The Detroit model: greater than the sum of its parts

Google Maps gave me four options for getting to Recovery Park from my downtown hotel: one-hour walk along an eight-lane M-3 then through a grass-covered neighbourhood; a 45-min walk-bus-bus-walk combination with buses running every 60 min; a 16-min bike ride on the vehicular road; or a 7-min drive on an interstate highway with a giant partial cloverleaf.

I resorted to Uber. Andrew, the Uber driver, swiftly took me to the neighbourhood, known as Chene Ferry, North Black Bottom or Poletown depending on who’s saying it. Following years of residential demolition works, nature transformed the land back to its beautiful green state, with vacant lots creating open spaces in a grid. It was a bizarre sight, reminding me of Christchurch after many landmark buildings had been demolished following the earthquakes. Unable to find signage, I got off the car in an approximate location and started walking, only to find Andrew drive back toward me 5 minutes later. “I think I found the building, and I didn’t want to leave you here walking around by yourself. I don’t know what this area is like – jump back in, I will take you”, he said and I obliged with much appreciation. Guns. I wonder if that’s what was on his mind. It certainly was on mine when I reached the building entry with signage that read ‘gun-free community’.

Being back in the US, my perception of safety is influenced by my lived experience in New Haven where I would receive regular email updates on local shootings from the police chief and my university would provide door-to-door shuttle escort service after 6pm. Prevalent media portrayals and data on gun violence and hate crimes don’t help. Detroit, despite its generally improving violent crime rate, still comes out on top as America’s Most Dangerous City.

Decline, bankruptcy, violence and poverty may have dominated Detroit’s headlines for decades, but the locals say the last three years have seen an unprecedented progress since the new mayor Mike Duggan took office. With good leadership, citizens have also gained momentum on their initiatives to serve their communities and build places. The local thought leaders I met with face complex challenges everyday yet see opportunities everywhere. Their resilience, expertise and empathy is changing Detroit one place, one neighbourhood at a time.

1Neighbourhood
Few buildings remain to tell a story of what Poletown used to be.
2Cadillac Place
Cadillac Place was General Motors’ world headquarters for 80 years till 2000.

 

Urban farming by people with barriers to employment

There was virtually nobody walking around but the evidence of community in Poletown East was visible in the public realm. A small community garden on a vacant lot, a custom-made bus shelter and a mural painted by high school summer program students – these are a few of the community projects that Recovery Park facilitated to bring life back between derelict factories and remaining houses. Its CEO Gary Wozniak takes me back to a time – only about 4-5 years ago – when the city went bankrupt. Two thirds of the street lights didn’t come on, buses didn’t run, garbage didn’t get picked up and street sweepers didn’t work. In that turmoil, people who could find opportunities elsewhere left. Only one third of its peak population (1.8 million in 1950) remain today.

While the Detroit Land Bank, an authority set up by the mayor to manage foreclosures, has been securing 96,000 properties and demolishing 11,900 abandoned and vacant houses, Recovery Park has been streamlining its not-for-profit and for-profit missions. Gary believes everybody should be given an opportunity to develop “a skillset to self-determine their lives long-term”. An ex-offender himself, he understands that for ex-offenders, integrating back into a community is not easy. De-institutionalisation takes time, when your time in prison had been spent following routines and instructions. Recovery Park Farm’s workforce is mainly made up of people with barriers to employment.

I get a tour of the greenhouses, which currently house 20 different products managed by a hydroponic grower Jeff Gilbert, farming manager Michelle Lutz and five associates. It is Monday and the team has just finished harvesting. I get a taste of a tiny freshly picked cucumber with a yellow flower – it’s crunchy and delicious. The rest of the vegetables would bring US$5-6,000 per week in revenue, purchased by regional produce distributors. Anna Kohn of the team explains the associates are provided not only with long-term employment but also wraparound support. “100% paid health benefit, housing, support with substance abuse, getting an ID, even opening a bank account”, she says, as well as above minimum wages, is all important for folks to feel stable and be able to come to work.

The team’s vision does not stop with eight high tunnels and five associates. There is a plan in motion to create a whole neighbourhood of 40 acres, which currently has 17 houses compared to 851 in the past. Gary gives me a tour in his yellow buggy: there are bioswales managing stormwater runoff; houses and lots recently purchased; a grant won from a Knight Arts Challenge that will be used next year to bring chamber music, jazz, blues concerts; a plan for businesses to move into a vacant school; and ambition to transform an old German-Polish meat market into a community gathering spot. Their vision is a place where people have stable housing, meaningful work and a renewed sense of community.

5Recovery Park Farm
The Recovery Park team discuss the day’s harvest in front of a high tunnel.
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Recovery Park office building has a mural painted by high school students during a summer program. In the background is an abandoned building waiting to be demolished.

 

Wraparound support for village-making

The Collective impact model is also at the heart of Focus:HOPE, a civil and human rights organisation founded following the 1967 riots to start ‘fighting racism, poverty and injustice’. Its long history and concrete mission has led to several organisational arms, ranging from food distribution and workforce programs to placemaking and neighbourhood network development. It serves a community that has repeatedly suffered from spatial injustice and human rights violations: water being cut off in occupied homes, overruled community voices, lack of schools, racial covenants, to name a few. Now with 92% of vacant lots secured, Focus:HOPE is working on the HOPE Village initiative, with the aim to support about 5,300 residents in a 100-block area impacted by riots, blight and disinvestment; and ‘by the year 2031, 100% of neighborhood residents will be educationally well-prepared, economically self-sufficient, and living in a safe, supportive environment’. Stephanie Johnson-Cobb, a community development specialist, wants to change the local mentality of young people who feel this is a place where they grow up but where they leave to get jobs and live in the suburbs. The Village includes a Center for Working Families to support with financial literacy, credit repair and employment; an arts department with various cultural programs; and Cool Cities Park.

4FocusHope
Stephanie Johnson-Cobb illustrates HOPE Village initiative’s various programs.

 

Micro entrepreneurship

Detroit’s abundance of land offers numerous possibilities but invites blight when left uncared for. Detroit Future City (DFC), a NFP organisation that oversees the implementation of a community-led vision for Detroit, is guiding Detroiters to help keep their neighbourhoods safe and beautiful. Working with Lots – a Field Guide is a book of local examples and ideas that aims to bring a ‘green culture shift’; starting a conversation about blight and beauty, abandonment and maintenance. It began as a landscape-focused program to help individuals and communities use and maintain vacant lots, but the DFC team is starting to see its impact also as a channel to engage young people about stormwater management and food security.

Detroit’s entrepreneurial spirit perhaps has always been there, nurtured through its long manufacturing history. Citizens, when left with broken systems, found ways to improve their own lives, but there is no doubt organisational support accelerates the process. Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), in its 7th year of existence, aims to diversify Detroit’s economy by supporting creative practitioners. It is an incubator for designers to test ideas, form a network and develop early stage ventures. The city has a unique history and entrepreneurial spirit to draw from, and is on its way to solidify its designation as a UNESCO City of Design.

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A portrait artist activates Greektown.

 

Greater than the sum of its parts

How will these efforts connect spatially, economically and socio-culturally to form a stronger whole? Detroit covers a large area of 360km² (compared to Vancouver’s 114km², with a similar population). It was originally designed to be automobile dependent and the culture hasn’t shifted drastically. Many still live in detached homes in the suburbs, some a few vacant lots apart. What’s stopping people from living in downtown? The reasons vary from the perception of safety, affordability, lack of schools, childcare and supermarkets, to transport options – public transport is not great, drivers are stuck with expensive car insurance in the metro area, and retail doesn’t yet support everyday living.

Downtown is changing fast however, owing to investors like Dan Gilbert, a Detroit-born billionaire and Founder & Chairman of Quicken Loans, a mortgage lender. His real estate arm, Bedrock continues to acquire properties in downtown (this 2015 map shows 45 ‘Gilbert properties’). With building upgrades, investment into the public realm and amenities is on the way. Vacant buildings are being refurbished. More chain stores are moving in.

A city that has long suffered from class and race struggles, Detroit’s downtown is an opportunity to reset the course. Will the new downtown offer something for folks in HOPE Village, Recovery Park and new immigrants, as well as new professionals moving in? Or will the communities live in their own bubbles?

Supporting micro businesses with street level retail spaces, new restaurants sourcing ingredients from local urban farms, and public realm improvements upskilling future designers – I left Detroit thinking about the possibilities, greater than the sum of its parts.

6Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park is the city’s major civic hub. In the background is Campus Martius Building, which houses Quicken Loans’ headquarters.
7Vacant Buildings
My walking tour guide points to the building on the right as a lovely apartment where he lives in. The rest of the high rises are currently vacant but being refurbished.
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Greektown is included in the Downtown Detroit Business Improvement Zone.
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Public realm investment is evident is Greektown.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

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Urbanism & ethics: Londoners changing the business of city-making

I would have liked to have taken a class titled urbanism & ethics at the school of architecture 20 years ago, alongside modern architecture, urban design and environmental science. In that class, I imagine, we would learn to design and critique plans and strategies through the lens of ethics, and ask ourselves ‘does this harm any individuals or organisations in the process of change’, and ‘how can it create long-term, multiple-level positive impacts on the individuals involved and beyond’.

We often hear stories of displaced residents and gentrified neighbourhoods. Through the development process, somebody, knowingly or unknowingly, made specific decisions that led to the outcomes; decisions that would affect the most people without financial resources and social capital and have no control over the change. Urban development professionals can hugely impact people’s lives yet we don’t talk about moral principles as the basis for decision-making. Doctors are required to study medical ethics. Teachers are required to adhere to the code of ethics. Urbanists should recognise the magnitude of our ability to touch people’s lives directly, especially as our contact with participants increases with participatory planning.

 

The ethics lens

I spent two weeks at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) studying Qualitative Research Methods. While discussing methods, research ethics would at all times underlie the application of methods and engagement of participants. ‘Doing the right thing’ sometimes is not so clear-cut. I have worked on projects where conflicts of interest arose between resident groups; where I had to regularly question the validity of informed consent from vulnerable participants; where I had to navigate the reality of the project outcomes and participants’ expectations. There are no text book answers. But at least we – all those involved in decision-making including the communities — can dissect our processes and outcomes through the ethics lens; and ultimately take responsibility for them.

 

Regular practices with a difference

At LSE, the diversity of students was great. From Japan to Saudi Arabia, and from human rights to finance, the scope of qualitative research questions was broad and considerations for data collection and analysis extensive. If the students had one thing in common perhaps, that would be our desire to understand social realities and scrutinise the way each of our industries has been doing things. In parallel to the more academic hours at LSE, I met with organisations bringing about social change through urban development practices.

London’s challenges are similar to Sydney’s: increasing wealth gap, lack of affordable housing, exclusive privately owned public spaces, spatial disparity, just to name a few. Finding organisations that are responding to these challenges in big and small ways wasn’t easy – they don’t promote themselves as ethical companies, they are just regular practices that essentially have positive impact as the core mission.

1Charles Booth
Charles Booth‘s ethnographic studies illustrate interesting assumptions — we can learn what to and what not to do from history (photo taken from Map Descriptive of London Poverty, 1898-9, Second Edition).

 

Emotional, financial, physical investment into community

Developers who share the locals’ aspiration for cohesive communities are changing the traditionally profit-driven industry. Chris Brown, Executive Chair and Founder of Igloo Regeneration (Igloo), a ‘real estate business’, understands how getting the right mix of individuals who care about their neighbourhood can create a sense of community. We met at Bermondsey Square, Igloo’s recently completed mixed-use development. From having been an economically and spiritually important gathering place as Bermondsey Abbey, to having hosted over 100 years of market activities, perhaps it is only right that the place remains as a community hub. Igloo had a few ideas to make that happen.

Apartments were sold to owner occupiers, who are allowed to only rent under exceptional circumstances such as bankruptcy or moving overseas. They sold quickly and the residents are willing to invest into their new neighbourhood, emotionally, financially and physically. Each household, along with the commercial occupiers, puts in approximately £50-100 per year in Community Fund, which supports various improvements and community events determined by volunteer representatives. The local authority typically doesn’t provide funding or deliver community programs for the area, so citizens self-organise.

The mix of businesses were carefully selected in order to bring social and financial benefit, and got the funders’ buy-in. The community wanted a supermarket, and Sainsbury came on board with the ground level frontage dedicated to local artists to use as an art gallery. A boutique hotel was selected instead of a big chain. A small art house cinema moved in, run by a local, who “knows everybody, a Jane Jacobs character”, Chris elaborated.

Every regeneration comes with its own challenges. Talking about classism, Chris points to a café and a sandpit in the background. Those who could afford to buy in the open market, can probably afford to sit comfortably in the café. Those who bought at a subsidised rate might have a different experience in the square, with preferences for free activities. Do they mix? Not really. Chris would like to see this improved, and mentions the missing middle-income families as a potential tie between the two.

The whole neighbourhood is going through big changes. Walking to London Bridge Station, we stopped at various signs of gentrification. There is an industrial-chic bakery selling baked goods at a price many can’t afford. There is a pop-up florist, selling a handful of wild flowers for £8. White Cube, a new contemporary commercial art gallery moved in a few years ago, bearing criticism it isn’t psychologically accessible to many locals. What will happen next? Chains are expected soon. We don’t have all the answers to gentrification yet. But an investment methodology like igloo footprint® that puts people at heart is a good start.

2Bermondsey Square
Chris Brown of Igloo Regeneration tells the story of Bermondsey Square.
3Gentrification
A beautiful pop-up florist activates the street. It may be followed by more price points that many locals can’t afford.

 

Housing as a human right, not a commodity

Like-minded businesses attract each other. Igloo and London Community Land Trust (London CLT) are working together with an aligned commitment to deliver positive social, environmental outcomes for various housing projects. They made a bid for St Clements in Mile End, and got outbid, but London CLT was invited to work with another developer. They recently completed 23 community land trust homes. Including 58 social rent homes by Peabody, affordable homes make up 35% of the site, integrated into various blocks totalling 252 homes. People have started moving in in June this year, with more expected later in the year.

I joined a group of locals at London CLT’s Q&A session at a resident’s home at St Clements to hear first-hand what the resident’s experience has been like and what potential CLT homeowners care about. Salman, born and raised in Tower Hamlets, wanted to retain roots there, but says he was just working to pay the rent. “Even if my siblings and I combined all our incomes, we still couldn’t afford to buy our mum’s house”, he added. Salman moved into a 2-bedroom CLT apartment with his family two weeks ago, which he purchased for £182,000, about 1/3 of the market cost. He had been one of 24,000 people in Tower Hamlets waiting for social housing and had been waiting for five years when his application for a CLT home was approved. He was selected out of about 300 applicants based on eligibility criteria. They include the applicant’s relationship with the local community for at least five years (e.g. living, working), housing need (e.g. priced out, currently living in overcrowded housing), and placement in the housing ladder (e.g. stuck between not being a priority for council and unable to buy in the open market). The idea is to attract active citizens who want to be part of a community.

Salman now has the security of a 250-year lease, until which time the home can be sold back to the land trust and kept affordable. He is in a good position compared to many Londoners who still remain disconnected from their communities and uncertain financial future.

4LondonCLT
St Clements’ social and affordable housing comprises 35% of the total number of homes.

 

Employment & capacity building

Public realm design projects are opportunities for communities to upskill and demonstrate their ability in the process of change and beyond. Thinking about how to scale the impact of Urban Toolbox, meeting London businesses (see the end for full list) with similar goals was inspirational. Make:good’s community engagement is nowhere conventional, involving chutney-making, popcorn-popping, cardboard-playground-making activities and reaching out to those socially excluded. Meanwhile Space repurposes left-over vacant buildings in underserved neighbourhoods and supports creatives to flourish with a strong network and cheap rent, adjusted to suit what each tenant can afford to pay.

Ben Coles, Groundwork’s Director of Communities and Environmental Services, understands barriers to employment can be more than about skills, being job-ready matters. Groundwork’s training program hires people to deliver urban landscaping works, including people that suffer from chronic unemployment. Job seekers can get placements through a job centre and work on various sites over a 12-week period or longer. The course completion rate is 60-70% and the module is accredited (e.g. sustainable drainage) and can lead to other jobs. Groundwork also fills the gap for corporate teams wanting team building experiences that are more meaningful than just going on a retreat. Under the supervision of Groundwork staff, the teams help build community projects, with knowledge that their work contributes to the wider community. Groundwork is a landscape consultancy, employment provider, training school, community development agency and team building facilitator all in one, that started taking a holistic approach to spatial design 30 years ago.

Today’s urban development industry requires more generalists, more multi-disciplined approaches, and more value-creation than ever before. The majority of the thought leaders I met with are young-ish, design-trained generalists, who felt disheartened by our industry’s loyalty to the way things have always been done. How do we prepare our next generation of architects, landscape and urban designers, developers and planners for a world that will demand more than the physical form and function? Back in Edinburgh, I had a chat with Diarmaid Lawlor, head of Place at Architecture and Design Scotland, about the future of our industry.

5Roof East
Roof East is one of Groundwork’s projects, which transformed a roof car park into a social hub. People gather for food and drink, games, outdoor cinema and live music. And to have a look at vintage sports cars filled with plants.

 

The future of design profession

Diarmaid doesn’t talk like a typical designer and thinks like a systems designer. He says beautiful drawings are not enough, yet many architects and urban designers are not thinking about the bigger system. Architects are often locked to a fee-based future directly linked to construction and their power taken away by the project manager. What should be the role of architects in the future? “Possibility planning”, Diarmaid says – letting the creative mind explore what the space could be.

Systems designers are stewards concerned with the long-term sustainability of the place and I hope our future designers are trained to think this way. Diarmaid cites a social housing example in Rotterdam, where the tenants had to get creative when they didn’t receive the anticipated funding following the global financial crisis. They got together, self-organised and began to manage their building better. Former electricians began to use their old skills, and other tenants acquired new skills. A new social contract was formed essentially, where shared maintenance became the norm.

“Space” and “ability to organise”, Diarmaid says, are critical to sustainable places. We need to provide room (physical and metaphorical) for people to negotiate what their future might look like and appropriate it accordingly. This means we need fuller understanding of the communities we work with – what is the social interaction like, is there peer support, who are the butterflies and introverts? Nearing the end of our chat, he reminds me that the ‘right to the city’ also includes the right not to participate, which we must respect.

Designers don’t share much liability when their designs don’t turn out to be conducive to people’s wellbeing. Architectural awards are given shortly after the project completion, not after measuring its impact over 10 years and beyond. Should we be sharing the risk of stewardship, not just that of functional performance? How do we foster stewardship in design and planning schools? I mulled over on my last day in London at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, where the dead watched hundreds of Shuffle goers celebrate urbanism and creativity.

9Cemetery
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is alive with music, games, picnics and film screening.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

Co-constructing meaning: Scotland’s Place Standard approach

Pride was palpable in George Square as an eager crowd locked their eyes on the men and women magnificently dressed in green tartans, standing tall to play centuries-old notes. My visit to Glasgow couldn’t have been timed better. The city centre was bustling with Piping Live! and World Pipe Band Championships, bringing into the heart of the city uniquely Scottish tunes; deep, soulful and inviting a moment of reflection. Behind, elaborate details of Victorian emblems and statues on the City Chambers building and former General Post Office – the architects’ portrayal of wealth and status built about 130 years ago – added volume to the atmosphere.

It was a happy, sunny, festive kind of a day. But Glaswegians know George Square carries a meaning beyond festivity, it is a politically charged civic space. There, thousands had gathered for an anti-racism rally and marched against the Iraq War. Going back 98 years, in a riot called ‘Bloody Friday’, it was also where an estimated 60,000 people protested poor working conditions and wages and the Riot Act was read for the last time in the UK.

Glasgow was the backbone of the British Empire once, its growth peaking at the end of 19th century as a leader in industrialisation. Shipbuilding, machinery, textiles and tannery to name a few, contributed to the economic growth, and the city pulled through Scotland’s Blitz during WWII. But with international competition and changing market went manufacturing jobs, and the merchant city’s decline began.

1Glasgow Queen St station
World Pipe Band Championships were held in George Square. On the left is City Chambers building and on the right former General Post Office.

 

The urban narrative

On the same day that I experienced the city’s grandeur in George Square, I also saw a city that never quite recovered from an economic decline. Its impact was felt in the derelict buildings, new developments tightly secured from the street and a public realm uncared for. Within five minutes, you could be shopping at Ted Baker on a bustling main street, then walking along a tagged wall with hostile metal fences and no one around. The city has big challenges: half a century of steep population decline, low voter turnout and volunteering rates, excess mortality, high unemployment and poverty rate with 34% of all children living in poverty. How do you shift a deep-rooted narrative of urban decline?

Since the 2013 launch (delivered in time for 2014 Commonwealth Games), the city’s slogan ‘People Make Glasgow’ attracted positive press as well as criticism for having a destination marketing focus rather reflecting the local values. Some Glaswegians didn’t mind having a good laugh about it though at their own expense. But perhaps the wording of the slogan is not as important as the meaning constructed by Glaswegians in the brand development and through its evolution. Today, #PeopleMakeGlasgow on social media shows diverse Glasgow identities and its promotional website claims: ‘Glasgow’s earned its reputation as one of the world’s greatest cities’.  What does ‘great’ mean, for the locals?

2Glasgow mainstreet
Buchanan Street, one of the main streets with high-end shops, is bustling with shoppers.
DSC00955
New office and residential developments in the city centre are inward-looking.
6derelict
Abandoned buildings with unidentified land owners dot the city.

 

Construction of meaning

Language is complex – what is said, how it is said, power relations surrounding the context, implicit meanings. The many facets of a city, communities and lives cannot be captured solely by statistics, yet numbers are considered to be more scientific and legitimate than language. Urbanists continue to produce rankings of places to indicate their success, yet they are based on a set of constructed metrics. Presented as simple and finite numbers, such rankings inevitably attract criticism from all angles. Just recently, there have been uproars about the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s global liveability survey, which Melbourne topped for the seventh consecutive year. Domain Liveable Sydney illuminated what liveable suburbs look like when liveability is seen through the lens of certain lifestyles that not many can afford. Will there ever be a perfect ranking system? No. But I think we can change the discourse of liveability, by shifting the focus from lifestyle aspirations for a few to communal well-being. In Scotland, this has begun to take shape in a structured manner, at a national level.

 

Holistic, inductive approach

The purpose of my visit to Glasgow was to learn more about Place Standard, a tool developed to explore the fundamental causes of inequalities and enable local action. Scotland’s health inequalities have been a priority concern for decades – Glasgow for instance, is doing poorly in every category from general health to long-term health issues and disability compared to the rest of the country. Recognising the link between health inequalities and spatial inequalities, three organisations got together. NHS Health Scotland , The Scottish Government (SG) and Architecture & Design Scotland (A&DS) developed ‘a framework for place-based conversations to support communities, public, private and third sectors to work together to deliver high quality, sustainable places’.

The aim is to use the tool to enable conversations centred on communal well-being. In a group setting, participants are invited to consider 14 categories that range from ‘influence and sense of control’ to ‘work and local economy’. Participants are asked to rank each category on a scale from 1 to 7 creating a visual snapshot and prompting discussions about their physical and social aspects. There is no attempt to arrive at final rankings here, and the NHS and SG teams are clear about why. This tool is not about comparing places or cities, it is about the community conversations and actions that follow them.

 

Meaningful participation

Improving people’s well-being is complex and cannot be achieved by a single-disciplined, short-term, top-down approach. Place Standard overcomes the fallacy of participatory research in urban planning at a time when many rely on a single set of data from pre-designed surveys. Participation in qualitative research refers to knowledge construction and the creation of meaningful content by participants – not ticking boxes on prepared questionnaires.

Place Standard’s big challenge now is analysing the data and putting it into use to influence national and city level policies. Challenging, because the quality of qualitative research depends on how well the research question is bounded; and transparency, reflexibility and generalisability of the research. This gets quite complicated when you start thinking about the data collection process at the local level: what’s the scale of the place, who’s facilitating and participating, who’s missing, are there any vulnerable groups negatively impacted by the process, how will the consents be managed, how will the data be captured, will the data be publicly available and how will it be secured and used?  The facilitators’ role is critical in ensuring the quality of research stays high, as the co-constructed meaning will not only be manifested in written words and diagrams but also implicitly in the participants’ interactions.

In Edinburgh, people are talking about the future of Leith, an area emerging as a new cultural hub driven by entrepreneurs, the government and citizens. (Where is Leith? Think Trainspotting) Leith Creative, a program being delivered by cultural organisations LeithLate and Citizen Curator, is one of the channels through which local conversations are taking place. Leith has suffered from years of inaction but its new image as a waterfront destination looks promising with the old Customs House getting filled quickly up with various creative organisations, since being reopened by GRAS. Edinburgh’s first Tool Library is also based there. The founder Chris Hellawell says one of its aims is to bring communities together in Leith, one of the most ethnically diverse wards in the country. Recent immigrants and established communities for instance, have the opportunity to mingle while making things in the workshop, rather than booking out the room separately.

Scotland’s aspiration to holistically tackle inequalities from different angles – private and public, health and space, local and national – is inspiring. Change won’t happen overnight. But it will happen with meaningful conversations.

7LeithWalk
Leith Walk connects Leith with Edinburgh city centre.
8LeithWalk
Leith Walk welcomes creatives.
9Tool
Tool Library in the old Customs House offers opportunities for the local communities to connect.
10Fringe
Edinburgh Festival Fringe attracts all kinds of performers offering over 50,000 performances each year.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

 

Sharing the ground level: how Singapore is building community resilience bottom-up

“105,000 people are homeless in Australia. Of them, 42% are under the age of 25. Young people in our major cities have little hope of owning a decent home unless their parents can help them out”, as I set the scene, my Singaporean audience looked puzzled. What do you mean, you don’t have housing for people? Where do people live then? How do they work without having a home to return to every night?

Yes, that’s my point — and the point affordable housing advocates have been making forever. To solve homelessness, we need to provide housing, structured practical and psychological support and employment.

Housing for Community Cohesion

In Singapore, 80% of the population live in public housing or more commonly known as Housing & Development Board (HDB). I wouldn’t associate the term public housing with good quality living in Australia, but in Singapore, there is a sense of community, affordability and safety that comes with it. Singaporean nationals are able to purchase a flat at a subsidised cost, drawing down on Central Provident Fund (Singapore’s social security/superannuation), a pool of savings that comprise 20% of their salary and 17% contribution by their employer. Home ownership rate is 91%, noting however, that ownership in Singapore means a lease period of up to 99 years — properties are returned to the state after the lease period for redevelopment or lease renewal. As HDB was only formed in 1960, Singapore is yet to see the full impact of lease expiration.

Citizens have a high level of trust in the Singaporean government, and also a high level of expectation that the state will take care of them. After all, Singapore’s GDP growth since the 1960s is astonishing, especially when compared to neighbouring countries that started out similarly. The older generation in particular, who remember Singapore’s poorer past, are appreciative of the significant improvement in their quality of living.

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Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay are vertical gardens, viewing platforms, creative lighting and beautiful sculptures all in one.
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Singapore’s GDP growth since the 1960s is astonishing.

Singapore’s ethnic composition is 70% Chinese, 15% Malay, 10% Indian and 5% Other; 45% of total population are international migrants. Pulling together the diverse ethnic groups under the umbrella of Singapore has been a challenge, and many policies have been geared toward creating ethnically diverse and mixed-income neighbourhoods. Selling a flat is not just a matter of finding a buyer – it is a matter of finding the right buyer that meets the ethic and income quota for the specific neighbourhood. All Singaporean kids are required to attend public schools, with some exceptions given to international diplomats or similar. Inclusionary Zoning has been widely practised, but ethnic zoning? “Does this really work?”, I asked Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), the research and advisory arm of the Singaporean Government dedicated to sustainable and liveable cities. There has been no specific study to measure its success, there are of course a number of contributors to Singapore’s community cohesion; but CLC cites the low number of racially provoked incidents as one indicator.

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Little India is where the locals shop and socialise and embodies a wonderful sense of authenticity. It is also the site of the Little India riot of 2013, the first riot since 1969, considered to have been flamed by years of neglect on migrant workers’ rights.

Everybody Contributes to the Garden City

This well-organised city accommodates 3.9 million residents in an island half the size of London. Most notably, the MRT system (No. 2 attraction on Tripadvisor!) is efficient, clean and affordable costing around 70 Singaporean cents for a short journey, compared to A$2.42 off peak minimum cost in Sydney. Coupled with the bus network and strict car ownership control, public transport can get you pretty much everywhere, fast. With so many people, one might expect crowded and dirty streets, but the abundance of greenery provided and maintained by commercial buildings, residential flats and individual shops creates places that are quite pleasant to be in. In fact, everyone seems to love greenery. There is always a small garden, pot plant or green wall all cared for voluntarily – no space is wasted, there isn’t much to go around. Even commercial buildings and shopping centres are quite generous with their contribution to the public realm, whether it is large setbacks with fountains, lush greenery, seating for the public, or through-block links. Urban Development Authority recently implemented Design Guidelines and Good Practice for Privately Owned Spaces, mandatory for applicable private developments and stipulated in the conditions of land sales from the state.

While Singapore’s international image may have been high-rise shiny towers, there is a movement toward bringing back more human-scale, diverse experiences onto the ground level. The Singaporean Government is seeing that this cannot be provided by the government alone; the citizens need to be the drivers of change.

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People relax in the generous public domain. Footpaths offer much more than long, narrow straight paths to walk through.
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Older men play a game of Go in a Chinatown restaurant.
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A corner of The Arab Quarter has a number of shopfronts showcasing bold murals.
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Older men get haircuts in a quiet residential laneway in The Arab Quarter.

The Case for Citizen Engagement

Melissa Kwee, CEO of National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, cites three factors that are driving the desire for improved citizen engagement: increasing interest in participation from the citizens; the government’s plan to build community resilience bottom-up and reduce social services cost; and the young generation’s desire for purpose and independence. Participatory planning is still new in the country and cultural shift hard, but Mizah Rahman, Co-founder of Participate in Design, believes citizen engagement is critical especially in Singapore where top-down culture has been the norm. She quizzes me as an example: “You share a corridor with your neighbours, and your next-door neighbour leaves a bike that gets in your way. What do you do?” “You ask them to keep it inside”, I reply. Singaporeans? They would call or write to their town council who will then notify the neighbour about the inconvenience. Mizah says Singaporeans will try to avoid conflicts where possible, and community participation can be challenging. I hear a similar story from Bernise Ang, Co-founder of Zeroth. When asked what’s the one thing she would like to see more of in the future of Singapore, she says healthy debates – cultural permission for people to have stimulating discussions without feeling uncomfortable or being shut down.

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Young and old people play with coloured dots at a participatory installation, Obliteration Room, at the National Gallery Singapore.

Who’s Missing?

Then who are at the risk of being excluded from such conversations?

While Singapore’s public housing policy caters for most Singaporeans, those that don’t fit neatly into the typical Singaporean category face systematic discrimination from accessing affordable housing. Typically, Singaporeans live with their parents until they get married. Marriage is part of the eligibility criteria for public housing application for those under the age of 35. So what do you do if you are an unmarried single mum, gay or simply haven’t found a suitable spouse? You live with your family until you turn 35 or if you are lucky enough to be young and wealthy, you can purchase a private flat where no ethic/mixed-income quota applies. Marriage in Singapore is more than just a celebration of love, legal commitment or practice of tradition. It is a pathway to financial independence and empowerment, made harder to achieve for those already suffering from social stigma and exclusion. Also, the falling general marriage rate, rising first marriage age and the increasing number of inter-ethic marriages may prompt policy reform.

Low-skilled foreign workers are also at risk. They include labourers from India and Bangladesh, and domestic workers from the Philippines. Domestic workers, for instance, tend to be live-in workers/nannies who get free lodging and food. While this may seem like a good financial deal, it also means they don’t have a genuine first place (home) or second place (work); and finding a place to unwind in the public realm may be more important than for an average Singaporean. Money is tight (my Singaporean colleague tells me her helper is paid S$700/mth, however, this article suggests less) so dining out in cafes or going to a ticketed event is difficult. Instead, they need free, safe places. In Singapore, that place seems to be St. Andrews Cathedral, which recently opened its gates to not only visitors and mass attendees, but also those who have nowhere else to be. Every Sunday, domestic workers gather to picnic on the church grounds, use the toilets and don’t have to worry about getting moved on.

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Domestic workers socialise at St. Andrews on a Sunday.

Learning from Singapore

Singaporeans tell me their social connection is declining and people are seeking more privacy as flat sizes are getting smaller. New and high-end public housing seems to reflect this, with more upper-level sky/roof gardens (still with full public access), and less vibrant ground-level shared spaces. Private housing is gated and exclusive to the rich. This is a shame because there is a lot to learn from community-oriented flats.

The ground levels of residential developments are freed up for resident activities both indoors and outdoors. Rather than ‘ground levels’, I would like to say ‘ground plane’ because the different neighbourhoods share the whole plane without much physical barrier in-between. Depending on the community’s needs, they are appropriated as community gardens, seniors’ hubs and wedding/funeral marquees etc (some seem to get used better than others, and I am yet to see studies on this). For example, GoodLife! Makan, a community kitchen for seniors living alone, provides a space where they can cook and share meals, rather than have social services deliver food. The ground levels are pedestrian- and bike-friendly, kept safe with passive surveillance, and well-integrated into the neighbourhood without hard barriers/fences.

Mixed-income housing isn’t just about the mix of different people; as a result, the neighbourhood’s economy and amenities respond to their different needs. High-end flats have cheap eats as well as wine bars, free outdoor exercise equipment as well as private gyms, and children’s playgrounds as well as seniors’ game spaces. There is little spatial disparity between the city’s neighbourhoods.

In Australia, we need to think hard about what goes on in our ground planes. Parking, carpark entries, storage, fences and blank walls do not contribute to community cohesion. Our exclusive neighbourhoods – closed off to too many physically, financially and psychologically — create deeper social divides. Singapore’s strategy to build community resilience bottom-up from the ground level is a valuable lesson for profit-driven housing development that pays no attention to social cohesion.

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The Interlace, private development designed by OMA, is a gated community with its own pool, ponds, gardens, community hubs and playgrounds. Gated developments in Singapore seem to be desirable because of the high quality amenities on offer, rather than security reasons.
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The Pinnacle is a high-end residential development (public housing) with a 50th storey Skybridge open to the public.
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Strathmore (mid-end public housing, foreground) and SkyVille Dawson (high-end public housing, background) share the ground plane without much physical barrier. Moving between the public and semi-public realms is fluid.
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Residents of Tiong Bahru (low-end public housing) are invited to gardening.
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A resident at Tiong Bahru has personalised the shared corridor.
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The worst condition I saw was at Jalan Kukoh (low-end public housing), with defensive materials and deteriorated amenities.
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While in a poor condition, Jalan Kukoh still has everyday shops, eateries, gardens and playgrounds on the ground level.

Many thanks to these organisations:

Neighbourhoods visited:

  • Jalan Kukoh (low-end public housing)
  • Aljunited Crescent (low-end public housing)
  • Tiong Bahru (low-end public housing)
  • Strathmore Estate (mid-end public housing)
  • Dawson SkyVille (high-end public housing)
  • Dawson SkyTerrace (high-end public housing)
  • The Pinnacle at Duxton (high-end public housing)
  • Caribbean at Keppel Bay (high-end private housing)
  • The Interlace (high-end private housing)
  • Not visited but recommended to study: Ardmore Park

 

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

By invitation only: Songdo’s smart city promise for the selected few

Walking along the streets around Seoul’s City Hall, I am taken back to my childhood in Seoul. Every school day, without fail, vendors would flock to the school gate in time for persuadable kids to burst out of their classes – and have yet another look at brown sugar lollies in star shapes, cotton candies and tiny toys. How those men and women made each day interesting – they had all kinds of stuff, constantly changing but also consistently there. I never really had money to buy anything, but they certainly added excitement to an otherwise ordinary day and livened up the banal public realm.

 

All kinds of entrepreneurs

On the streets of Seoul, its informal economy is still well visible. A group of men and women have taken over a parking space as a temporary outdoor dining spot. Too busy engaged in a lively conversation over large pots of soup, they have no idea they are participating what some may call ’Parking Day’. Further down, an old man is handing over layers of flattened cardboard boxes for little cash. I don’t realise how difficult it would have been to earn that money until I see a different old man wearily pulling a cart packed with cardboard boxes along a 10-lane road. I pass neatly arranged pairs of men’s shoes at a shoe shine stall, which just fits one man and his toolbox in an area smaller than 1m x 1m. Then I bump into a chestnut roaster with a sign that says 5,000 won for 30 or 3,000 won for 15. I am good at grabbing a bargain and I ask the old woman for 30. She lifts her dark wrinkly face, but not quite high enough to make an eye contact, and starts counting. As I am getting out 5,000 won plus a bit more, thinking she could use it more than me, she finishes putting chestnuts into the white paper bag and mumbles “I put in 3 extra ones ok? Come again”. I feel embarrassed by my presumptuousness and walk away with a bag full of 33 freshly roasted chestnuts. To call her less of a business woman than I am, because I am supposedly more educated and wealthier, would be unfounded.

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I am reminded of my brief but memorable conversation with the Nobel prize laureate Muhammad Yunus. He believes that everybody is a natural entrepreneur – it is not our tradition to send job applications. In the 70s his radical microfinancing strategy fostered entrepreneurship in poverty-stricken places where no woman was known to do much else than domestic work. Today his program continues to give the poor – mostly women – microcredit to encourage their natural entrepreneurship to flourish.

Entrepreneurship is such a buzz word now, and unfortunately many associate the term with start-ups and educated professionals, when it should be an accessible and open term for everybody.

 

Songdo’s smart city promise

Songdo is a city made from scratch, about an hour’s drive from Seoul – a city built on land reclaimed from the sea; a city with motion sensors, emergency communication buttons on the streets and monitors for stolen cars. Songdo promises a great lifestyle for professionals in the high-tech, logistics and medical/bio industries; and great education in five foreign universities; all in the convenient location within International Free Economic Zone and supported by the latest smart city infrastructure. At the New Cities Summit held there, I got to stand behind a large pane of glass and get a glimpse of the city’s ‘brain’ where all the data comes together to fill one massive screen for the city to respond in real time. It isn’t all clear how that data ultimately contributes to people’s wellbeing – but the screens looked pretty impressive.

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And from my hotel room on the 9th floor, I got a glimpse of the life of the city, the bit that I am more interested in. Sterile, soulless, uniform, faceless. Those were some of the descriptions I read prior to getting there. They are all true. Uniform and anonymous high rises are difficult to tell apart. An array of national flags stands proudly towering over the 8-10 lane main road. Apart from Central Park, the city looks and feels private, like a massive gated community where an uninvited guest would be swiftly recognised, questioned and removed. After all the city has been described as  “the largest private real estate development in history”. The private sector ‘founders’ of Songdo (Gale International, KPF, Arup) explained at the Summit, that Songdo’s Central Park is a replica of New York City’s Central Park, and was named after it. It boggles my mind why the Korean government, any government, would ever agree to that. Whatever happened to meaningful places? What happened to authentic experiences? (See London School of Economics’ associate professor Hyun Bang Shin’s new chapter on ‘the fallacy of Songdo (Smart) City‘)

I am not sure if it is because the ‘founders’ didn’t understand the local context or simply didn’t care – but in Songdo, ‘culture’ is a replica of a thousand-year-old palace or Tri-bowl, a culture and art centre. (By definition, culture is “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time”.) In contrast, in the old town of Incheon next door, domestic and international artists-in-residence have created something remarkable. Incheon Art Platform supports artistic talent – both professional and amateur – to engage and develop their skills. Their impact goes beyond the boundaries of the Platform, as former artists-in-residence set up their own studios in the neighbourhood and build on the unique character of the city. New cafes have popped up thanks to the new creative industry.

When you look at Songdo’s public domain carefully you start to see what’s missing – rather, who’s missing: it’s the creatives, older folks dining out in a parking space, women selling roasted chestnuts and men pulling carts with cardboard boxes. Brand new concert halls, high-end hotels and apartments make up Songdo, a city that is livable for the selected few; inaccessible for the rest.

 

A thriving city?

Over the past week, I have been thinking about what it means to be a thriving city: The theme of the New Cities Summit.

Songdo is not the city of tomorrow. It is a missed opportunity. It could have brought a cultural shift and created the most walkable and cyclable city in South Korea, not just LEED certification. It could have shared with the rest of the country what a participatory planning process looks like using smart technology. It could have been a city for all kinds of entrepreneurs to work with dignity instead of legitimising the exclusion of certain demographic groups.

A thriving city doesn’t just attract skilled entrepreneurs, it attracts unskilled ones too and give THEM an opportunity to upskill and contribute to the economy and their well-being.

Its citizens shouldn’t have to remain as passive consumers of the supplied ‘culture’. They should become active participants who contribute to the evolution of the place.

 

Humanising our cities

So is there hope for a place like Songdo? Absolutely.

On my last day in Songdo, I ventured out to where people live. Korean apartment complexes tend to be gated forming ‘danji’, so the feeling of being uninvited intensified as I walked through them.

Zigzagging through several danjis, I found myself in the middle of an open space. What looked like an abandoned land from afar, turned out to be vast cultivated fields of vegetables. Who’s tending these vegetables and whose land is it, I asked one of the cultivators on the field. “We are just local residents. This land was supposed to be developed into high rise apartments, but nothing has happened in the last two years. So we work the land, socialise while we look after our vegetables”, said a middle-aged woman I approached, “sure, I had some lettuce taken, but generally no one trashes our work”.

Walking around further, I saw several women working. In front of each plot: Signage that reads ‘Do not cultivate. Private land. Restore the land by 31.12.2016 or face legal consequences’. I am not sure what the red diagonal lines across the panel mean but I hope they were the result of a win-win negotiation.

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What I learned from Songdo and what I continue to see time and time again in so many places all over the world is this: People will always find ways to appropriate their public realm if they see the opportunity.

To the naysayers who argue Koreans don’t like to have a say, because it is not part of their culture – they are looking at citizens that impeached a president through 7 months of candlelight protests. At a time where 1-2 year rental contract is common and building a sense of community is critical — We need to ensure genuine opportunities for people to be engaged and empowered exist.

Surely humanising our cities and empowering citizens to improve their lives comes before getting 5G ready.

 

 

My Westpac Social Change Fellowship journey: An Inquiry into the Right to the City

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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 marginalised 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!

The right to the city – creating a place for and with the homeless community

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?

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Former substation and toilet in Taylor Square

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.

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Participants discuss priority implementation ideas at the Rough Edges community workshop

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.

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Stephen Corry shows one of his drawings during the community workshop

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.

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Children like to hop on and off the half wall at Rough Edges’ public domain

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.

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GoGet’s Street Library workshop (photo: GoGet)

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 julia@urbantoolbox.com.au

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.

 

Designing for movement in Auckland

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.

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Waiting for a bus on Albert Street is a daunting experience, having to stand on the narrow footpath next to a noisy, polluted 5-lane road with heavy vehicular traffic. It has a view to large, unattractive car parking structure that pays no respect to the adjacent heritage site.
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Britomart Transport Centre, where all trains terminate in the CBD, has missed the opportunity to become a community hub. All four sides are dominated by vehicular traffic and the building is isolated from great parts of the city.
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Te Ara Tahuhu Walkway is a pedestrian walkway that leads to Britomart, lined with high-end shops and restaurants. It offers a safe, green respite from the noisy roads but lacks places to stay that are free and look public.
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Te Ara I Whiti, the Lightpath, is the latest active transport achievement in Auckland that includes a new bridge the revamped old Nelson Street motorway off-ramp.
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The Lightpath entry begins with a Maori design — forming a bold, meaningful and memorable gateway.
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No matter how great the ride is, unpleasant walk home from the train station deters people from using the system. New Lynn is a traditionally industrial suburb that is yet to face the challenges of land use change.

Christchurch the Garden City; and its unshared gardens

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?

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Post-earthquake, the Avon River still offers a natural setting in the city centre, with greenery, ducks, eels and trouts
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Christchurch’s new private hospital is a ‘glass-encased fortress’ – it is also cold and unengaging, not in line with the garden city character. (Source: KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ)

 

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.

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Land prepared for residential development in the East Frame

 

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.

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No one visits the city centre at night, and the lack of passive surveillance and activities attracts vandalism

 

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.

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Margaret Mahy Family Playground is the result of another extensive community engagement that involved school children of varying age groups. It is free, open 24/7 to the public and attract many families into the empty city centre.

 

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’.

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Will new developments help create the Christchurch character we want?

 

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’.

Blank wall2

 

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.

Follow Julia on Twitter @JuliaSuhCom