Jeremy Harris

By Tina Perinotto

3 September 2010 – The 3rd International Urban Design Conference in Canberra this week finished with a bang, with some nice fiery debate on population and how to shift the anti-development sentiment that in its growing vehemence takes appropriate sustainable development in its wake.

Master of ceremonies for the closing session was the compelling Jeremy Harris, a former Mayor of Hawaii and a biologist who spent his life as a politician.

Key among the questions from the hundreds in the audience was how to engage the community into accepting better design. And to understand that clinging to the NIMBY syndrome, or Not In My Back Yard, was not an effective way to get needed results.

Harris fired off a wonderful volley of ideas that set alight the spark of imagination and interest in everyone’s mind.

When he took over as mayor of Hawaii, a place that he had seen swell in population and a subsequent diminished quality of life, he immediately replaced the heads of every major department in the local authority with an architect. (Loads of mirth from the architects in the audience.)

Harris told these architects to go through the local area redesign it in a superior, sustainable way.

The results were converted to an engaging half hour television show – complete with before shots melting into much better “after” shots.

Then – and this was the coup de grace – Harris blocked out the same time slot and on all the available television channels.

At the end was the message: this is only the mayor’s vision of our potential future. Why don’t you turn out to the town hall next Saturday and tell us your?

“Usually you get about 100 people at these events,” said Harris. “Thousands turned up.”

But not only did the newly engaged citizens tun up, they were also given cameras to photograph what they liked and what they didn’t like.

The next Saturday the architects walked around the profusion of photos pinned to the walls and pointed out why a feature was appealing and why something else was considered a turn off.

The crunch of the exercise came with a double barrelled strategy: the citizens were then asked not just to now design what they did want for each of 19 precincts, but they would receive funding to the tune of $2 million a year to bring those visions to reality.

There’s more, says Harris. Not only did the municipality gain 340 new wonderful projects as a result but more importantly, it gained thousands of community leaders who had engaged with design and were now more sophisticated in its understanding.

Caroline Stalker and Richard Weller, panel members

The point, of course, is that design is hugely powerful transformation activity.

So when one of the delegates asked why it was that urban designers and planners think they can save the world, quick as a flash Harris replied: “because they can!”

Also on the discussion menu was population. Should Australia have a big population, or concentrate on a “sustainable” population?

Wrong question, was the response from some of the panel. More important was the quality of life we want.

Another question was, Do we need to have the economy growing all the time? At some point the resources to sustain life really will dry up, said one speaker. So why not have the debate now, instead of when it’s too late?

Panellist Richard Weller thought a steady state economy proposed by people such as Dick Smith was antithetical to the need to lift billions of people out of poverty.

Another angle on population was, does Australia have a choice – especially given the predictions for huge climate instability on our doorstep in South-East Asia.

Some key speakers during the conference captured the imagination of delegates – especially Richard Weller, Peter McDonald and Jeremy Harris.  But with 60 speakers and a non-stop stream of concurrent sessions it was hard for any delegates to secure more than a taste of some very enticing ideas.

The Fifth Estate will have some extracts of talks posted in coming days.