Five simple engagement lessons

In seeking to bottle the mystery ingredients in the fourth dimension of place-making here are a few lessons.

Lesson 1: keep it authentic

The authenticity of a place keeps it alive because it makes people feel that being there is real and memorable. As places mature, places can change like we do, but they also stay the same – like we do.  Adelaide’s Central Market with Gouger Street as its artery has used the human dimension of the traders with their specialised goods reflecting old cultures and new cultural food trends, to maintain its success as a retail centre for decades. The experience of just being there is a big part of the attraction.

Lesson 2: keep it dynamic

Placemaking is dynamic – it starts and it never stops. It has human characteristics. Places are like people they have a core “personality type” that never changes but like people they can change as they go through fads, phases and fashion.

In Adelaide’s, Rundle Street East, which I was involved in planning over 20 years ago, as a new urban destination for city living, eating and shopping, there has recently been noticeable change.

In the past couple of years in my visits to Adelaide it had begun to look a bit tired. Now the tenant mix is reclaiming ground with new tenancies of bright, top end retail street experiences – not available in other city or suburban locations – or not presented in the shop front style of Rundle Street East. Change keeps it dynamic while the well loved pubs, restaurants and cafes that have been central to its attraction remain and keep it authentic.

The balance of old and new in the retail mix itself is part of the fourth dimension strategy to attract the kind of people the Rundle Street East “brand “ wants to maintain as its mainstay – to keep it dynamic for visitors.

Lesson 3: keep the brand fresh and involve the local traders and businesses

Now for some case studies from my work in Sydney. The City of Sydney Council’s local action plans are a successful and strong example of community planning to refresh and strongly brand Mainstreets across the inner city by engaging the community to create the fourth dimension. This approach led to Mainstreets and squares that have been refreshed and strengthened with the community involved in contributing to workshops to brief designers and responding to the proposed designs.

The traders in Sydney’s Glebe Point Road had a well developed marketing plan which they contributed to the local action planning consultation process. They were intent on getting the kind of urban design improvements that they felt reflected the sense of place and spirit of their community, re-enforcing the changing character of Glebe with its heritage past, but reflecting the value now placed on the arts, creativity and education by a local community in the orbit of Sydney University, the University of Technology, the ABC and other key education and cultural institutions.

Each of the eight local action plans is a model of place making focussed firmly on the fourth dimension. The plans reflected  the people of the areas and how they wanted their local villages to be refreshed to reflect their authentic lifestyle.

Lesson 4: tap into the community’s creativity

The creativity of communities is a powerful force. It is through drawing on the creativity of the local community that an authentic vibrancy can be fuelled. Another Sydney example is Dank Street in Waterloo. Once light industrial, now a hip and arty place to visit, work in or live near. South of the city or on the way in from the airport, just to the left before you hit Cleveland Street and Surry Hills. Dank Street started with one café and a cluster of art galleries in an old warehouse.

That one move was the catalyst for the area as a hip, cool, cultural place to be. It has become a place that attracts people from Gen Y to the aging boomers who invested in it and made it happen. Its  now attracted retailers, residents, employers and workers of all ages, who like to be there to eat, shop, look at art, shop or just hang out with the other people there.

Lesson 5: facilitate, facilitate, facilitate;  talk, talk, talk

Creating the fourth dimension means a lot of talking!

The role of developers, government, place makers, planners, and urban designers is to facilitate the kinds of places that people want. Place managers are needed, but it’s best if it is in a role of facilitation rather than leading.

It’s best when the place-making happens as a sounding board and a reflection of community interest, desire and opinion. And that’s more about listening than telling people what they want.

In some communities the trader groups are so well oiled they can almost fill the role of place- maker. But in many communities the “place maker” facilitator can be the glue that brings ideas out and brings things to a coherent vision. All my work in place making has been framed by talking and listening to local communities.

What do we mean by community?

We all talk about community all the time – but what do we mean as place makers when we talk about a sense of community.

The word community embodies a whole set of meanings often used for residential communities – but it is a broad and deep concept .It is central to the fourth dimension.

McMillan Chavis (1986) in his still influential work identified the following four dimensions of “sense of community.” Together these form the fourth dimension that is the focus of our work:

  • Community means membership – a sense of belonging and identification
  • Community means influence – the sense that a group of people who are a community can make things change or happen
  • Community describes a kind of place where the successful integration and fulfilment of needs has created a place and group of people that connect into a united unit – a community
  • Community describes shared emotional connections – it speaks of a bond that is achieved through shared history, events and recognition.

Some local case studies – Sydney

The eight villages of inner Sydney were redefined and shaped by their communities through ongoing engagement by the city at local community forums to create the village “high street” as the centre of neighbourhood hubs. These so called “villages” are where the local community of 160,000 residents live. But  every day one million people from diverse communities visit these ”villages”  to work, shop, seek services or just be because they are good places to be.

What began as local planning has influenced the citywide strategy Sustainable Sydney 2030, Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s legacy for a better and more holistic city.

The amalgamation that brought together a disparate collection of inner city suburbs of Redfern, Newtown, Rosebery and Alexandria with Surrey Hills, King’s Cross, Darlinghurst and Potts Point and the Sydney CBD, Pyrmont, Ultimo and Glebe with 160,000 residents has enabled a network of strategic village improvements.

The local action plan project began as a way of the city assessing the success of its services and the needs for urban design improvements and service improvements. When the plans were finally taken back to the communities who had suggested them, and endorsed by council, they became the vehicle for 85 per cent of the city’s capital works budget to be spent to refresh, renew and enliven villages and Mainstreets with priorities the community had called for.

The plan for the City of Villages was intended to focus a sense of belonging and to provide communities with the ability to place make in their local area. A core principle of this is that our built environment should contain identifiable central places – the modern form of the village high street.

The community’s strategic vision in inner Sydney is now delivering community initiated change. Interestingly, despite extensive consultation, place making change when it happens on the ground still brings controversy.

The Sydney community overwhelmingly supported the roll out of cycle ways but when the bulldozers arrived people were upset by change in their streets. In Glebe Point Road refreshing of pavements had its impact on local traders – but after the improvements trade picks up. With the fourth dimension we are always dealing with the unpredictability and changeable nature of the human dimension.

As the landscaping is completed and people return to the bulldozer free streets, the furore settles and the community sense of place is stronger.

The local action plans became a good news story for the communities that were involved in extensive consultation and for the council and for Sydney‘s wider community and perhaps even for you, if you visit Sydney and enjoy being in Glebe Point Road, Macleay Street, Potts Point and King Street, Newtown with their amazing array of shops and places to eat or Stanley Street, the Oxford Street cultural precinct, Danks Street, King’s Cross or Crown Street.

The strengthening of the villages was not all about project and urban designed improvements. It was equally about programs and services to bring the community more closely together. Dog training, computer training, community gardens were all added to life in the villages.  It started and ended with the fourth dimension in sharp focus. Within each of the villages there were major renewal projects identified that were further investigated and developed in the Sustainable Sydney 2030 long term strategy for Sydney.

People are asking urban designers, landscape architects and architects to give them places that will have the fourth dimension – a human spirit.

One million people a week to urban cities.

We live in a time that the world is urbanising at a rate of one million people per week, the equivalent of a city of 500,000 people being built every 36 hours.

This means we need to plan our cities and their Mainstreets carefully, to use every bit of urbanised land we have well and to the benefit of the communities we are part of and work amongst.

The Mainstreet movement arose from recognition that the village life of the high street had human values that some felt had been lost in the chain store shopping streets, arcades and “big box” retail developments that rolled out in second half of the 20th century .

Why we need place making more than ever before

In some places the formal Mainstreet movement has fallen from fashion as newer urban design fads arrive. But the Adelaide conference showed that whatever you choose to call it, the process of working with communities to shape the places they want is sound. As the battle over Barangaroo – Sydney’s last major 28 hectare redevelopment site on the western edge of Sydney’s precious harbour has unfolded – the essence of the debate is the Sydney community wanting the fourth dimension to come first not the built form.

Barangaroo represents hope for Sydney’s next wave of itself as a 21st century city. It must be a fresh, authentic place reflecting its maritime past and its community’s contemporary,  creative spirit and energy.

Making it happen will mean a sharp focus on the fourth dimension, the humanity of the

Jane Jose

place and talking to young people who care about what it will become and listening to them.

Jane Jose is a specialist writer and urban strategist with Elton Consulting and a former deputy Lord Mayor of Adelaide. Recent projects include design and writing of the Sydney Harbour National Park Plan of Management for the NSW government; design of consultation, analysis and reporting for the Time to Talk Canberra 2030 public engagement for the ACT Government. Ms Jose is also a former senior strategist for the City of Sydney, for which she wrote the local action plans and had a key role in designing the community engagement for the Sustainable Sydney 2030 Vision.

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