Gilbert Rochecouste
Gilbert Rochecouste of Village Well, photo by Peter Casamento

Treating sustainability as a set of technical requirements is on the way out according to Gilbert Rochecouste of Village Well in Melbourne. He says the mainstream is now starting to embrace the less tangible notions of place-making and creating “regenerative” built environments. 

“The mainstream get it already, they come to Melbourne and see that it’s all about place-making, they see those laneways and they understand what it’s all about.” 

Mr Rouchecouste, who has been a place-making visionary for decades and played a key role in the revival of Melbourne’s inner-city laneways in the nineties, says the “arch of the universe” is genuinely starting to shift towards making places better for people.

“Place is the new green, place is the new black… it’s a sexy story to sell.”

For Mr Rochecouste, shopping centres are ripe for a rethink to make them more welcoming and energising spaces for human activity, particularly as the 80 per cent of Australians living in the suburbs rely on them as their primary public spaces.

The changing face of retail, largely driven by the rise of Amazon and online retailing, means people no longer need spaces built purely for consuming products and services.

Retail has reached an “acupuncture point” in this generation, says Mr Rochecouste, and people – particularly baby boomers approaching retirement and generation X in the future – want more from these public spaces than just shops. 

“They want to be in a garden, hang out… they want to visit quirky operators that aren’t franchises. They want libraries, co-working spaces, train stations, town centres.”

And this new brand of shopping centre is “going off”, he says. Rouse Hill Town Centre in Sydney’s north-west is one example of a shopping precinct that has benefited from a strong dose of this thinking.

This realisation is setting in, with new traditional “big box malls” no longer being built. 

“Westfield sold out a while ago – they saw the writing on the wall.” 

The rise of “regenerative” built environments

The “regenerative” model of building spaces is starting to gain momentum. A regenerative approach involves moving beyond minimum sustainability and wellness benchmarks to pursue holistic environments that funnel positivity back into the community.

“We can’t simply be sustainable, because we’re still extracting more than we’re using and not putting anything back.”

In practice, this means “bringing the community to the table” and drawing on multiple skillsets and disciplines to deliver a holistic spaces where people actually want to be. 

To put this into action this requires a combination of design-thinking, economic expertise, cultural awareness, and skills from multiple other fields. 

Docklands in Melbourne is an example of what is not particularly regenerative, says Mr Rochecouste: “It’s windy, there are no pocket parks, no sanctuary spaces, it’s not fine grain”.

“If it was regenerative, there would be public spaces that serve people such as laneways, shops, bird life, roof top gardens, programmatic events, a night economy”.

The mood is shifting

The regenerative model was a focus at Melbourne’s 2018 Enlightened Development Symposium held by Village Well in May. Ash Buchanan, founder of Benefit Mindset, said the mood was at the event was overwhelmingly in favour of this approach.

“However, at this gathering, I felt like something profound shifted. All of a sudden, here we all were, with Melbourne’s big name developers, investors, designers and planners, having practical conversations about how we could do regenerative work in Melbourne.

“I had a growing sense that many in the room saw this as an important capacity to develop.”

If you build the right space people will come

Mr Rochecouste asserts that if you build these types of spaces, people will come. He says that some of the more “enlightened” developers are starting to see that.

He uses The Grounds in Alexandria as an example of an out-of-the-way site that is now attracting people by the masses. 

Beauty is an economic driver and you need to make healthy sexy and fun

“It’s one of the most Instagram-ed places in Australia. Beauty is a great economic driver. In aesthetic environments, people stay longer and spend more money, which is interesting.

“But we should also be mindful of the power of free. It is okay to let people just enjoy the space and give back a bit.”

Although it’s still common for developers to “cut and run” and make a lot of money by rapidly moving from project to project, there is a handful of players on the front-foot of change.

He says Frasers, for example, “get place” and want to lead the way with the Burwood Brickworks shopping centre in Melbourne’s Burwood East. This gives the development “commercial viability and a point of difference in the market”, he says.

 Village Well was behind the place-making vision for this site. 

For developers, mixed-use developments will be the way of the future. “People want to work and play in a kilometre radius, take back their time, walk through parks.”

“We’ve got to ditch the car and walk more. We’re the most obese in the world, with the highest urban sprawl per head of population.”

“The only way to change this is to make it sexy and fun. In Europe, you jump on a train or bus and its fast and safe and you’ve got great outdoor spaces but here we haven’t reached that critical mass. 

“But we will because people will make choices and they’ll be the disrupters.”

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