Nikos Kalogeropoulos.

The Canberra-based Molonglo group is passionate about the unique opportunities of landscape and place to create communities. It also wants to be an exemplar of good development and is sharing its learnings through an open-source tool for practitioners. Director and co-owner Nikos Kalogeropoulos will speak at Urban Greening on 28 July in Sydney.

For Nikos Kalogeropoulos, the future of the precinct looks much like the village of his forebears.

We’ve lost touch with the community-focused villages of the past, he says. In order to create truly sustainable communities, we need to focus not on the financial perspective of “property as commodity” – but on how our spaces will shape and interact with the wider community – not just in buildings, but in the spaces between.

That’s why landscaping is so vital, he says.

“Landscape goes beyond just the component that’s not built form. It’s actually the spaces where human beings spend time and experience stuff.

Molonglo, which was established in Canberra in 1964, originally focused on retail property but later diversified to residential, commercial, industrial and mixed-use buildings and precincts, making a significant impact with its New Acton and Nishi building precinct that many say gave Canberra a serious design lift.

“The whole point of being an exemplar and being thought leaders for us is really important. Because, when you’re creating, you want to create great places; you want to create great cities… Not just for us; but it’s for our children, our children’s children.”

Kalogeropoulos, who joined the group nearly 12 years ago, originally landed in Canberra thanks to his peripatetic diplomat parents. His background is in government and strategic finance, including as chief financial officer of Territory and Municipal Services the ACTION Transport Authority, as well as in board roles for ACT Festivals Incorporated and Bendigo Community Bank Canberra.  But it’s his interest in philosophy and ancient history that informs how he thinks about developments influencing the future.

Take for example the ancient walnut tree at the centre of the Greek “plateía” or piazza, he says, or the or the communal “foúrnos” bakery that anchored the community.

“Place has a really important role in creating [community] bonds” and as a child of Greek migrants, Kalogeropoulos often visits his ancestral home, in a way proving the strength of those bonds.

Landscaping ties together all the elements of the community, and creates places for people to live in that enable diversity and community, he says.

It’s this environment-sensitive pathway that underpins Molonglo’s practice, and in recent times has led to the creation of From Here To There, an open-source research-based tool that gives practitioners environmentally responsible, healthy and inclusive high-achieving green developments and share their learnings with others.

The tool aims to unify an often competitive industry towards a common goal for a greener future: “it’s not about us and them, it’s about From Here To There,” he says. 

“I think we recognise that where we are today is not where we want to be… here’s a roadmap that will take time and require hard decisions to be made [to get there].”

The tool is also informed by Molonglo’s publication Landscape as Protagonist, a book featuring interviews with and essays by Slovenian artist and architect Marjetica Potrc whose work focuses on community-based sustainability projects.

It also includes interviews with acclaimed landscape designer, gardener and BBC presenter Dan Pearson, Thomas Doxiadis of internationally recognised architect and landscape architecture studio doxiadis+; and an essay by historian, researcher and author of the groundbreaking Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe.

Kalogeropoulos says that landscape architecture is beginning to catch up with built-form architecture.

“To build great places, one of the key elements, particularly in growing cities and cities that are growing really quickly, is to really think about development from a landscape perspective first. Or at the very least, try and bring landscape architecture on par with built-form architecture.”

He looks towards a long term vision when it comes to designing great places.

Unfortunately, people like planners, counsellors and other people that impact the shaping of cities are doing it as if they’re managing super funds.

“It doesn’t end when the development ends, when you settle the apartments or lease the commercial building or when you exit the development.

“Problem is, property has become a commodity in Australia and other Western countries, and it’s effectively just become an asset. And so, unfortunately, people like planners, councillors and other people that impact the shaping of cities are doing it as if they’re managing super funds.

“Property is part of the fabric of a community,” he says, pointing out that “good property” means having “resilient, diverse progressive communities”. In order to deliver this, property developers need to understand that maximum return on investment isn’t the only goal with property development. There’s also the non-monetary value. As Kalogeropoulos puts it, the “community benefit” that isn’t so much altruistic as it is essential for sustainability.

“It’s not just about the financial return”. It’s about designing a diverse and community-focused precinct that “improves human beings” and creating spaces that become “something that a human being needs”.

For Molonglo, language matters.

Dairy Road, the company’s new project is not on a normal timeline, he says; it’s deliberately slow and being “reimagined” with completion about 10 to 15 years away.

There are zoning rules to contend with that govern where to live, work, and play, but Kalogeropoulos struggles with this, saying that it is “probably the worst thing you can do”.

“If you want to make a city that is bland, if you want to make a city that is anchored to vehicular transport, that’s the way to do it.”

The idea is that this new community showcases its makers as visible and valuable to the community – instead of isolating them from the rest of the city.

Instead the company wants to create a reimagined space that would mix retail and industrial  – interior laneways filled with makers and small businesses within a former light industrial area, and complete with yoga studios, creative coworking spaces, breweries, roasters and chocolate makers – even a wooden boat maker.

The idea is that this new community showcases its makers as visible and valuable to the community – instead of isolating them from the rest of the city.

“If you just want a gated community, this isn’t it.”

The neighbourhood in Canberra’s East Lake borders the Jerrabomberra Wetlands Nature Reserve – one of the most valuable wetland habitat areas in the ACT and of national and international importance, home to a number of aquatic and wetland habitats. 

Including native species in landscaping is a design aspect that will elevate the development and create greater efficiency and sustainability, Kalogeropoulos says. Instead of a lawn there will be unique selection of endemic species, to maximise water efficiency and minimise maintenance.

Urban Greening is on 28 July in Sydney. Tickets are selling fast.

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  1. As a former Canberran, keen observations indeed from Nikos Kalogeropoulos: “Unfortunately people like planners, counsellors and other people that impact the shaping of cities are doing it as if they’re managing super funds.” We have to break away from this ASAP. So many developments have tokenistic landscaping and mostly hard surfaces.