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How to build better places for people

Catherine Carter

Have you ever walked along one of Canberra’s big city blocks and marvelled at the long, lifeless street frontages, the wide, hot pavements or the endless windowless façades?

Anna Chauvel has.

One of Perth’s leading landscape architects, Anna is the brainchild behind PLACE Laboratory, a design practice that puts people front-and-centre. And after recently relocating to Canberra to establish an east coast studio, Anna is looking at the nation’s capital with fresh eyes.

“Whenever I walk around suburban Canberra and see uniform streets, enormously generous corridors, and green parks I’m constantly reminded that, while they may have been designed by well-intentioned planners and engineers, they serve a fundamentally pragmatic function,” she says.

And that pragmatic function is to transport vehicles, carry stormwater or “fulfil a gesture” as part of the broader Walter Burley Griffin masterplan.

“People, it seems, don’t even factor in the design equation,” Anna says. “Little attention was actually given to how those spaces might be used by people or contribute to improving lifestyles. Some streets don’t even have footpaths! How are we meant to connect with each other if the only mode of transport favours vehicles?”

But an urban revolution is occurring, in Canberra and elsewhere, as more people move to our cities and demand better public spaces.

Anna says we’re living through an “urban renaissance” which is driving a new way of thinking about our cities as places for people. We are moving away from the “omnipresent masterplan” – the master hand of one, usually male – and towards the collective community and the centrality of their wellbeing in the design of places.

“The old school, top-down approach to spatial planning has often resulted in vacuous places without soul or character,” Anna explains.

As a designer of the public realm, Anna says she “wants nothing more” than to create great places. But what makes a great place? Can it be measured by the straightness of the street grid or the precise placement of trees?

“Or is it the beautiful symmetry of the radial kerb designed to suit the perfect garbage truck?” Anna laughs.

Jokes aside, the true answer will be different depending on the place, but Anna says her personal measure of a great place is about “how much the place is loved and enjoyed”.

“Human experience defines whether a place is great or not.”

That may seem obvious, but ‘experience’ is increasingly important in cities, Anna observes, as we move into a new period characterised by the “experience economy”. This is largely driven by young people, faced with the seemingly impossible task of home ownership, who are instead “choosing to spend their money on experiences – travel, concerts, performances, restaurants, and catching up with friends, fitness and so on”.

This drive towards experience is also being fuelled by social media, Anna adds, particularly millennials who want to “make, capture and share their daily experiences with friends as a status symbol of happiness”.

“It is easy to sit at home alone looking at Facebook and believe the people around you have superior social lives. This is a huge motivation to go out and ‘do’. Generally, these experiences generate a greater satisfaction and long-standing positive memories, but they also provide social media content to share.”

Anna says many businesses have realised that experience is influencing the choices we make, and points to how product designers often focus on “improving user interaction and enjoyment, usability, access, and engagement with the senses”. That’s why so many people purchase an iPhone over an Android phone.

“Typically, the deeper the emotional connection created between a person and a product, the greater it will be remembered and valued.”

What would happen if we applied this philosophy to the design of Canberra’s public spaces?

For starters, we’d switch from “the usual town planning criteria of traffic planning, parking, yields and density” to design based on “experiential qualities” Anna explains. And that means thinking about storytelling as much as spatial solutions. It means focusing on capturing a moment or a memory as much as the movement of traffic.

Anna points to Melbourne’s delightful laneways as a great example of experiential placemaking in action.

“The City Renewal Authority plans to reactive the laneways between the Melbourne and Sydney buildings, and it is possible to apply some of the lessons from Melbourne,” she says. Converting the lanes into pedestrian priority access with limited vehicle access is a good start, as are partnerships with building owners to create “active frontages”, alfresco dining and a collective brand and cultural program. A public art program that supports budding artists and creative lighting to enhance the atmosphere and safety are also on Anna’s list.

Places “feel much better,” Anna says, “when they are shaped by the creativity of the local community”.

But Canberra’s challenge – one that we face in the transformation of every hidden laneway and prominent square – is to “create experiences that are authentic and that encourage people to participate, not as observers, but as doers”.

And that’s how we’ll get better places for people.

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Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author

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