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.
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.
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.
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.