainable public spaces.

For more information on the 2018 International Urban Design Conference and to secure your spot visit the conference website at urbandesignaustralia.com.au


D2: Over the Street, the Beach: Infrastructure and Placemaking

The upcoming 2018 International Urban Design Conference will be held at the SMC Conference and Function Centre, Sydney, NSW next month 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 is Mr Thomas Rivard, Associate Director – Head of Urban Strategies at Mcgregor Coxall who will present on ‘UD2: Over the Street, the Beach: Infrastructure and Placemaking’.

Mr Thomas Rivard


We consider three challenges when discussing urban regeneration: ecology (natural systems), infrastructure (technical networks) and community (human relationships).

Migration, growth and rapid urbanisation place Australia central to these challenges: effects on environment, urban evolution and inclusive communities. Our cities must directly confront these challenges, as synergistic links between land, infrastructure and production have established unique patterns and forms of development, while continued quality of life demands a corresponding increase in social amenity. Importantly, because of the pressures applied on landscape and its complicit ecologies within urban centres, cities must perform more progressively on environmental issues.

The contemporary city is built on a paradoxical relationship with these two existential pressures: development and environmental impacts. In response, McGregor Coxall works at two scales: the large-scale realm of regional economic development and ecosystemic operations, and the scale of the person, the street and the neighbourhood. The systemic understanding provides the contextual basis by which projects perform, both economically and environmentally, while our understanding of the needs and desires of communities and their inhabitants provide the cultural impetus to make each project unique, identifiable and a genuine product of its place.

Connecting these extremes is the infrastructure required to accommodate each. In urban regeneration projects, we identify, adapt and transform existing and new infrastructure and operations to foster evolutionary development, create innovative approaches to sustainability and afford local inhabitants’ agency in constructing their future communities.

This presentation will explore in greater detail processes of urban design and city-making that establish genuine urban resilience by drawing from local systems, whether commercial, cultural or ecological. It will be illustrated by McGregor Coxall projects that combine sustainable enterprises, cultural diversity and the re-integration of natural and man-made ecologies, creating places from the ground up, driven by strategies for urban regeneration at many scales, and at all levels.


Thomas A Rivard is an urbanist, artist and educator, engaged in a multi-disciplinary practice making cities, urban interventions, buildings, productions and fables, and bringing together diverse collaborators in the pursuit of the impossible and the improbable. His work in the fields of city making, public art, ecosystem design, performance, architecture, installation and media is dedicated to re-imagining the links between provocative cultural acts and the inhabitants of the urban environments in which they thrive. He is head of Cities Research and Innovation at McGregor Coxall where he guides the practice’s design leadership in integrating habitats, communities and infrastructure.

He is the founder of the Urban Islands program (www.urbanislands.net), a global urban workshop initiative. He teaches and lectures regularly at universities and conferences in Australia and internationally, and is currently undertaking a PhD titled Performative Urbanism, exploring the relationships between public space, urban society and narratives of heterogeneity and independence. His diverse interests in cities and the environment will see him contributing to the urban layout of the Burning Man festival this year. He has also been accepted into Al Gore’s Climate Ambassador Training program this year.

For more information on the 2018 International Urban Design Conference and to secure your spot visit the conference website at urbandesignaustralia.com.au