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.

 

Psychogeography: A Way To Delve Into The Soul Of A City

Psychogeography, as the term suggests, is the intersection of psychology and geography. It focuses on our psychological experiences of the city, and reveals or illuminates forgotten, discarded, or marginalised aspects of the urban environment.

Both the theory and practice of psychogeography have been around since 1955, when French theorist Guy Debord coined the term. While it emerged from the Situationist International movement in France, the practice has far-reaching implications. It’s relevant, for instance, in contemporary Sydney.

Psychogeographers advocate the act of becoming lost in the city. This is done through the dérive, or “drift”.

Because purposeful walking has an agenda, we do not adequately absorb certain aspects of the urban world. This is why the drift is essential to psychogeography; it better connects walkers to the city.

Psychogeographers idolise the flâneur, a figure conceived in 19th-century France by Charles Baudelaire and popularised in academia by Walter Benjamin in the 20th century. A romantic stroller, the flâneur wandered about the streets, with no clear purpose other than to wander.

In his 2013 Paris Review article, In Praise of the Flâneur, Bijan Stephen observes that the use of the flâneur “as a vehicle for the examination of the conditions of modernity” fell out of favour in the ensuing decades. Stephen poses the question:

But as we grow inexorably busier – due in large part to the influence of technology – might flânerie be due for a revival?

psychogeography of a city
Photo: article supplied

Walking as an act of insurgency

The revival had already begun, thanks to popular contemporary psychogeographers, notably Iain Sinclair and Will Self (whose book ‘Psychogeography’ was published ten years ago).

In his book London Orbital, Iain Sinclair describes a walk around the M25 and the “unloved outskirts of the city”. He observes:

I had to walk around London’s orbital motorway; not on it, but within what the Highways Agency calls the ‘acoustic footprints’. The soundstream. Road has replaced river. The M25 does the job of the weary Thames, shifting contraband, legal and illegal cargoes, offering a picturesque backdrop to piracy of every stamp.

Sinclair describes his walk as having a “ritual purpose” to “exorcise the unthinking malignancy of the Dome, to celebrate the sprawl of London”. He also describes walking as a virtue.

Self sees walking as “a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum”. He describes the solitary walker as “an insurgent against the contemporary world, an ambulatory time traveller”.

Psychogeography is therefore useful in showing that walking is not only an art form in itself. It is also crucial in understanding the complication between the histories and myths of urban landscapes.

This article was originally published by The Conversation.

Click here to read the entire article.

What architects can learn from designing with children

By Maria Patsarika, University of Sheffield

It makes perfect sense. If you need to design a new school or playground, who better to help than the children who are going to use it? Gradually, more architects and landscape designers are bringing young people into the design process. Now a new study has looked at what architects learn from children about how to break down their own creative barriers. As one architect put it, children can: “bring an energy, an imagination, an honesty, a moodiness sometimes which I quite like”.

The value of children’s participation in design has been acknowledged in research studies since the 1960s and 1970s. In 1977, the urban planner Kevin Lynch launched the groundbreaking UNESCO project Growing Up in Cities which was at the forefront of showing off children’s creative capacities.

But until now little research has focused on the impact of children’s ideas on the design process, or on the architects themselves. Our research project at the University of Sheffield’s school of architecture has looked at the way architects and children communicate with each other.

Now half-way through the research project, we have completed two case studies and surveyed 16 architects and landscape architects who have worked with children aged one to 18. They were commissioned to design anything from a playground installation and a children’s museum exhibition to a school science pavilion and a school library.

Creative detours

Design has often been associated with what’s called “possibility thinking”, which requires openness and the ability to think through possible scenarios. According to one architect who has worked extensively with children designing schools, these skills are close to what children do in their own creative moments. He said:

I think all creative processes in some ways are a childlike kind of process that allow you to engage with something in a more immediate kind of way. So in some ways I think everybody involved in design has to be in touch somehow with some of those kind of facilities.

The architects we interviewed overwhelmingly thought that children brought fresh perspectives and uninhibited curiosity, leading them to explore alternative scenarios. “We always try to make creative detours with the children and try to trigger their imagination and work – on purpose – outside their everyday life,” one explained.

Whereas adults were perceived by the architects to be limited in their thinking by the practical concerns of the everyday – from time pressures to the liability culture within the construction industry – children were able to concentrate much more on experiencing and exploring space. This widened the scope of creative exchanges with the designers.

Children respond in the moment, and are less likely to self-censor their ideas and responses. Architects said that children were spontaneous and honest about what has been successful and what hasn’t. This gave the architects the freedom to embrace unexpected scenarios.

As one architect put it: “you’re less concerned about saying the wrong thing or if other people have other agendas.” Dialogue with the children “is always unpredictable”, another architect commented, which arguably explains the emergence of new communication modes in their exchanges, such as improvisation.

Losing control

The architects in our research watched as children bolted things together, glued bits of wood, plastered or bricklayered. One of the architects said it “very much felt they were kind of co-designers in the process”. Another landscape architect thought that “children can handle virtually everything in a design process”, having experienced first-hand their creative inputs in designing a multi-functional outdoor space.

Carving poles at Wilderness Wood.
Dan Morrish, Author provided

But it is not always a totally rosy process. Children can be disruptive and unpredictable to work with. An architect who worked with primary and reception stage pupils designing schools and and playgrounds said:

I am less comfortable in those environments where […] you’re going into the unknown really. But I know from experiences that having done that, time and time and time again, working with kids through community groups on their projects, that it’s a really valuable thing to do. I do think it has potentially changed how I engage with private clients.

Such tensions, according to this architect, nurture the transformational potential for architects to introduce a renewed imaginative approach to their work and, ultimately, their professional identity. This potential is big. We will continue to explore it.

Thanks to Rosie Parnell, Jo Birch and Maša Šorn, who contributed to this article.

Maria Patsarika’s research ‘Children Transforming Spatial Design: Creative Encounters with Children’ is funded by a three-year Leverhulme Trust research project grant (2013-2016).

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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