About CoDesign Studio
CoDesign Studio is a design and placemaking consultancy that is dedicated to collaborative city-making. We work with local and state government, developers and communities to create thriving and inclusive places. We use place activation, prototyping and co-design processes to help our clients effectively manage change, creatively engage with communities, activate underutilised spaces and generate collaborative solutions for new places. Our methodology is underpinned by the principles of tactical urbanism, a framework that helps us quickly transform any place into a space people love.
What is the ‘drive’ behind Co-Design?
What fully occupied my interests in the past decade is, “How do we create inclusive neighbourhoods in the 21st century?” If we think back to our parents and grandparents generation, there is a nostalgia created that people were more connected to their local places, and neighbours, and statistically they were. But I do think that we have dramatic cultural change, technological change, and in that mix a need to create a new type of neighbourhood that is reconnected to its local place, while still connected to an online, globalised world. So that’s really the background about CoDesign. CoDesign is trying to develop more collaborative tools and processes that help us reinvent neighbourhoods.
We’re looking at how we can quickly transform any place into a place that people love, and thrive in. We’re interested in Tactical Urbanism, but not as a silver bullet. Like any methodology it has limitations, but as a framework it opens up new possibilities for how we reconnect people and place. By doing projects that are generally, although not always, temporary, low-cost and quick, it lowers the barrier to entry for communities, it lowers the risk threshold for councils or developers. The result is active places and connected communities, with results in less than 90 days. It allows you to have a level of experimentation that you can’t do in a traditional planning framework. What that does is evolves new solutions for places or more collaborative discussions of how we create vibrant communities.
From our experience across 50 Tactical Urbanism projects in the last three years, we have adapted a four-part methodology of that approach. We apply that in three general ways: One is through place activation – how we find value in unused spaces whether it’s greenfield, retail, urban infill; a second is a design testing / change management tool – to allow you to test new ideas through prototypes before making financial and political commitments, and the third is as a creative community engagement tool – helping people to participate in shaping the vision and structures around their place.
What we’re starting to do now is scaling up the framework to look at how it informs the strategy of the urban design framework of a place. We now know what the key drivers and barriers are for place activation, and these collaborative process can easily scale up to make sure that planning for new precincts and neighbourhoods have the right ingredients to improve social sustainability and wellbeing.
Where would you say the bulk of your work is?
Engagement and early activation is currently around 80% of the work. However we’re actively shifting that towards strategic projects and neighbourhood placemaking, as it’s hard to activate a place if the bones of it weren’t right in the first place. We need to embed principles of social sustainability from the outset, then the activation is just a final step to kick start the place.
So back into that visioning stage?
Yeah, and I guess what I find difficult is that you have a vision, it might even be a collaboratively developed vision, but it’s a long time later that you’re looking to activate it because something isn’t working. We tend to make decisions for people, with a lot of assumptions of how they will use or act in a place, without testing that assumption, and then we’re surprised that people don’t participate how we expected they would. If we build in more collaborative processes from the outset, and involve user-testing through prototyping, we can get results that are closer to what the market wants, and better tailored to local needs. I think if you’re actually looking at strategies for building a community first and foremost and using activation principles from the beginning right through to the end, then perhaps you don’t need this big, “Oh, here it is, its not working how we hoped it would, let’s activate it”. At the moment I feel that many of the problems that we’re trying to fix are problems that could have been avoided, if a different question was asked in the first place.
Are you more involved in one or two-off projects or is it a lengthy process and you need to be there to really see the community seeding take off?
That’s what I think needs to happen, whether that’s always what we’re engaged to do really varies. While projects can be quickly delivered, social processes take time. We are mostly engaged in one-off projects – it’s testing and prototyping a bike lane or activating a road as a community park, or running a temporary community hub. But if you actually want community development outcomes you need to have a much longer process with much less top-down direction. But that takes a certain type of client who has that three to five-year vision.
We are just about to embark on what I hope is quite a revolutionary project – The Neighbourhood Project – working with eight councils across Victoria on a three-year project to reshape how public space projects are delivered and managed. The project will completely transform how Councils and communities integrate Tactical Urbanism processes and will involve the delivery of 40 projects. The aim is that it will creates a body of evidence that enables more communities to be involved in neighbourhood improvement projects, by reducing and streamlining local government processes.
Do you have any examples where you’ve seen that direct outcome?
With the City of Launceston we worked with them on their urban design framework. There were seven key themes identified by the whole broader consultant team, we took a few of those and tested them with the community over a series of weeks. One of them was looking at how co-working would work in the CBD, seeing how it works in action is quite different to on paper. So we set up temporary co-working spaces, and moved them around the city as part of having a broader testing, and engagement process. Then a secondary part of that project was activating laneways and public spaces which we did through a range of temporary furniture that people were allowed to play with and move. The outcome was partly proving that the design framework principles for those areas were going to probably work, they also gave Council confidence to then start a permanent program.
Others include the Brunswick Laneway Revitalisation project, where we worked with the Department of Justice on a community-led revitalisation project. Two neighbours mobilised their entire street to undertake upgrading projects – a community garden, green wall, artwork on the pavement. The intervention was quite small, and main outcome has been seeing neighbours who didn’t know each other build new relationships. They now meet monthly for laneway dinners.
What drives you in doing these projects? Is it better quality places?
I think it’s about creating places that build stronger communities, and not separating those two. I’m trained in landscape architecture and I still work as a landscape architect. However I found there are limitations of more traditional practice, which tended to be very design-led, and with periodic community engagement. In a traditional process, community engagement is more a design research tool rather than actually trying to build a mutual space.
Place transformation can be a really significant tool for building community. We’ve got people who are largely disengaged from their local place, only one in three Australians knows their neighbour, and in these smaller projects, the greatest legacy that you can have is actually not the built form, it’s the process that gets people talking, and building relationships in a way that they may not have if that project didn’t exist.
The place has a really critical role because that provides the stage or the canvas for these relationships to occur, and if it’s designed well, it’ll allow that to occur in the long term. But I think the bigger outcome is the community development opportunity that is often missed because we’re focusing more on the place, and not enough on the community.
We’ve largely stripped local communities of any decision making power over their neighbourhood. We assume that that will all be done by other people. You do need expertise, certainly, but we often fail to see the potential these projects can contribute to building community. I think when you take away people’s opportunity to actually decide what happens in their neighbourhood, you don’t have a stronger social connection.
Why do you think people have that yearning to be part of community, why do you think we need strong communities?
There’s a lot of evidence that a core driver of happiness is how well connected you are. How many friends can you name that’d you call in a crisis? If that figure gets less than five, then you’re in trouble. If it’s somewhere between five and ten you’re in the normal range. So there’s all these statistics around social capital. If you are lonely in Australia you are just as likely to have a premature death as smoking or alcohol abuse, so it’s a significant health risk. I think we’re not meant to do life alone. I think that we’re stronger together. I think the whole pattern of child raising in nuclear families or whatever a nuclear family looks like these days is really flawed. I think the village concept is better in that regard.
Sometimes people say “Well, these days, you can have an online community” and you can. We certainly embrace what technology has to offer. But there is a risk with that if that’s the only, or the dominant community you’re a part of. The challenge with online communities is that you’re opting into, choosing which groups you’re going to be a part of. Therefore you’re choosing your community and you’re very likely to choose people that are like you or have interests like you. That has a huge impact on our general social tolerance.
In terms of greenfield developments, have you had any involvement in work where it’s difficult to capture the voice of a community that either doesn’t exist or it’s very in its infancy?
Traditional engagement doesn’t work in scenarios when you don’t know who your audience will be. Typically we engage with people immediately impacted by a project, but is that is a future community then we need different tools. You want to be drawing in new voices and inviting them to be a part of the community building process. Tactical urbanism can also be helpful here. You can use short-term, low-cost infrastructure to help kick-start a community, and identify the people you need to be talking to.
In one Melbourne greenfield site we are looking to work with Sprout Ventures to set up a temporary community hub that’s been informed by an early engagement process that we took with our prospective buyers – people that have bought off the plan or are thinking of buying off the plan, looking at what their aspirations were to feed into the program. There’ll be a temporary community hub that serves as a place for that local community to start to build from. There could be places in the community that are not 100% resolved yet that the new emerging community can personalise. The hub will provide every day services, like a mobile coffee van, and space for local businesses to rent.
I know in our current frameworks you have to have a fair amount of the decision-making done upfront because there’s a logical economic flow. Decisions and resourcing and phasing that needs to be done, but you do not have to decide the fence colour beforehand. These days you can personalise a car more than you can your home. In Greenfield sites there’s this great opportunity to use temporary infrastructure to start to activate communities early from day one, and to use that as part of an ongoing engagement process rather than doing the engagement only in the visioning and then pausing it until we ‘activate’ it post-completion end.
How do you find getting the balance between the commercial and community?
I think it depends on the company but it’s a very competitive market out there. There are 150-odd developments being built right now, so people can afford to be a little bit more choosy. Building a new community centre is a huge investment, sure, but building a temporary hub or allocating a portion of your funding to communities for them to help you decide on a park or something like that, in the context of their development that’s nothing. The larger organizations measure their social return or their social impact, and if people are happier, healthier then they’re more likely to talk about those branded developments to their friends, and people’s word of mouth is certainly the best marketing asset. You can easily justify temporary activation early for pretty low-cost or a much higher return, and brand leverage.
Do council and developer clients have different views about the activation process?
They’re looking at it from a really different angle. Developers can get their head around it from an economics perspective actually because it helps their brand reputation, and long-term community satisfaction. Councils are different because they’re not commercially motivated in the same way, they are all about community development, that’s in part why they exist. Often they’ve got a change management problem that they can’t get around, or have a strong community reaction to, so in that situation, testing something for a few months can help. Even if it doesn’t resolve the problem, it helps change the conversation about it and allow people to really test ideas and feel heard.
Councils are also is incredibly resource poor, and to think that you can’t have community activities until you’ve got your $2 million community centre, is the wrong way around as I think you can do a lot of those things, much cheaper.
Do you try and identify local champions through the life of a development to take over?
Yeah, absolutely and they’re in every community, either the early adopters and the people who will connect with everyone else or they can be the squeaky wheels. In the right conversation those people are your greatest assets, sometimes working with people who are early adopters or natural leaders in their community can be a way to build trust with a broader community.
Who do you think should get together early on, maybe in that visioning stage, but also in that activation stage? Is there greater value in collaboration?
Yeah, definitely, I always think more diverse people earlier is better. I think the challenge that we find is often so many decisions are made already that you’re asking the wrong question, because you might be activating a place that is in totally the wrong location, or trying to build a park in a community that really doesn’t want it. It’s very hard to build a community when you’re asking them to contribute to things that don’t really matter that much, or they didn’t choose.
If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?
We have a problem with the disconnect between who makes the decision and who benefits from the decision. So I’d like to see communities being involved, in not just engagement, but being involved in shaping the places where they live, having real control.
But the thing that keeps me awake at night at the moment is just red tape around ridiculous things. I think we overregulate where it could be performance based. Or we could be like, “Nothing’s a problem until it’s actually a problem,” but we always assume the worst. So I think less red tape at the neighbourhood scale. Many regulations are there for good reason, but we need to review whether these need to be applied to the maximum and in all situations. Ten million in public liability and a traffic management report for a street party is overkill.
The biggest challenges that I see in our neighbourhoods at the moment are urban homogenisation and social exclusion. Those things are being largely driven by urban design guidelines which are put there because they’re required to be there, and social isolation is closely linked to that because people don’t have control or involvement in their neighbourhoods.