Friday, 23 September 2011

Why I believe the local people are the real design experts

The City Ward is going to be the focus of development in Fremantle for at least the next decade. During that time the best part of three thousand new people might be making the city centre their new home. I was interviewed by the Fremantle Herald earlier in the week, and the first and only question on the subject that I was asked was, “How high should new development be?”

Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything = 42

Firstly, I feel uneasy that the debate about new development has been reduced to just numbers.  I feel the community is capable of a more sophisticated and informed discussion than one that is only concerned with ‘4 versus 6 versus 9’.  As a planner and therefore familiar with all of the elements of design that combine to make a development successful or a failure, it makes as much sense to me as trying to define the meaning of life as 42.  I’ve seen six storeys with a mezzanine work well in places with rich heritage and wonderful aesthetics like Paris, and equally I’ve seen three storeys look like a dog’s breakfast.

Secondly, I don’t like being the implication that I should have established my position on this before community consultation has been performed.  To me, the ability to listen to local people and their opinions is vital for a councillor, and if you’ve already made up your mind on the subject before hearing what your constituents have to say, then to me “you’re not doing it right!” (as my nephew is wont to tell me when he watches me fumble around with my new iPhone).

A core philosophy for me is that local people must be at the centre of planning for the future for great places to be created.  I came across a recent interview with Project for Public Spaces founder Fred Kent in which he talked about this very subject:

"Take Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which succeeds spectacularly as an iconic structure, but fails miserably as a public space. Contrast that to Balboa Park in San Diego, which gets 10 million visitors per year without any trendy buildings or fancy design gimmicks. It's just a great park that offers the people the activities and amenities they want."

Who are the real design experts?

I see a great opportunity in the City of Fremantle for exchanging the philosophy of tokenism currently underpinning community consultation with something approaching genuine community engagement. 
Place making theory states that the real design experts are the ordinary people who live and work within a community.  Fred Kent speaks about this at length in his interview (linked at the end of this post), and I wholeheartedly agree with him. 

Put your hand up if you're tired of being spoken down to by architects, urban designers, town planners, bureaucrats or councillors when being presented with a new development strategy.  Keep your hand up if you're still none the wiser after their explanation of architectural excellence and how it relates to additional discretionary height.  Fred Kent feels our pain:

"Place making ... requires the community members to be at the centre of planning. The outcome has to be theirs. Urban designers who respect community wisdom can be enormous assets if they are willing to leave their egos behind and help communities achieve their goals."

As a Councillor, I will work persistently so that community engagement is not a token, tick-the-box performance.  For me, the community will be expected to participate in planning for projects as experts, bringing their ideas, practical knowledge and concerns to the table at the outset rather than at the end.  In this way, I believe that Freo can achieve some truly amazing places. 

Click here for Fred's interview.


  1. Well made points again, Michael!

    It worries me that we talk about height and bulk, but the place making aspects seemed to be ignored. There is no emphasis on public open spacs, on the social aspects of having so many more people living in the inner city. They need to be 'catered' for and looked after, they'll need things to do and places they can go to. Community gardens where they can grow vegies maybe, both on roof tops as well on street level. Children will need somewhere to play and ride their bikes away from traffic, etc.etc.


  2. Thanks Roel. During our trip to Paris Vanno and I experienced the benefits of some great place making - we loved visiting all the parks and watching the Parisians socialising.

    Love the idea about community gardens and rooftop gardens!