It’s ironic that the location chosen for a major workshop on better urban design for Australian cities was hard to find. But on Friday 20 January, Minister for Infrastructure, Anthony Albanese MP welcomed around 40 individuals from government and non government to the 9th floor of 280 Elizabeth St, Sydney – the home of the Australian governments urban policy engine room, the Major Cities Unit (MCU).
The day was hosted by the Green Building Council and MCU Executive Director, Dorte Ekelund who has overseen the development of an Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities - work that continues an intent outlined in the National Urban Policy. It’s remarkable work from a unit that is small, split between a base in Sydney and Canberra but with a charter that spans the continent. The purpose of the day was to explore the next steps for the Urban Design Protocol.
In opening the event, Minister Albanese announced the formation of an Urban Policy Forum to provide stakeholder advice on city policy. The Forum builds a more regular and co-ordinated bridge with partners who deliver the built environment, including the Built Environment Meets Parliament initiative, and individuals that transcend organizations like Brian Howe AO, and former Premier of South Australia, The Hon. Mike Rann (who led the establishment of the Integrated Design Commission).
The Minister also shared that South Australia’s recent moves to promote a more integrated approach to design and planning put it “streets ahead”; hinting that SA was top of the leader board in responding to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) objectives for better city planning outlined in its communique of December 2009.
So what is the Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities?
The Protocol “provides broad principles for urban design that take into account the unique characteristics of a location, people’s enjoyment, experience and health, and encourages excellence and collaboration in the design and custodianship of urban places.”
The Protocol itself aims to promote “well designed places…through integrated design” (page 12). But beyond a focus on urban design as traditional precinct planning, the Protocol acknowledges the need to foster a broader design culture in Australia, and to promote ‘design literacy’. Inform, engage and educate the community on the principles of good design and you expand the ‘market’ for better designed buildings, places, spaces and the objects that sit within. These are important phrases for a national government to put in to print.
The Protocol starts at a high level, but isn’t shy about outlining the 10 steps that make for good integrated process. It exists as both a hardcopy and a useful online presence with resources and tools to help encourage it’s take up.
The day explored the potential barriers a Protocol may face, the further work that may be needed, and what success might look like in 15 years time. One thing was agreed early. With over 800 years of experience in urban policy, design and planning, engineering and research in that Sydney room, there was unanimous agreement that the Australian government has a role to play in promoting a better quality of life for its people through a more effective spend on cities. And as Albanese puts it, when it comes to the $36bn funding for road, rail and other infrastructure in 2011-2012, “there are real benefits to taxpayers in getting it right first time”.
To be effective, the Protocol will need to be reflected in guidelines and policy by state agencies and each capital city. This is already happening in Queensland. But any cultural shift like this will also need champions to shepherd this great work in to effect. It’s no ‘checklist’ and will need understanding in it’s application.
As the first organization in Australia with a proud mandate to ‘model and promote an integrated approach to design’, there are traits to draw from in the South Australian government’s Integrated Design Commission SA (IDCSA).
The following five traits reflect our own way of working, and the framework crafted for us when first established in 2010. Applying these traits more widely could create a network that is able to shepherd the aims of the Protocol – to create Places for People, and promote a wider culture of design – into effect at every level of Australian urban life.
1. Be multi-disciplinary
Urban design is not a single profession. It’s a ‘practice’ that relies on successfully bringing together policy, design, planning, engineering, finance and construction, place programming, transport and any number of other influences to make a place a success. So it’s important that the MCU and other agencies are permitted to operate across this wide landscape. The IDCSA has a remit that spans design, planning and development; intended to pick up the full lifecycle of decision making from concept to delivery, operation and maintenance.
2. Design must be at the centre
Any wonder cities evolve slowly. Planets need to align across a vast universe of interests and skills for change to happen. So an agency charged with the task of promoting better design needs to be located centrally to access all these levers for the public good. In government, this generally means being located under the co-ordinating imprimatur of a Mayor, a Premier or – for the national government, yes – Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Great places are generally well designed from macro to micro. From the scale of ‘place’ to the ‘products’ we hold, sit at or grip as we walk, eat or lounge in public space. Yet we so often fail to promote the role for great locally sourced industrial design in those objects, and creative graphic design in our signage and banners. And of course the value that bold integrated public art delivers. What if we expanded the concept of the ‘built environment’ to the more expansive ‘designed environment’? It’s not just a demand for good urban design that we need. It’s a demand for a design culture from school aged to old age, from the scale of product to the scale of place. If we achieve this, great urban design will follow.
To drive an agenda like this, any champion needs to be central and empowered; crossing manufacturing, planning and environment, education, arts & cultural enterprise and the rest.
3. Be strategic and nimble
Government is not generally known for its’ nimbleness but there are plenty of examples where small, ‘crack’ teams move fluidly across government to deliver on a particular agenda. Being small offers a strategic advantage in a few ways. Small business knows you need to be a jack of all things when you’ve got limited resources. You stay connected to both the strategy (why are we doing this?), while being grounded in the ‘how’. ‘Strategy’ and ‘tactic’ pinging off each other avoids the ‘why’ becoming stale, and avoids the ‘how’ being dictated by the path of least resistance. Part of implementing the Urban Design protocol will be keeping it fresh, updated and relevant. So an agency that’s small but well resourced might be more agile, ‘elite’ and effective.
Implicit in this is the reality that there’s only so much a small team can do – however ‘crack’ the squad. The real success of the MCU to date is the strategic focus it’s brought to the cities agenda. But the delivery needs to prove up the ambition. A broad mandate for the MCU will need to be reflected in ‘delivery’ units within departments to champion the principles of good design and smart planning within, say, Finance, Health and Education. And is there any more effective lever than public sector procurement to operationalise the Protocol? (How has the Federal Department of Finance incorporated COAGs 9 objectives for better strategic city planning in it’s own assessment procedures, and how is it seeking it’s state colleagues to report against it?).
4. Drive industry & research partnerships
Being small also drives the imperative for collaboration with industry, research and not-for-profits that are vital to better urban design. Those demanding better places for people (and putting their money & expertise where their mouth is) include the Heart Foundation, peak bodies like the Planning Institute, developers and insurers, architects & landscape architects, child & youth organizations, retail traders, cycling advocates and the rest. Harnessing the expertise of this diverse community to develop the guidelines and case studies, business cases and smart messaging is essential.
5. Be networked
It’s expanding an earlier point, but how do you operationalise the work of an agency like the MCU (and the Protocol) across the various levels of government? Well of course each level plays its own role. Basic research tells us that children in urban school yards are more susceptible to asthma the closer they are to major transit corridors. So is this an issue for the department of Education, Transport or Health? And would that be at the national, state or local level? Each plays a role. Putting the objectives of the Protocol into effect will need a ‘networked’ model; bringing national strategy and co-ordination, and state action alongside capital city council alignment. It’s clear that COAG is demanding states to report against the 9 objectives of its communique. Just how states will do this is yet to be worked through, but it’s safe to assume state cabinets will play a role if COAGs first objective – for the functions of government to be integrated across government agencies – is to be proven. So its important that state architects, design agencies and others yet to be born have a sightline to the central co-ordination that comes through cabinet.
That’s how you get better, more integrated outcomes.