Engaging the community through design

Future visions of Adelaide often attract strong opinions, most notably in the media. Sensational reports about the winners and losers of a particular design tend to receive significantly more airplay than the long-term benefits and exciting opportunities a new concept may deliver.

Such polarised views can make balanced, open and insightful discussion close-to impossible. Developers and designers corral consultation, launch proposals on an unsuspecting public then defend them come-what-may. At the opposite end, community organisations advocate consultation where stakeholders pick up a pen and start drawing.

Both approaches are problematic.

The foisting of projects on an unsuspecting public presents understandable issues. Lack of engagement leads to lack of buy-in, which in turn generates public opposition, warranted or otherwise. Without understanding the reasoning behind a development proposal or a master plan, the only position that an individual can take is to either like or dislike it. Or, more likely, to love or hate it.

Equally, giving people a blank sheet of paper, asking them to draw what they would like to see then having designers impassively translate this into a scheme ignores one of the core skills of design professionals, that of understanding the needs of a community and translating that into a viable vision for the future. The ability to create something out of nothing is what we do every day. We regularly capture the potential of a particular space through a fine balance of demonstrating leadership and taking the time to listen.

Inevitably the input gained from the ‘blank sheet of paper’ approach is restricted to what people already know. There is no incentive for people to consider the issues facing the project, resulting in a wish list that cannot be delivered and accusations of meaningless consultation.

There is however a third option, which brings together the best aspects of both approaches. We have used it on several projects recently. It involves developing a design proposition, presenting it to stakeholders together with all of its competing issues and conflicts, and inviting feedback. Most importantly though, there is an expectation that the feedback will inform and change the initial proposal.

This approach enables designers to do what we are good at – working with competing interests and issues, and fashioning them into something new and compelling. It also gives the community something to engage with that they had not considered. The thinking behind the proposal and the dilemmas facing the design team are shared with all, and the community becomes involved in making the hard choices, because they can influence the outcome.

This approach was used in last year’s Adelaide 5000+ Moving City forum. Three design teams, landscape architects Taylor Cullity Lethlean, Tridente Architects and our own practice HASSELL, were asked to develop ideas for the west end of Adelaide’s square mile, based on reducing the number of traffic lanes on West Terrace.

The Living on the Edge proposals were quite varied, but all were compelling. They were not final designs and are not intended to be built. They are the first steps in getting our community and leaders thinking and engaged about how we can deal with an area of the city and parklands that is underused, but has great potential.

Our own HASSELL proposal took a citywide view. It had four main components:

Creating of a ring road link along the rail corridor between Anzac Highway and Sir James Congdon Drive.

An integrated transport strategy for central Adelaide including a comprehensive tram network, an underground rail loop and eventually a high-speed rail conn ection to the east coast (as a separate body of work, we have developed a design for a high speed train for Australia – see Australian High Speed Vehicle at hassellstudio.com).

Bridging over the Keswick rail yards, both to connect the inner western suburbs to the parklands, and to provide development sites for high density living with parklands frontage.

A network of shared streets, bikeways and roads that connect across the parklands to the inner western suburbs.

It is an integrated approach that looks at the major transport systems the city will need as well as the qualities of the streets and public spaces that people will experience.

It is absolutely not a proposal intended to be built in the form presented, and indeed will be too expensive to deliver in its entirety in the space of a generation. Instead, it proposes a number of integrated ideas that can now be discussed, challenged and developed.

It offers choices that can be debated, with the community engaged in shaping the outcome. Do we spend our limited resources on connecting the parklands, or a new city tram network, or an underground rail loop, or much better street environments to encourage people back into the city, or some combination of all of these? We believe it’s okay not to have the answer immediately but, through this process, the community is more likely to feel connected to the final decisions.

There is one thing however that this process can’t resolve – the question that is inevitably asked; “so what’s it going to look like?” It’s always a conundrum for designers. Can complex ideas be captured in a single image? The image ends up representing the idea, and the idea lives and dies by the image. We are after all a visually driven society.

Despite the thinking and consultation that went into this proposal, the one element that received the most attention was the kid let loose unsupervised on the bike track. You can’t win them all!

HASSELL Principal

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