Help Small Shift Launch a DIO (Do-It-Ourselves) Public Space in Disadvantaged Areas

If you have been enjoying my blog posts here, you’d love our social enterprise, Small Shift. Small Shift supports locals to reimagine and create public spaces together, and create employment pathways for people facing tough challenges getting jobs.

To take our Small Shift model far and wide, I need your help at this early stage of the business. We are running a crowdfunding campaign to take the Small Shift model to disadvantaged areas in the City of Parramatta.

In this all-or-nothing campaign, unless we reach our goal of $14,000 in the next 10 days we will receive $0. If you think our cities and places need to be more inclusive and just —
click here for details, pledge today and share it with your network.

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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?

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.

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.

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

The Rough Edges Engaging Street Front project will be presented at the International Cities, Town Centres Conference in November 2016. Visit 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.


Cultural pride in the public domain: the role of retailers in ethnically diverse communities

What comes to mind when someone says ‘Jerusalem’?

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.

Bearded Bakers (photo courtesy of Knafeh Bakery)

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

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Retailer in Strathfield Plaza sells Korean side dishes to Chinese customers.
Hanging signage is in both Korean and English and installed with small flags that contain dish names offering a distinct Korean look & feel.
The menu is written in Korean and English, and supported by photos.
People queue to get into a restaurant on The Boulevarde.
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Strathfield Plaza attracts a diverse range of ethnic groups that shop at Woolworths and other franchises, as well as specialist stores.
People try out massage chairs in Strathfield Plaza.
An indoor cafe is predominantly occupied by older people.
Strathfield Square fountain is popular among young children.

How can public spaces ease intercultural tensions?

“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.

Vibrant S. Parade lined with fine-grain shops that open wide to the public.
Vibrant S. Parade lined with fine-grain shops that open wide to the public.
Public seating along S.Parade is well used by shoppers reading cultural papers.
Public seating along S.Parade is well-used by shoppers reading cultural papers.

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.

Large open space at the end of Queen Street remains empty in stark contrast to the shopping centre and S. Parade.
Large open space at the end of Queen Street remains empty in stark contrast to the shopping centre and S. Parade.
Auburn Road offers a wide footpath, outdoor dining and children's play area.
Auburn Road offers a wide footpath, outdoor dining and children’s play area.

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.

Shopping centre is packed with shoppers, but there is nothing else to do.
Shopping centre is packed with shoppers, but there is nothing else to do.

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.

A diversity of people watch their children play at the Auburn Memorial Park.
A diversity of people watch their children play at the Auburn Memorial Park.
A woman meditates under a tree at the Auburn Memorial Park.
A woman meditates under a tree at the Auburn Memorial Park.

Follow Julia on Twitter @JuliaSuhCom