I spent my childhood in the Olympic Village that was built for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics to house the international press and athletes. When the Olympics was over, the village became available for public residence. As there was no existing community, when a new one moved into the apartments – some rising up to 24 stories – everybody was new and brought with them different values and aspirations for how they wanted to live. In a city where dense urban living is the norm and in a culture where conforming to the majority matters, some of those values were realised, most were not. Ultimately there was little sense of ownership or individualisation of the shared public spaces.
While quite different in scale, Australia’s cities are growing at an unprecedented speed. Our new neighbourhoods are tall, dense, and often character-less and our social connection is declining. We don’t have a holistic policy in place that guides the development of the whole of the neighbourhood with the ultimate aim of promoting our wellbeing. In particular, those who suffer the most from the poverty of opportunity – the homeless, elderly, children, youth, gender/ethnic minorities, people with disability and other economically excluded groups – don’t have equal access to our cities. Our shared spaces are often places of exclusion, designed to serve interests of a dominant class.
Advocating vulnerable communities’ right to the city is at the heart of Urban Toolbox and my Westpac Social Change Fellowship journey. I am particularly excited to start the journey with a visit to Seoul/Incheon for the New Cities Summit, a city that triggered my childhood curiosity about people and places. In my rather somber application essay to Yale University 13 years ago, I questioned the social impact of the places, neighborhoods and cities we were creating, citing Seoul as an example of a city losing character and community cohesion. I am looking forward to meeting young and established social entrepreneurs who are reshaping the communities bottom-up.
From June to October 2017 I will be speaking, training, visiting places and meeting thought leaders in Seoul, Singapore, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Detroit, New Orleans, Calgary, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland and Melbourne.
I hope to share along the way my learnings on practical approaches to social inclusion and community cohesion through placemaking and urban design. I would appreciate your input on people that I should meet and exemplary projects that I should see – please get in touch!
Layers of mismatching blankets and a fluffy white pillow are placed gently on a thin single mattress, pushed against a vacant, but handsome, building in Darlinghurst. The former substation and toilet building in Taylor Square has a palpable public presence – with all four sides wide-open, and the site un-programmed and unclaimed. The permanence of the brick building, now about 112 years old and heritage-listed, is starkly juxtaposed with temporariness of the mattress. Ordinarily a representation of warmth and intimacy, it is left cold and exposed.
Who placed it there? Who will be sleeping in it? Is it art? A protest?
Or the state of our citizenry decency?
It is 7pm on a Friday. Bars, restaurants and clubs on the connecting Oxford Street are just warming up toward end-of-work celebrations, inviting people in from the night chill. The public spaces are quickly filled with a dominant class: local residents and visitors with disposable income, stimulating the night economy.
Public spaces attract planned and incidental interaction, increase economic activity and build social trust. They are also places of disorder, expected to be administered by what constitute as social norms. The unease aroused when approached by homeless people on the street, or when our personal and public spaces have been compromised – prompts the question who has the right to the city and public spaces?
Citizenry engagement of the socially excluded is still underdeveloped and under-practiced in neighbourbood planning. Many of them – including asylum seekers, refugees and the homeless – have no first place (home) or second place (work) to be in. The third place (public space) is thus appropriated as all three.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”, said Jane Jacobs. But how far should we go? How do we invite everyone to co-create our cities? Is this an idealistic vision of a socialist, which our market economy simply cannot and will not support?
Of the community engagement activities I have delivered across diverse Australian cities, participation patterns have common themes: those with resources – whether it is time, money, health, education or cultural advancement – will be better heard; those without, won’t. And the poverty of opportunity will continue in a vicious cycle.
I have been spending a bit of time with the street community in Darlinghurst, to co-design and co-deliver public domain improvements for a community cafe. A refuge for the homeless, Rough Edges serves meals and provides a safe place for the street community to socialise. Located amidst Darlinghurst’s vibrant restaurants, bars and cafes, its public domain is, in contrast, apologetic, deteriorating and hides away from the public.
The biggest challenge that I set up for myself is to sustain the energy from the engagement stage and empower the community to be upskilled in the process of change. To build true ownership of shared resources or spaces, the user groups need to be involved from the beginning to the end – that is, from defining the problems and ideation, to prioritisation and delivery.
Interviews with the community, volunteers and local businesses, site audits, and a workshop were carried out. The participants were especially enthusiastic about painting a mural — creating artwork as a representation of the community with spots available for people to fill in with the portraits of themselves, their families, things or pets. With 6 people who have already put their hands up to co-deliver the project, this public domain will soon offer a sense of belonging to those that have nowhere else to belong to but in the third place.
Stephen Corry, an artist and a regular at Rough Edges, is all too familiar with how that works. “If you include as many local people as possible in the painting process, they will protect the wall”, he says as he pulls up a large black folder filled with his sketches, prints and paintings. The bold, at times confronting, themes oscillate between safety and warmth, and survival and fear. The man is talented. He could teach the rest of us how to prepare a wall, paint and look after murals (check out his upcoming exhibition). Sitting quietly next to him, a young man shyly puts forward a canvas, covered in elaborately painted typography. “I can spray paint”, he says. I am elated with possibilities.
As much as Rough Edges is a place for the street community, the project is also about giving back to the local residents and visitors. The workshop participants liked the ideas of a community book share, child-friendly playable area and more seating for the general public. Currently an average of 222 people walk by during the day/evening and 30% of the children can’t help themselves but to play on the wall in the front.
Co-creation and partnerships started to form, as our story began to take shape and be shared. This project is not only a public domain improvement project, but a means to upskill the participants in the process of change. Stephen’s knowledge and skills in street art will be shared with the community. Local businesses are looking forward to the change and continue to offer in-kind support. GoGet has generously donated a workshop session for a volunteer to build a Street Library, to be painted by the community and installed onsite.
A sense of purpose, fulfilment and meaning of life – these aren’t the needs reserved only for people with money. Any opportunity to empower marginalised people to achieve self-actualisation and esteem, must be rigorously and actively taken. Learning a new skill (e.g. painting, carpentry, landscaping) and demonstrating the ability is a good start. In turn, the property will be protected by these ‘guardians’.
Homeless people’s right to the city at times challenges the rights of other inhabitants. It gets people angry at times. But until the marginalised people are standing just as close to an array of opportunities as the rest of us, tents, mattresses and personal belongings in our shared space deserve kinder eyes.
The project is now in the implementation stage. If you are interested in partnering with Rough Edges to deliver public domain improvements, or have learning opportunities for the street community, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rough Edges Engaging Street Front project will be presented at the International Cities, Town Centres Conference in November 2016. Visit www.urbantoolbox.com.au to learn more about human-centred design.
“The Right to the City” pays homage to Henri Lefebvre and Don Mitchell who respectively produced writing with the same title.
Public transport is perhaps one of the best places to get an authentic sense of the local culture. While working in New York City, one of the most memorable subway moments for me were the random visits by young break dancers who would perform a series of jaw-dropping front/back flips in the 1m wide passageway. On the Vietnamese public bus that I would regularly take to get to Hanoi Architectural University, I witnessed young people silently and automatically giving up their seats for the elderly (if the offer was not made quickly enough, the ticketing staff would speed up the process). For the virtually active Seoulites, wifi-enabled subway stations, rail cars and buses were essential to the long commute home, while the rail cars’ heated seats were a bonus in the freezing Korean winter. I enjoyed observing how the locals’ behaviours differed from place to place, and how the transport system developed to meet their different needs.
While the environmental and economic benefits of public transport are inarguable, the social benefit has been paid less attention – public transport is a rare opportunity for time-poor urbanites to see how other people live, behave and look, and rub shoulders with each other. So how easy, pleasant and ‘experiential’ are we making public transport for diverse user groups? And how do we attract those that are used to driving?
I was in Auckland last month mulling over these thoughts at train stations, bus stops and bike lanes. Just the fact that Auckland has a train system and bike lanes is worth celebrating, as they didn’t exist in the early 2000s when I was a local resident there. Without real time bus location apps, blindly waiting for delayed buses in crowded bus stops was a frustrating experience for sleep-deprived, time-poor architecture students. Over the last decade, technology has solved many issues related to convenience or at least is in the process of doing so. Political pressure to increase and improve public transport options is on the rise. Public investment in new buses and stops, rail cars and stations has led to safer, newer and cleaner rides, with fares being tested and adjusted.
Despite the above positive changes, the proportion of Auckland’s public transport users is still low, about one third of Sydney’s and half of Melbourne’s. About 55% of the CBD workforce use private vehicles.
Is there a way to turn public transport into a treat rather than just a cost/convenience-driven choice? Auckland’s transport system including the bus, train and bike lanes, appears to be safe and well-maintained, it is functional. The experience of waiting or arriving at the nodes on the other hand, couldn’t be more boring, unwelcoming and uncomfortable.
Not every node can have the Sydney Harbour view of Circular Quay, the active plaza of New York ‘s Union Square or the awe-inspiring architecture of Lisbon Orient Station. But taking a few lessons from successful transport nodes of the world; we’d better start paying more attention to the waiting experience and the sense of welcome on arrival.
Mature willows gently sway in the morning sun dotting the edge of Avon River, where ducks, eels and trouts go about their daily activities. The river runs through Hagley Park, the Botanical Gardens, the city centre and many suburbs, creating pockets of green spaces along it.
Pre-earthquake, discovering heritage buildings and courtyards was delightful, as were the Cathedral Square weekend markets and the pedestrianised City Mall. The quiet suburbs would offer their front gardens to passers-by for their visual enjoyment. These places looked inviting, calling for neighbourly interactions and civic participation. The distinctive Canterburian landscape has stayed the same and redevelopments will provide safer and newer places – but the city seems to be at the crossroads of becoming more inward-looking and less welcoming. Will Christchurch live up to the Garden City tagline in the future?
Christchurch looks very different now compared to 5 years ago when two major earthquakes hit (Sep 2010 and Feb 2011), killing 185 people and damaging 100,000 homes. About 8,000 homes are being demolished in the residential red zone, an area to the city centre’s north east ‘where the land has been so badly damaged by the earthquakes it is unlikely it can be rebuilt on for a prolonged period’ (see CERA map). The city centre was affected the most – losing many workers, memories and assets. 1,240 central city buildings and the places that we used to love have been demolished, 20% of which were heritage buildings. Large sites packed with gravel now dominate the scene, offering plenty of free car parking, but little else. A city that was once known for Gothic Revival architecture can no longer claim to be New Zealand’s most European city, at least architecturally.
There was a moment of panic after the earthquakes, as many left the city to escape the stress of constant aftershocks, and to find an alternative home, work and a sense of normality. The 4% drop in the population between 2010 and 2012 was palpable on the streets and public spaces; the loss of places, social circles and things to do had created a ghost city where the locals say they could hear a pin drop at night.
But there is hope.
With so much infrastructural work, the construction industry is now the most common industry with 59% increase in the number of workers (see census inforgraphic) who are contributing to the local economy, and also its identity. Christchurch City Council just got $635 million insurance payout, which will help rebuild the city. With large investments going into the centre – now feels like the right time to pause and ask: are we building the future that inspired us back in 2011, when we had clear values and aspirations for how we wanted to live?
I think back to the amazing community engagement process by the Christchurch City Council called ‘Share an Idea’. The 105,991 ideas collected for the Central City Plan development were summarised into six themes: green city; distinctive city; urban life; market city; transport choice; and remembering the earthquakes. It felt like the community had spoken and the city centre was going to be more compact, smarter and greener. It would be a real triumph, a story of a city that showed the world how to turn a natural disaster around.
There certainly have been positive changes and new micro-scale culture in the city centre. Grassroots responses like Gap Filler and various street artists are what the city desperately needed pre-earthquake to satisfy the creatives and hipsters. Transitional retail precinct Re: Start has been an inspirational project, although its land will soon be returned to the owner for permanent redevelopment. The much anticipated Margaret Mahy Family Playground opened last December and it includes nature-themed play equipment, picnic spots and food stalls. Compared to Christchurch before the earthquakes, the city centre is quirkier and less traditional; more generous and less transactional.
While the transitional phase has led to innovation and creativity, the future of Christchurch relies on longer-term investment. What used to be small scale offices, shops and houses have been cleared and the lands amalgamated to make room for large developments: apartments on the East Frame and various precincts. As such, the building and public realm designs face the inevitable fate of becoming ‘same same’, lacking diversity in materiality, detail, scales and user groups. “Too much glass”, “too grey”, and “too big”: there are increasing concerns from the community about how the city centre is shaping up. Publicly accessible private lands are likely to look and feel exclusive – deterring non-residents from using the through-block links. At the anticipated price tag of $500,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, I wonder how quickly the centre will be gentrified, further driving away the ‘undesirables’.
The character of the suburbs is changing too. There are more cars on the road due to roadworks and detours, and shopping centres and supermarkets are prevalent (read my article about Christchurch suburbs two years ago). Many have taken the opportunity to improve their houses with the insurance payout, putting up new street front fences. The hard, blank walls taller than humans mark the property boundary line and butt right up to the footpath edge, keeping out traffic noise and unsolicited looks. Inward-looking and private, the city’s homes seem to be more closing in than opening up. It didn’t used to be that way (my parents still remain proud of receiving the Community Pride Garden Awards 7-8 years in a row). Many houses that haven’t gone though ‘improvements’ still boast inviting street frontages, with setbacks covered in greenery and low, permeable, interesting fences. These houses share their gardens – and provide the perception of safety, and contribute positively to the neighbourhood character and the making of ‘Christchurch the Garden City’.
The future character of Christchurch will not only be determined by the city centre, but also the community’s contribution to the public realm. ‘Christchurch the Garden City’ should not be just about council-managed or developer-owned parks and gardens; it should be an aligned vision agreed and delivered by the people of Christchurch.
I think of Knafeh Bakery, aka Bearded Bakers. The 17 bakers have been taking over Sydney’s empty car parks and streets lately, with their pop-up shipping container full of Knafeh: a cream and cheese filled Middle Eastern desert. Led by two Palestinian brothers, Bearded Bakers’ Knafeh is the kind often found on the streets of Jerusalem. Their brand is less about Palestinian food though, and more about the Jerusalem desert that seems to be attracting people of all backgrounds including Christian and Muslim Palestinians and the Jewish communities. The bakers smile, dance, chat away with their customers, bringing not just delicious food, but a fun, positive and personal experience.
I didn’t always associate Jerusalem with Knafeh – it took a few meetings with the crew and following their colourful, action-packed days via Instagram and Facebook. Somewhere along that journey, the image of heavily bearded Middle Eastern men started to represent bakers, the feeling of ‘otherness’ subsiding with the familiar profession; and a different, more personal connection with Palestinian people began to grow.
Many, understandably, seem to associate Palestine in a distant manner. I asked 12 male and 10 female Sydney residents, “what word/s come to your mind when I say ‘Palestine’?” 6 responded with the word ‘conflict’, and all responded with words related to conflict/war (e.g. oppression, suffering, non-violence programs, stateless etc). One mentioned Phoenician Empire.
The current perception of Palestine’s national identity reminds me of the kind of questions and comments I used to receive in the early-late 1990s, as a Korean immigrant in New Zealand. Despite the fact the Korean War had been over for decades (ceasefire in 1953), the locals’ perception of South Korea was deeply associated with suffering and poverty, thanks to media and the lack of direct engagement with Koreans in the past. My country of birth triggered responses ranging from “Korea is next to Japan isn’t it?” and “I have been to Japan”; to “are you from South or North Korea?” and “Will South and North reunite?” In their eyes, South Korea was a little war-struck country somewhere next to Japan where the ‘others’ lived, which in turn influenced me to believe South Korea really was just that, with little to be proud of.
In that context, the role of a cultural ambassador was inevitably assigned to me, my family and the rest of Korean community. We shared our stories, food and art with our neighbours and friends, not only to shift their negative perception of where we came from but also to engage them on the issues of multiculturalism. In my first year of New Zealand schooling, I would realise why my dad had been so adamant about fixing my poor chopstick holding technique. “If you are well-mannered, Kiwis will think all Asians are well-mannered. If you are badly-mannerd, they will think all Asians are badly mannered,” he would say.
The perception of South Korea has changed dramatically in the last two decades – the axis of evil North Korea has made South Korea look even better: modern, rich, technologically advanced, sophisticated. No one asks me now where exactly Korea is, or if I am from North Korea. Many ask me which restaurant does the best Korean BBQ, if I listen to K-Pop or if I like Samsung products. More positive perceptions like those seem to empower Korean immigrants to share more of their stories with others; and to form a stronger sense of self and belonging in their new country.
More than 20 years have passed since my family’s immigration and I ask myself, have I been a good cultural ambassador? Which groups of ordinary citizens would be the most effective bridge-builders today?
As I wait for my lunch to be served in a small Korean restaurant in Strathfield (‘Korea town’ where 37.4% was born in Australia, 9.8% in China, 9.0% in South Korea, and 8.1% in India; Census 2011), I observe how the restaurant staff have essentially taken up that role of a cultural ambassador. The staff thoroughly describe the traditional food in good English; illustrative menus and external building signage are in Korean and English, but with distinctive Korean characteristics; K-pop plays in the background; traditional metal bowls and chopsticks are offered; and the food is authentic. There is a sense of pride in the service as well as the food. While the offer is an authentic Korean casual dining experience, it is inviting and welcoming for non-Koreans also. More than half of the customers remain to be non-Koreans during my visit.
While celebrity ambassadors have been used as marketing and branding strategy for decades, we need our everyday retailers to be our cultural ambassadors. Often as the first contact of a cultural experience, they can engage hundreds of people per day and offer a memorable experience for customers to share with their friends. Their expression of cultural pride on display windows, awnings or interior design, is comforting to those from that region and a reminder of what’s great about it, advocating a sense of pride and belonging. For others, it is a unique experience associated with positive contributions new immigrants can offer.
The authentic positive experience offered by ethnic retailers is not in any way to belittle the gravity of sufferings that may be taking place in their home countries. Rather, it should be a strategic move to form an emotional connection with their customers, raise awareness and possibly take positive actions – because reason and logic alone does not help us overcome prejudice and fear. This bottom-up approach of humanising the issues that seem so distant from many of us in Australia, will essentially lead to an interest and understanding of the bigger picture.
Whether intentional or not, Knafeh Bakery has already begun this journey. And I look forward to the positive contribution they will make to our communities, inspiring all of us to care more about the ‘others’ in Australia and elsewhere.
Follow Julia’s insights on the public domain and intercultural relations on Twitter @JuliaSuhCom
“Ooooh sushi, konnichinwa, sushi”, one of the men shouted repeatedly while circling around me, trying to get some sort of reaction. The group had been waiting at the bus stop for about 5 minutes, when two men came right up to my face hoping to get attention and perhaps entertainment. They had clearly been drinking, evidenced by the empty cans of beer scattered across the footpath.
I said nothing. But I didn’t walk away either. I looked at them in the eye and quietly pulled my phone up to take a video of their actions and words. The camera seemed to effectively turn their voices down until the bus arrived and we all got on. We shared the same, uncomfortable space while avoiding direct eye contact. The public transport, full of people that I believed would support me, was the pacifier of our conflict, as was my camera: under the watchful eyes of others, the men adjusted their behaviours to the expectation of the society.
How does it feel when something like that happens, my friends ask. My heart breaks, really. I have lived in the west for more than 20 years, and this kind of incident is not uncommon. You hear about them from your friends and family, you see them on Youtube and you read about them on the paper. I spoke with 6 ethnic minorities living in Sydney to get their views.
Taiwanese-American female late 20s
Chinese-Vanuatu-Australian female mid 30s
Vietnamese-Australian female early 30s
Sri Lankan-Australian female late 20s
Indian-Kenyan-Australian male late 30s
Vietnamese-Australian male late 30s
5 out of 6 were subjected to verbal racial assault at some point of their lives, ranging from “go home, Indian” and “what are you doing in this country” to “Parki (Parkistan)” and “ching chung”. When asked if they felt unsafe in a particular public space because of their ethnicity, they said Sydney was a relatively safe place and it was fine as long as they used common sense e.g. don’t walk around a train station after 11pm alone. A hijab-wearing colleague had a slightly different perception saying that she has felt unsafe in a number of places.
Looking at the subject from the other end, many communities that I have worked with all over Australia feel uneasy about the rapidly changing demographics: suddenly there are too many people out and about in their own ethnic groups, doing their shopping in their specialist stores. The shops look dark inside, with unfamiliar products tucked away, adding to the fear of the unknown. Established Australians often don’t feel invited to get to know new ethnic groups that start to form dominant cultural enclaves. And they are not quite sure how to bridge the gap.
One could contribute this ongoing feeling of ‘otherness’ on the relatively short migration history of Australia. But cultural integration is a complex issue in older countries in Europe and North America too – time by itself clearly does not resolve tension. Will we ever stop perceiving certain ethnicity as a threat or a target of bullying? Can we better design our public spaces to promote intercultural understanding and build relationships?
Oscar Newman’s defensible space theory in the 1970s established the link between community ownership of the space, crime rate and economy. In his book, Creating Defensible Spaces, he cites three case studies in the U.S., scrutinising each neighbourhood’s demographic groups, and the impact the physical environment has on their behaviours. Although the focus is on crime reduction around housing projects, the theory remains relevant today with regards to providing passive surveillance, promoting place attachment and building social trust.
Karin Peters, author of Living Together in Multi-Ethnic Neighbourhoods (2011), specifically explored public spaces and social integration in the Dutch context. She argues that “casual intercultural interaction can be facilitated by the availability of facilities that give purpose to a space and enhance its social vitality”. In the case of Kanaalstraat – a multicultural shopping street in Lombok that includes a number of Turkish, Indian, Surinamese businesses – the shop owners contribute to facilitation of such interaction; in the case of Goffertpark, the park’s openness, accessibility and diversity of users invite informal interaction.
To consider the state of ethnic integration in the Australian context, I spent some time in Auburn last Saturday. Auburn LGA is one of the most diverse council areas in Australia, with only 39% born in Australia (2011 Census). The Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Indian and Turkish influences are visible on the shop signage and unique products on display; and so is the segregation of the ethnic groups, with each clan visiting specific shops.
Infamous for its high crime rates, including domestic violence and car theft, Auburn hasn’t had much positive media lately. Their 2014 Community Safety Survey shows more than 96% of the survey participants believe that crime in the Auburn Local Government Area has either increased or stayed the same in the last 12 months, in contrast to the actual statistics. 63% of the participants stated there are places in the LGA where they feel unsafe. (Note: In Auburn LGA, 20.5% of people only speak English at home according to the Census 2011, compared to 62% of the survey participants that speak English either only or with another language. Culurally and Linguistically Diverse groups may have been underrepresented in this survey.) A high number of refugees, new migrants and low employment rates are often blamed for such social issues in the media.
Leaving the Auburn train station, I am pleasantly surprised by the hustle and bustle on the street. The public domain is certainly outdated – smelly and lacking greenery in general – but its authenticity lies in the vibrant, fine-grain shops along S. Parade that sell everything from fresh fruit and bread to seafood and meat. Footpaths are packed by 11am with families with shopping carts and trolley bags, picking up the week’s worth of groceries. The shops open wide to the street, allowing people to see what’s going on inside. I stick my head into a bakery with arabic signage, hoping to discover some authentic, magical piece of deliciousness that I would instantly Instragram.
The colourful and diverse life on S. Parade forms a stark contrast with Queen Street that parallels it. Franchise shops including Oliver Brown and Gloria Jeans line up the northern side of Queen Street leading to the shopping centre entry. The southern side is a blank wall, providing an entry to a car park. The footpath widens just past Harrow Road to become a larger pocket of space that lies bare. Little time is spent lingering in the open space: it is not sheltered, has no greenery, there is nothing to do and nothing to see. Three benches along the edge are well occupied by those taking a break from their shopping, reading newspaper. The recently upgraded Auburn Road remains empty too, despite the more attractive and green streetscape. Very few dine outside.
Inside the shopping centre – people are busy doing their shopping as quickly as possible at Big W, Woolworths and the butcher’s, and getting quick meals in between. It is built for the sole purpose of grocery shopping, nothing else.
In Auburn, grocery shopping for large families is the key reason to go out and spend time in the public space, yet the main shopping area does not offer many things to do. It is disconnected physically from the rest of the centre: the newly built Auburn Memorial Park, which draws many families and children; public seating areas on top of the pedestrianised Queen Street steps; and the community centre.
Diversity is definitely there in Auburn and many other neighbourhoods in Australia. But social trust is not about putting people in the same room hoping they will start ‘integrating’. We have to offer an invitation for them to start a conversation, in a place where everyone feels safe. Engaging migrant communities in a meaningful way will take more than focus groups, workshops and surveys; many come from cultures where civic participation and ‘having a say’ leads to persecution or where decision makers are people of higher socio-economic status. In those suburbs, what William H. Whyte called ‘triangulation’ – a process in which “some external stimulus provides a social bond between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not” (Whyte, W. H.,1980) – takes on another layer of complexity, that is multiculturalism. The usual conversation starters such as the presence of dogs, children, balls and events would be still effective. But in addition, the designer must remember that the same features in the space may offer different meanings to different user groups, encourage them to negotiate their space with others, and help them feel safe about expressing their identities.
The Auburn Memorial Park has already begun to bring people together in its playground. Conversation starters don’t have to cost a lot, and visual interaction is a step forward. Small dog parks, interactive artwork, chess/majong boards, Instagram moments that are connected to its shopping hub can be tested for local appetite. And from there, perhaps a shy hello will grow into curiosity of ‘otherness’ and even a celebration of multiculturalism.
In a suburb called Ilam, only 5 minutes’ drive away from the “red zone” in the earthquake-struck city of Christchurch, lives and works Richard Gardiner, a retired high school design teacher. His one-and-a-half-storey bungalow, built in 1927, was relatively unaffected by the earthquake. “We are very fortunate,” he said and took a moment to reflect before continuing. “We had no major structural damage to the house apart from the chimney. The day after the earthquake I climbed onto the roof to take down the remaining bits of chimney. A silly idea I realised afterwards, with all the relentless aftershocks!” he said. Gardiner set up his architectural model making business Scaled Down not long before the earthquake shattered the city on 22 February 2011. The disastrous event unexpectedly turned what began as a personal hobby into a full-time career. “I would say 75% of the commissions are from ordinary people wanting to keep something to remind themselves of their destroyed houses, and more importantly, the memories they built in them,” Gardiner said. With the opportunity for renewal also comes the tension of how much of our past we should hold onto.
Almost 3 years after the catastrophic day, standing in the midst of vast gravel fields of the Central Business District (CBD) where office buildings, hotels and restaurants once stood, I certainly have difficulty picturing what the city, my hometown since 1994, used to look like. As a high schooler in the mid-nineties, my usual hangouts were limited to friends’ houses, suburban malls and numerous neighbourhood parks, while taking the bus to “the city”, “the [Cathedral] Square” or “Hoyts on Moorehouse Ave” was a special and almost rebellious action. Not that there was anything particularly exciting in the CBD, but at least it was a good place to watch tourists with large cameras hanging from their necks, see who is winning the Giant Chess game and, sometimes, hear the Wizard speak nonsense – or the truth – from the top of a wooden ladder. At the end of the day, after what seemed like the longest 20 minutes of wait, I would be glad to be on the bus back to the comfort and safety of my suburban home.
When I turned 16, I had a weekend job in a souvenir store on Colombo Street. A short segment of Colombo Street to the south of the Cathedral Square was lined with restaurants and shops then, mainly serving foreign tourists, and in turn activating the otherwise quiet CBD. In the following decade, I would frequently visit my hometown from Auckland, New York or Sydney, and enjoy its slow-paced suburban life as well as urban renewal projects in the CBD: the Christchurch Tram reappeared after 41 years of absence, as a tourist attraction; the City Mall underwent significant facade and landscape upgrades to become more pedestrianised; public buses became better organised at a central bus interchange; and a new NZ$47.5M art gallery became a welcome addition to the arts precinct. All of them are now partly or completely closed due to post-earthquake repair works.
Now constant road works and the lack of amenities in the CBD are driving businesses to relocate to or start new in the suburbs, begging a question that needs to be asked: what characteristics do we intend our suburbs to have? While suburban malls like the Westfield in Riccarton have been busy around the clock with the loss of CBD, earthquake-displaced boutique stores were left with no place to go for a while. A recent redevelopment of a former tannery site in Woolston, rightfully called The Tannery, is already proving to be a success. The 1.8-hectare site is to house 70 tenants when completed, including a pilates studio, an art gallery, bars and shops. “No corporates. We only accept boutique retailers. Keep things nice and local,” Bruce, a project manager of The Tannery, said.
Julie, a manager at a home store called Cosi Fan Tutte, likes being able to stay close to her neighbourhood. “The earthquake changed everything from the way we shop and work, to the way we socialise. To be honest, I hardly used to spend much time in the CBD before the earthquake, apart from picking up a few things from Ballantynes [department store]. And now, I never go there. The roads are bad, and there are more stores popping up in my neighbourhood. I shop here, work here, live here and socialise in friends’ homes. There is a stronger sense of community than before but I do miss live music – there aren’t that many places to go for entertainment,” Julie said.
Hornby, one of the damage-free suburbs, is also booming. Mitre 10, a giant hardware store, set up a mega store there following the earthquake. Next door, other big boxes selling things like curtains, paint and bikes followed suit. (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has wonderful mapping of rebuilding efforts including the current status of demolition/building works, population change, and “anchor projects” in the CBD.)
However, this unique opportunity to recast a vision for Christchurch must not look at the suburbs and CBD in isolation. Evan Smith, a community organiser of CanCERN (Canterbury Communities’ Earthquake Recovery Network), argues the city must be built upon “village values”. In the first instance the phrase scares me (and also reminds me of Howard’s diagram of The Three Magnets, where he advocates values of Town-Country). A city is not a collection of suburbs, it is not a village or a town. A city must aspire to innovation, culture, education, creative arts: it must be a hub that fosters congregation of people in an organised and accidental manner. I appreciate “Village values” interpreted as self-organising communities that help each other at times of needs or as a set of more independent infrastructure systems. I also don’t see the suburb as the devil in urban development – some folks like my parents enjoy living in their suburban house of 20 years with a large vegetable patch, two cars, and kind neighbours. However, the City of Christchurch must not go back to its past that had two separate entities: the CBD for working and suburbs for living.
While the city presents an ambitious vision for a new CBD with various specialties from Retail Precinct to Health Precinct, it is not clear, without residential or mixed use mapping, how these precincts will accommodate and foster vibrant city living. Cafes, restaurants and bars alone do not make public spaces vibrant; people do. The city centre needs to be a place for living, not just for working or socialising. In contrast to suburbs that can take on distinct, excluding characteristics over time, Christchurch Central Development is an opportunity for more diverse, walkable, mixed communities in the city centre. One that I hope, will encourage my parents to try out city-living as they reach their 70’s.
Uncomfortable silence filled the air as Joe opened the rear door of a black BMW to have me safely seated, closed the door and walked back to the driver’s seat. His boss René, a Filipino friend of mine from Sydney, had instructed him to escort me to a restaurant where I would meet him and his friends. Public transport is not easily accessible for foreigners, and taking a random cab at night makes me nervous so I appreciated the ride. Joe, probably in his early 20’s, was a man of few words and replied only when spoken to. “Is this it? Get off here?” I asked as we approached a glowing glass and steel building. “Yes, ma’am. Sir René is waiting for you on level 5,” he replied so politely that I felt a little embarrassed about my casual tone. After a few days in the Philippines, I was still not used to being addressed as Ma’am. It makes me feel very uncomfortable, like I am a master of a slave – I must have taken on much of New Zealand’ egalitarian culture.
It is not uncommon to have (a number of) helpers in a well-off Filipino household. The helpers stay for years and even decades with one employer and become part of the household. Ed, a driver of another friend of mine, was more open to having a chat with me about his life while he kept me company (instructed by his boss to be my bodyguard) for a few minutes. “I have been serving Ma’am for 20 years. I work 4 days a week while I study agriculture,” he shyly explained. I had seen my friends with their employees and felt assured that they were treated in a dignified manner, but I was glad to hear Ed was learning something other than being a helper: a job he started at the age of 16. “Cool, what will you do when you have finished studying?” I guess I wanted hear ‘Minister of Agriculture’ or something ambitious because his answer of ‘I don’t know’ saddened me a bit.
Filipino helpers in Manila are different from those I met in the west. I visited a friend in Toronto last year, who had just hired a live-in Filipino nanny for her new-born. She described her 10-year work experience in Hong Kong as horrible and abusive. After learning about Canada’s employment standards and protection of foreign workers, she moved to Toronto for better pay and hours. While employer-employee hierarchy existed, she didn’t treat me or my friend as some innately superior being; perhaps a luxury that could be afforded outside of the Philippines. Like 2.2 million other Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), she regularly sends money to her parents in the countryside.
“Do you think we have a caste system?” René and his Filipino friends asked at the dinner table. “YES! I thought only India had a severe caste system, but yours is pretty bad,” I gave my honest opinion. If you are not born into a family of wealth and well-educated (private and/or overseas schools), and preferably of lighter skin colour, you rarely have an opportunity to move up the socioeconomic ladder. What’s worse, people do not seem to feel empowered to change their existing conditions; partly because Catholicism teaches them to accept the situation and be happy, and partly because the poor masses have already submitted to an underlying sense of hopelessness. From one generation to another, one is stuck in their particular social stratification. “To understand the Filipino culture, you have to understand our history,” at the Ayala Museum (in the beautiful Greenbelt Park) René walked me through hundreds of years of colonial history: as a quick summary, the Spanish came and implemented their own (racial) caste system, followed by American and Japanese occupations and a corrupt government. I can understand why people would just want to live in peace, poor or not.
A walled city called Intramuros built during the Spanish colonial period is located just south of Tondo, one of many slums in Manila. I was hoping visit a few homes and speak to the residents, but my contacts at the UN strongly advised not to do so for my safety. Prior arrangements with the local community leader would be required weeks in advance and I would have to be accompanied. I resorted to taking a cab to the old city to get a glimpse of the community. Traffic was of course terrible. Looking at my location on Google Map, walking seemed like a better option than spending 15 more minutes in the car. “I have a map- I will get off here and walk” I looked for a nod from the driver but he suddenly raised his voice “No, you don’t walk here, it is dangerous. I take you to San Agustin Church. Security guards there.” With so many eyes on the road, I didn’t think anything bad could happen, but I obliged and stayed. As we closed on the Intramuros entrance, I saw a child about 3 years old taking a dump on the side of the road. He then picked up some leaves from under a tree to clean up. Some poorly dressed men and women stood in the middle of the road, waving at cars as self-promoted traffic controllers. Unwashed with messy hair and distorted teeth, they are few of the millions of informal workers of Manila, just trying to get by. More so than their dirty clothes or shoes, what overwhelmed me was hopelessness across their faces. My cab driver rolled the window down slightly and dropped a few coins onto a woman’s palm, whose emotionless face forced a glimpse of appreciation. I was surprised he did this three times as he himself didn’t look like he was in a position to be giving money away to others. “This is their home. They need food,” he explained.
Being a foreign visitor, I was showered with generosity from my colleagues and friends who are smart, ambitious and hard-working. What different lives we would have all had without a head start. The image in my head of the Intramuros woman’s embarrassed hand reminds me that we are still far from a true democracy.
“Em ơi!” called out the vendor when she caught my eyes examining her basket full of fresh baguettes. We exchanged glances, promptly followed by customary bargaining and transaction. She then swiftly disappeared to find her next customer. At sunrise, street vendors and shoppers in Hanoi’s Old Quarter begin signaling the start of a new day: red and blue plastic stools are laid out on the sidewalk to receive noodle soup seekers; megaphone-equipped metal carts make sure contained footwear does not go unnoticed; makeshift motorcycle-wash is quickly set up in the lane way marking its territory on dampened asphalt. Some mobile vendors nimbly move about on foot or by bicycle to deliver goods to their regulars, while others search for eyes lingering on their baskets of vegetables, fruits, snacks and flowers.
From each end of a bamboo pole pivoted on the vendor’s shoulder hang two baskets that delicately balance each other, forming an iconic image of Vietnam’s mobile street vendors. ‘Fixed’ vendors on the other hand, often with fast-food push carts, operate from sidewalks and lane ways serving patrons daily from the same spot. It is not unusual for ground-level eating houses to spill out onto the sidewalk with their mobile cooking facilities (cylindrical briquettes), food carts and plastic tables and stools, compensating for insufficient indoor space. I picked my favourite blue plastic stool facing St. Joseph’s Cathedral and sat for a while sipping Vietnamese iced tea under a striped awning. Later in the afternoon, an old lady with a baby in her arms would walk in as usual – the baby was passed around and entertained, until the lady decided she had enough chat for the day and took off. Some restaurants are more permanently equipped with a fixed kitchen, generously sized tables and comfortable chairs with backs, but curiously remain almost empty. Despite the fumes and noise from motorcycles zipping by, the locals’ preferred eating and drinking spots are still the sidewalk where food is cheap, space is flexible and people-watching is easy. The mask-wearing locals are certainly concerned about their polluted environment; however, coupled with inadequate public transport, Vietnam’s high motorcycle ownership in fact affords mobility and vibrant street life all over the city.
Ground level activities in Hanoi’s Old Quarter are largely associated with its trading tradition. The city centre’s urban fabric is predominantly shaped by ‘tube houses’. The deep and narrow plot size is dictated by centuries-old tax law: the wider the street frontage, the more the property tax. The regulation has led to an urban fabric of 3-4 story mixed use apartments bordering the streets (some growing taller, despite recent height regulation enforcement), with wide open ground level shops, offices and eating houses. Living spaces on upper floors are connected by internal stairs, accommodating 2-3 generations of families. Even when the ground level is not used for a family business or rented out, its façade still opens wide onto the street, fitted with glass sliding doors and metal gates. It is used for motorbike parking, tea drinking, TV-watching, cooking and eating, and the doors are often left unlocked and open to welcome visitors, both planned and unplanned.
There is a strong sense of community here. Robbers, as daring as they may have been to enter the house, would have a hard time leaving unseen by neighbours or street vendors. Children often eat and play outside their houses, claiming the sidewalk as an extension of their play room. At different times of the day, children, mums, teens, grandparents, travelers, workers spontaneously gather in Hanoi’s small and big pockets of public spaces. As I start walking to my usual bus stop for work, I must be prepared to dodge flying shuttlecocks, weave through chatty crowds, and most importantly safeguard myself from accelerating motorcycles.
Motorcyclists will drive on the sidewalk if that has a chance of saving time. A number of traffic lights are set up and several zebra crossings exist, but a typical driver will accelerate through intersections, park on the sidewalk and dismiss pedestrians. The city is occupied by an urban population of 6.5 million people with a rural mentality: individual desires are prioritised over long-term collective gain.
On the one hand, the motorcycle has empowered people to be more mobile, allowing mums to pick up their kids from school, students to get to school and traders to transport goods for sale. On the other, it has become the central dictating principle in Hanoi’s urban planning. A number of provinces and districts were merged into Hanoi’s metropolitan area a few years ago, tripling its land area. Many commute long distances daily using the most viable transport option: motorcycles are affordable, convenient, and fast. Cycling is unsafe and slow, while the only local public transport mode, the bus network, is disconnected, slow and overcrowded. Despite the cheap bus fare (about 25 cents per ride, regardless of distance) and reasonable frequency of buses, driving a motorcycle makes sense for most adults. “The newer the model the better of course,” my 20-something-year-old students in Hanoi said. “You look cooler if you have a cool motorcycle. A bicycle, not so much,” they added. With a new Bus Rapid Transit system and light rail underway, the city hopes to see a gradual decrease in the use of private motorised transport.
Vietnam’s leaders seem to envision a new modern Hanoi without its poorer past. While informal sector workers are being driven out from parts of the Old Quarter, ambitious plans for New Towns and large-scale developments are on the rise. Singaporean, Japanese and Korean developers are responding to Hanoi’s demand for more private and exclusive neighbourhoods away from the city centre, best accessed by private cars. The new housing largely consists of quasi-European villas with backyards and parking space, and nondescript high rise apartments. Shopping is conveniently done at a nearby mall that offers everything from food to clothes. “You can safely assume the villa residents will have their own cars and maids. They may have another house in the city centre closer to work, and spend the weekend in the villa, away from the polluted, crowded city. Or sometimes, they just leave the villa vacant for years as an investment property. Either way, they want this European look,” said a local architect currently finishing a project at Vincom Village.
As the Vietnamese get richer and aspire to more spacious, car-oriented living, we will see less of the vibrant public life than that which currently keeps streets safe, active and engaging, and more of a monotonous, large and unoccupied cityscape. Perhaps today’s economic downturn is a golden opportunity to reconsider what modern Hanoi should look like. I would start by acknowledging the informal sector workers as part of the economy, and applying housing principles that are in line with 1,000 years of Hanoi’s vibrant history.