14 November 2011 – Thriving communities will always be about the “‘ability to renew”:  they are resilient, thus able to adapt creatively to changes and shocks, such as climate change, population growth, social upheaval, economic crises, and rapid technology change.

It may take time, but thriving neighbourhoods can emerge from different types of developments:  be they in inner city or urban fringe areas, in greenfield or infill developments, or in high or low-density areas.

The Thriving Neighbourhoods conference* showed how emerging techniques for the planning,design and management of communities are set to radically improve health, social engagement, environmental conservation and productivity in communities.

Such communities will have the resilience needed to enable them to adapt creatively to unexpected changes, even shocks, such as carbon pricing, rapid technological change, social upheaval and economic crises.

The complexity of the systems involved in creating thriving communities poses difficult and challenging issues for planners, developers and managers.  But the potential returns on the invested effort and resources are massive.

Capturing these returns requires professional collaboration across policy sectors including health, planning, design, infrastructure, IT and the built and natural environments.  Communities must also be engaged from the outset, recognising diverse cultural and individual needs.

A consistent theme of presentations and discussions at the conference was that, health is an important building block for a thriving community.

The conference heard that good urban design could encourage lifestyles that help to reduce the impact of the diseases of the modern world – heart disease, obesity, diabetes and mental illnesses.

Governments are embarking on massive new investment in preventative health policies to contain ballooning health costs, which threaten to cripple public finances as the population ages.

However, good urban planning, design and management are often overlooked as a potent preventative strategy.

Modern preventative health programs recognise that people’s lifestyles are influenced by access to parks, recreation facilities and local fresh produce.  Mental health is also highly influenced by contact with nature and social interaction, which urban open spaces provide.

Apart from avoiding the ballooning direct health costs, the benefits of preventative strategies flow through to economic productivity and quality of life.

Several speakers noted that vibrant and socially tolerant neighbourhoods both attract and create the innovative companies that provide high-value jobs – whether it be Silicon Valley in the US, the locally-produced food zones of Milan in Italy, or the funky cafes of inner cities.

Physical interaction is important, but it is not the sole avenue for connectivity.

Smart information systems are making individuals and whole communities accessible to other individuals and communities.

Connected neighbourhoods help reduce the commuting burden of modern cities, which interrupts family life, creates congestion, negatively affects health, and burns fossil fuels wastefully.

They enable people to work from home or in neighbourhood centres, and could dramatically reduce the scale and cost of transport infrastructure.

Social media is also empowering communities as never before.  Whereas town hall forums were favoured by people and groups with the loudest and most aggressive presence, social media is being taken up by the “silent majority” to have their say.

This creates a far more collaborative and democratic approach to decision-making, which may not be welcomed by the traditional gatekeepers whose role diminishes.

Another aspect of creative communities highlighted at the conference was their resilience.  ‘”thriving” may mean different things in different contexts and times, but will always be about the ability to renew:

Thriving communities are dependent on the building of resilience – physical and social – to enable them to adapt creatively to change.

However, it was evident in almost all of the conference presentations that planning, designing and managing creative communities are not easy.

By definition, thriving neighbourhoods make their own way, take unexpected turns and undergo radical self-transformation.

Melbourne’s laneways, for example, have been transformed from being the delivery and rubbish routes that they were originally designed for, into vibrant places in the city’s social and cultural arteries.

So, thriving neighbourhoods must have scope for residents to “make it their own” irrespective of the original intent of the progenitors and regulators.

It may take time, but thriving neighbourhoods can emerge from different types of developments:  be they in inner city or urban fringe areas, in greenfield or infill developments, or in high- or low-density areas.

Indeed, a conference session on reporting noted that measuring progress at a neighbourhood level is fraught:  economic growth might be a failed metric but there is no available,single replacement.

Concepts such as sustainability are not well-defined,and decision-makers may have to work with a suite of measures that reflect the complexity involved.

The neighbourhood approach thus presents a real challenge to professionals and officials who traditionally approach their role from a single disciplinary or functional vantage point.  It is an approach that only a decade ago was not practiced even at the level of an individual building, let alone at the more complex precinct-level.

But it is clear that deconstructing a complex system such as a neighbourhood into separate variables loses the massive economic, environmental and social value that lies in the interconnection between components of the system.

Future Thriving Neighbourhoods conferences will explore the techniques available to manage this complexity ,and help build a new body of knowledge on which government and industry can draw.

The conferences will have a combination of specialist forums and interdisciplinary discourse, as well as an academic stream that captures the new intellectual frameworks required.

*Thriving Neighbourhoods was hosted by ICLEI and was held at St Kilda Town Hall, 24-25 October.  See https://thriving neighbourhoods2011.org

Lindsay Bevege is managing director of Business Outlook & Evaluation and is on the conference executive committee.

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