Waiting on the world to change

How The West Was Won #2

(All photographs by Martin Rowland (martyr_67), taken in Wyndham, in Melbourne’s outer west.)

We would do well to think of ourselves as Homo sapiens, more.1 In identifying ourselves as human, we are an animal just like the many other animals — those that we know and those that have become extinct through our own activities, — and not too dissimilar to those many more million organisms that on land and sea remain undiscovered and unnamed.

Yet classification is exclusively a Sapiens construct. Our identity, at its most basic, is a product of our own developed knowledge. We are human because we are an animal because we define ourselves so according to scientific evidence. And we are a particular human, Homo sapiens, because we trace ourselves to be so. We are bound in a construct of our own making. Perhaps it suits us this way; we can choose to ignore things of our own making and decide to be what we want to be.

Yet the development of our knowledge has led us to activities that have profoundly impacted earth’s living systems. We cannot ignore the things we have not made. The knowledge we have acquired threatens our very own survival. Unless, of course, we do something about our new found knowledge of our predicament, and acquire new harmonious ways of getting along with one another.

Plant a New Truffula

Our own predicament, then, is of our own making. We are now able to define our own living limits, yet we have been unable to live within these limits and, to date, appear incapable of doing so. Paradoxically, we have classified living systems but as yet have been unable to develop systems for sustained living. In our case, our survival depends not on an immunity from randomly derived external threats, but on an immunity from external threats directly resulting from our very selves.

We would do well, then, in our present time of survival crisis, to mind ourselves in our Homo sapiens classification. But to be mindful not so much of the distinction in classification of ourselves among other organisms, rather to be more cognisant of what we are at our biological, and biological-dependent, core: utterly dependent on each other and the balance of life’s living systems, and completely susceptible to extinction.2

To develop a new knowledge, then, of our socio-biosphere relations concerning core systems of water, shelter, energy, food, transport, and of knowledge itself; of a comprehensive understanding of wellness, of self, home, community and society; of social innovation and institutional change for a new productive, generative economy and the healthy dynamic spatiality that economy would produce.


The thing about knowledge, is it tends to play catch-up to what is already ‘out there’. We have identified ourselves as Homo sapiens because that’s how we classified the organisms which already did exist. But new found discoveries in all manner of things invoke all sorts of new classifications not otherwise imagined.

Imagination, on the other hand, is not constrained by knowledge. It is, as Einstein once said, more important than knowledge, for it can lead to new forms of knowing and doing.

Time to make imagination core to our work. That is a very Sapiens capability, after all.4 Question is, will it prove to be a Sapiens quality to make our work about the vital work at hand?


1. I have just began, rather belatedly, reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens, and have been gratefully reminded of the very brief but devastating time we have had on earth to date.

2. Harari (ibid) notes that it is doubtful Sapiens will be around 1000 years from now.

3. Of course, the imagination of humans has also played a key role in destruction.

4. Homo sapiens (‘Wise Man’).

5. Despite our intelligence, so much of our work continues to blindly perpetuate our current paradigms which so clearly are in need of change.

A new urban politics III: #UPSTREAM


A Day at the Creek
Photograph: IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

This post the 3rd installment to: A new urban politics II: the urban paradox — how determines what, and A new urban politics.


“Stop thinking start doing: we need more experimenting on the ground”, is what Bert van Lamoen explained in response to someone’s question about the meaning of his preceding tweet that said “Enough is enough”.

Of course one can’t keep on doing without soon thinking. Try standing on one leg and raising the other, a simple enough exercise, and see how long it takes for your mind to be confronted with the burning pain in your supporting leg, and for that action to cease and another to take its place.

Actions not only follow thinking, they induce thinking. And the thinking generated from action is relative — to the action: “I can’t keep it up”; “This is killing my leg”; “I hate my physio”. The thinking leads to new actions (recovery) which in turn induce new thinking: “My legs are weak”; “I need to do this more” …

This recursive practice, this learning by doing is the essence of (experiential) learning and is, or at least once was, natural to us all. What is not natural is this type of learning in either education or professional practice today.

It is not simply that the breaking of learning into individual subjects of discrete disciplines reduces any given real-world experience to just one lens (a reductionist approach to complex reality), didactic methods of teaching, in the main, develop only the abstract, and only, I would argue, information, not vital knowledge. What’s more, professional practice, by definition, is just the accommodation of discipline theory. What of the development of that theory? What of the development of practice?

Unlike information, knowledge is knowing. It is relative, not static. How could we truly know something without experiencing it? How could we understand the pain of standing on one leg without really trying it? If we didn’t try it, how would we really know how we would react?

The generation of knowledge is vital to learning, and learning is vital to the generation of knowledge. Knowledge and learning are interdependent because there are two types of knowledge generated by, (and required of), learning (Fig 1): ‘finding out’ and the generation of theoretical knowledge in both the real (i) and conceptual (ii) worlds, and ‘taking action’ and the generation of practical knowledge in both the conceptual (iii) and real (iv) worlds.1

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Figure 1: Learning as the flux between ‘finding out’ and ‘taking action’ (adapted after Kolb)
Source: R. Bawden, ‘The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less traveled’

For a subject as complex as the city, knowledge is vital. Yet the disciplines that are supposedly about the city (i.e. urban design, urban planning, architecture and landscape architecture) remain defined by their own particular weltanschauung, one which has them firmly declaring themselves as disciplines of the ‘built environment’. What’s more, projects across these disciplines, in the main, remain outside the core of how cities exist. The urban question upon which all cities are founded (i.e. how broad forms of wealth can be generated through the exchange of commerce and culture) is not attended to through a ‘city’ focus. The ‘built environment’ is not something to be designed, at the outset. The built environment (city) follows the urban; ‘designing’ bricks and mortar, infrastructure, housing, and parks deals with urban effects over urban causes. In traditional built environment education, even ‘design’ projects that are based on ‘real’ sites for which ‘designs’ are proposed, sometimes presented, to ‘real’ audiences only constitute the abstract. This is because the project (and, therefore, any work) is abstracted from how reality, in these cases, the city, exists. And for practitioners, especially those of the built environment professions who, somehow, have hegemony of professional involvement in advising on anything to do with the city, practice has drifted far, far away from, yet at the same time increasingly reductive to, their respective theoretical foundations, however well defined.2

For students of the city (in this case I mean those formally enrolled in education about the city) learning — as a process — is vital to the explanation of a discipline and to its application. Perhaps this is why, for urban design in particular, there is, as Alexander Cuthbert points out, a glaring lack of theoretical rigour about the discipline, let alone any consistency in the shallow theories in urban design.3

Whilst the demands of neoliberal capitalism appear to be forcing our big tertiary university educational institutions in Australia into the education business (of attracting students), rather than assisting them to be in the business of education (of the student), the practice of the built environment professions appear to be similarly consumed by the market they are in. While all professions are defined universally by the provision of advice, the advice provided by the built environment professions is inextricably linked to, in fact consumed by, neoliberal capitalist ventures, namely property development. In our current market, property development trades off the speculative and for little collective value. In turn, these professional services could be said to consume the market: the very reliance on property development as a source of work and as a basis of commercial viability and professional prosperity and sense of legitimacy. Both education and practice have become products of consumption, and consumptive products. Both appear complicit with everything their discipline foundations (society and nature, essentially) are counter to. In an age where it is obvious the world’s social and environmental battles will be won or lost in cities, what are we to do about the education of designers for our urban futures? Just what are we to do about the definition and explanation of the urban as a discipline, and its teaching? What of its application in practice?4

For effective learning (read also practice!) one must be able to generate both conceptual and practical knowledge. This recursive process not only generates learning — about the discipline and about practice — but learning about learning: the discipline of the discipline and the ‘practice of practice’.5 Known as praxis this ‘emergent property’ was the foundation of my teaching of the #UPSTREAM studio I will now introduce as explanation and demonstration of that by which this the third installment in the series is known.


Figure 2: Praxis as an emergent property
Source: R. Bawden, ‘The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less traveled’



#UPSTREAM is metaphor. It is the title of the design studio I ran at the RMIT School of Architecture and Design, centred on the improvement of Moonee Ponds Creek, a 28-km length (approx.) waterway, in Melbourne. The meaning of the title is especially rich; the words of the poster I used to promote the studio, for which a mix of Landscape Architecture final year undergraduate and 1st year Masters students selected through ballot, were:

Moonee Ponds Creek is a highly modified and disturbed regional waterway that crosses the boundaries of four separate local government agencies, has varied land status and multiple land owners and stakeholders. For the most part, it is essentially a trapezoidal drainage channel designed to convey water in the fastest way possible, but with very little function for, or value to, anything else. How ought a landscape architect to go about improving it?

Using the Moonee Ponds Creek in its entire catchment as the project platform, the studio will explore design as verb, as distinct from the noun. This orientation will force a questioning of just what it is that is being designed. Is the creek a formal condition and phenomenon that is in need of change, or is its condition a symptom of something else that may need to be changed? What could that something else be? And if design need not be formal in representation, what, then, is a designer?

The studio will promote the value of strategic design as a necessary and vital process of exploring how, by asking the right questions, we can work “upstream” of traditional design-object-to-defined-brief expectations, and be the Change Agents for influencing the conditions to create new “ecologies” for the change we need.

So ‘upstream’ is a waterway metaphor for a waterway. Just as one must search upstream of any point in a waterway in order to understand the dynamics of a whole-of-catchment phenomenon, so too must one search upstream, figuratively, of traditionally defined problems and project briefs.

It should be said that the literal hydro-eco upstream consideration, important as it is to an understanding the hydo-eco dynamics of a waterway, is subordinate to the metaphoric upstream enquiry, in the sense that the metaphor is a meta-design consideration where the technical is subordinate to the political economic context by which the city and its component waterway exists. This project adopted a political economic lens in order for students to explain the spatial and, especially, the hydro-eco technical. “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context” argued Eliel Saarinen, but in the complex world of cities (not objects) it is the context that needs (re)designing if objects are to be validated.6 Teach a man how to fish, for sure, but who says man must eat fish? What happens when all the fish are caught? And what of feeding women? The upstream metaphor forces enquiry into the source or cause of the varied factors that define the situation being investigated. The Moonee Ponds Creek exists as part of, and for, Melbourne. Ultimately, Moonee Ponds Creek is about Melbourne.

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All space is produced; Moonee Ponds Creek as the material evidence of individual, disparate capital works projects (with the proposed East West Link elevated roadway shown, left, in image)
Base photograph: Martin Rowland (martyr_67)

The nature of the project: Situation improvement

The project introduced the idea that design is a process not limited to ‘solving problems’, but a liberating notion relevant to ‘situations’ of interest, concern and unease. (The future, in this sense, is an ‘emergent property’ of concern, and rightly so, but the future is not some construct to be ‘designed’.) The frame for enquiry, therefore, recognised the true value of design in starting with desire, from a position of hope, and value creation, not an analysis of ‘issues’, or from a position of deficit. We referred to the overall project endeavour as ‘situation improvement’. This is distinct from defining projects through the provision of some predetermined ‘brief’ and its prescribed component ‘aims’, ‘objectives’, ‘methods’ and ‘products’, for which there was none provided in this studio. Importantly, for landscape architects, it discards the traditional sequence of arriving at situations after some level of (pre)determination —  either in aim or delivery method. It destroys the traditional sequence of analysis > issues > concept > formal depiction incremental linearity, and especially so applied to the literal ‘landscape’. It makes the design process strategic, rather than making the design process prioritise the ‘strategic plan’ as a leading ‘solution’ (e.g. the traditional grand, long-term, investment-dependent but politically naive ‘Master Plan’). In short, it forced the students to search upstream.

And so the #UPSTREAM studio project asked students to define 3 things:

1. The ‘creek’;  

2. Improvement, and 

3. Their role (as a landscape architect, not their landscape architect role). 

An additional requirement was for the students, upon defining the above, to demonstrate completion of the cycle(s) of learning. For this I charged the students with a 4th challenge:

4. Carry out real-world action(s).

Recognising that the tradition of landscape architecture education and practice (not to mention the plethora of project reviews found in contemporary journals) would limit students’ perception of the creek to a physical phenomenon — some technical spatiality in need of ‘design’— and their role as the author of that design, the studio, instead, commenced with an exercise to abruptly and radically shift this view. The first exercise was specifically undertaken before a visit to the creek and before the 4-point assignment as defined above was revealed.

1st Studio Exercise


Local government authorities (4 no.) in the catchment of Moonee Ponds Creek

After a general introduction to the extent of the creek catchment, its multiple local authority boundaries, varied land status and ownership, flooding conditions, pollution, the nature of the local authorities as cultural organisations, and illumination of the many independent and disparate capital works projects that have ‘made’ Moonee Ponds Creek (using photomontage above), I asked a series of questions by referring to the same base image of the creek used in the photomontage (see below):

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Moonee Ponds Creek, looking upstream, within the City of Melbourne (Photograph per montage above.)
Photograph: Martin Rowland (martyr_67)


In direct reference to the photo, each student was asked the following:

1. Define what ‘improvement’ may mean relative to Moonee Ponds Creek?

2. What definition of Moonee Ponds Creek does this imply? (Define the creek.)

3. Outline what changes occur & what are the drivers of change?

4. What spatialities do you see — describe them?

5. How do these spatialities exist? (What produces these spatialities?)

2nd studio exercise

Undertaking the exercise prior to a visit to the creek enabled students to approach their first site visit the following week with a new frame. An additional exercise was given on completion of the site visit, for individual response via studio presentation the following week. Building on the earlier work, this second exercise re-captured the above 5 questions and added the following:


6. Who are the people in the situation improvement opportunity? Can you “categorize” them?

7. Is there an audience for situation improvement?

8. Is there a client?

9. Who are the benefactors?

Public space

10. What does public space mean to you?


11. What is sustainability?

12. What sustainability issues are at play in the MPC?

The #UPSTREAM project

The 18 students in the studio were directed to self-organise into 6 groups of 3. This enabled exposure of students to real-world practices of communication, politics, collaboration, and management, as well as reducing the otherwise potentially exhausting impact of both research and application activities on existing communities had the students worked on the same project individually. It also enabled me as studio leader/ teacher/ coach to have a far greater interaction with all students and their work through their group activities, than had I tried to interact with 18 students individually over limited studio contact time. (It should be noted that in assessment terms, a part overall score was defined for individual student contribution, in order to incentivise and moderate any under achieving or exceptional contribution of individuals.)

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#UPSTREAM students in studio

I will draw on the project work from across the student groups for illustration and discussion of each of the 4 project requirements, while enabling the ‘new urban politics’ narrative to remain ‘emergent’. I hope this to be a more useful reference to the student work than if I were merely to describe the work as independent project reviews. For reference to each respective student group, I will use their own group name which they determined through the process of their learning. (The purpose and meaning of their elected group names will become clearer as this post unfolds.) I have not included work from all 6 groups, due to the limitations of this post, but would encourage readers to go to the student-formed project website that contains work and social media links from all the 6 groups.

A new urban politics and the meaning of ‘new’

I referred to a new urban politics in the previous post as the preeminent consideration in cities and in making (any) change. I defined a new urban politics as ‘a reflective description, an explanation, a condition, a capacity, the determinate and the only measure, all in one’. But I withheld an explanation of what constituted the ‘new’. It was the work of the students in attending to the 4 requirements of the project that generated this concept for me, aided by the very astute and insightful input from Ingo Kumic, a guest I invited to mid and final semester ‘crits’ and who I have quoted in previous EnvisagedCity posts, as well as a lecture by Indy Johar, and many engaging discussions with my colleague Matthew Willcox at the City of Melbourne. The 4 requirements allude to the meaning of urban politics and define and demonstrate the meaning of the ‘new’, viz:

  1. Defining the creek: the existing urban politics
  2. Defining improvement: a new urban politics
  3. Defining the (designers’) role: the design challenge in bringing about a new urban politics
  4. Taking real-world action: orchestrating a new urban politics.

So a ‘new’ urban politics is an improved urban politics. Again, design is engaged not for identified problems, but to bring about ‘situation improvement’ — a condition that can only be determined by the politics in question.

1. Defining the creek: the existing urban politics

Landscape architecture and civil engineering are the two disciplines most responsible for the execution of changes made to waterways; the former profession only more recently having any agency in the determination of waterway function and appearance. Despite Landscape architecture’s contribution to a broader understanding of the potential multiple functions and values of waterways, especially in comparison to the mono-functional trapezoidal profiles created by reductionist engineering work prior, both professions have, essentially, dealt with waterways in their technical capacity only.

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Melbourne 1837
Map: Surveyed & drawn by Robert Russell
Source: State Library of Victoria


But the technical aspects of waterways have always been subordinate to, determined by, and dependent upon the political economy of urban development. In the case of Moonee Ponds Creek, specifically, the nomenclature applied to it is revealing. Moonee Ponds Creek is the colloquial name now commonly used in reference to what was reported to originally be an ephemeral series or chain of ponds that culminated in what was first known as West Melbourne Swamp. Yet a search on Google maps identifies the lower portions of the waterway (and the entire waterway within the City of Melbourne, and corresponding in location to the former swamp), in name as ‘Railway Canal’. In type, this now tributary of the equally disturbed Yarra River varies from a narrow carving in rapidly suburbanising open pasture paddocks in the upper catchment, to a narrow to wide open concrete stormwater drainage channel in the lower catchment. Where there was once bush, there became farmland; now there are suburban housing estates. Where there was swamp, there is now a channel. Where there was a nearby tidal river, there is now confluence with what is Docklands Harbour. Moonee Ponds Creek is anything but the creek by which it is most commonly known, and bears absolutely no resemblance to its original condition, function or values.

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Pile-driving for elevated roadway of mouth of Moonee Ponds Creek, looking north
Photograph: Ian Hill, 1962
Source: State Library of Victoria

Irrespective of what name we give this much altered waterway, there is no one waterway with which we can identify with, or by which it can be identified. This is because there is no such thing as one place. Place is relative — to the meaning derived by people. And ‘people’ are comprised of individuals. As beautifully captured by former colleague Marty Rowland, with me on his 1st inspection of the creek by bicycle, an over-shadowed, polluted, weed-infested drainage ditch beneath the thousands of passing motorists on the elevated CitiLink viaduct, above, has significant meaning to one fisherman (that we know of).

Fisherman, Moonee Ponds Creek

No one place: a lone fisherman beside a forest of columns that support the CitiLink motorway over the Moonee Ponds Creek
Photograph: Martin Rowland (martyr_67)

For the purpose of this project and post, the waterway has and will be referred in name as Moonee Ponds Creek. But just how this waterway ought to be defined was the students’ first project requirement.

Unlike traditional built environment disciplines which adopt a site-based or physical place-based approach to enquiry, the students grew to understand the physical creek as a product of the political economic. Yet by commencing investigation through observation of the physical, e.g. the very obvious rubbish in the water, the group doing so was able to move upstream to the source or core of the rubbish symptom (not ‘problem’). In doing so, students were able to map human factors: values, relationships, power, and decisions that were responsible for what they saw. The creek was generally defined by the groups as a state by which the creek is perceived, valued, thought about, and, from which change is made: i.e. through urban politics. Space was understood as a product of the political economy of development.


TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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Moonee Ponds Creek as the separation, through levels of trust and power, between decision-makers and citizens
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart


IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

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Moonee Ponds Creek as product and symptom of social relations
IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts



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Moonee Ponds Creek as state government-dominated urban politics, with the development plan prioritised and ordained


2. Defining improvement: a new urban politics

Having defined the creek in its political economic context, the students were able to avoid the traditional process of prioritising the image (aesthetic — technical or illusionary) of the object (creek — physical), and how the object exists (technical), over that which produces it and why. Improvement was generally defined among the groups as a state by which the creek is mutually perceived, valued, thought about, and, from which change is made: i.e. a new urban politics. The difference between the current urban politics and the ‘new’ is in representation, forms and relations of power, trust, and the cultures of decision-making.


TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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An improved Moonee Ponds Creek as balanced representation in decision-making
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart


IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

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An improved Moonee Ponds Creek as a re-vamped decision-making platform
IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts


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An improved Moonee Ponds Creek as a balanced communal capacity to determine a Development Plan


3. Defining the (designers’) role: the design challenge in bringing about a new urban politics

Recognising that the creation of a new urban politics is a design challenge of process, not object, the students, generally, were able to see that the challenge for themselves and, therefore, for landscape architects and designers was in influencing these circumstances. The traditional definition of design as noun, and designer as author would not do. The demands of shifting the existing systems of power required a different type of designer, and with a different value base and proposition, and with a different focus, process and toolkit. The challenge of bringing about a new urban politics is itself a political one. The notion of designer as author is subordinated to the designer as Agent of Change; the ‘mastermind’ to the facilitator; the dictator to the influencer; the owner to the enabler; the instructor to the coach, and so on.


TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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Designer as mediator of trust and power in the relation between decision-makers and citizens
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart


IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

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Designer as mediator towards a new form of decision-making
IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts


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Designer as power coach
4. Taking real-world action(s): orchestrating a new urban politics

Of course all this is just theory, without real world action. But, as Kurt Lewin said, “there is nothing as practical as good theory”7. It must be noted that the process revealed thus far was largely developed through real-world observation (site), divergent reflection (questioning), abstract assimilation (mind mapping), and convergent conceptualisation (synthesis and propositional systems modelling). It required accommodation in the real-world to test theory and bring about a new situation from which to learn. For this there was no one grand action, but rather a series of progressive and iterative actions, generally small at first, and rapid and low-cost. Such action tested assumptions, as well as creating new conditions that altered the trajectory of approach and introduced new players of value.

In the entire student work there is a strong community activism through participatory design. Drawing, in particular, on the work of Natalie Jeremijenko and Usman Haque that I introduced, students were able to use the physical qualities of the creek as the very aesthetic with which to generate an awareness and education and learning among communities, not just of the creek as a hydro-eco system, but of the communities themselves.


TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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Establishing, strengthening and challenging relations to bring about a new urban politics
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Strategy as performative action
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Iterative interventions with specific intents
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Bike path survey
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Trojan Raft flyer
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Targeted communities
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 Participatory Design 
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A TrojanTrash Artwork returning the rubbish to the creek from whence it came
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart


IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts
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New cycle

In keeping with the praxial nature of the studio, the students were, finally, asked to reflect on the final action they took, in order to assess their own agency and learning. Were they ‘successful’? Were their assumptions validated? What would they do next time? What would they do next?

TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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A different power source, intent and effect

By enabling new players to be engaged in new ways with the everyday, their communal involvement generated social capacity and political capital for change, not least in the students themselves. How to earn and respect this political capital, and then influence social relations from which representation and mediation of power are productive toward the collectives upon which society relies, is the delicate challenge to, and essential professional duty of, the designer/ change agent.

And I would say, that in our time of great environmental uncertainty, any notion of sustainability cannot be appreciated without first a biological empathy with the earth we are inextricably connected to and dependent upon, even the fragile natural qualities of an unloved stormwater drain. For love has no single, identifiable reason for being; it just is. It cannot be explained, but it cannot be out-argued or extinguished. I am sure that a deep concern for the environment can be awakened in all of us because of what we are. The challenge is how to awaken it. While new forms and public availability of data are enabling us to see and measure the world in ways we previously could never have imagined, we must remember that all data is but an abstraction of reality, not reality itself. I believe it is through contact with phenomena that our (re)connection to, and respect for, nature can be made.

Needless to say (and as I often said to the students during studio), the improvement of Moonee Ponds Creek is a long-term ambition, in scope and process. We didn’t have the luxury of a long-term time-frame with which to influence a new urban politics that is required to counter the very ugly, undemocratic (capital-P dominated) urban politics which continues to stifle the needs and voices of communities, and which denies the value of the ecological commons. (I refer, directly, to the Victorian state government’s East-West Link project that directly impacts the Moonee Ponds Creek that I mentioned in the first of this post series on a new urban politics. For a sad account of the current state of urban politics, read Andrew Kelly’s ‘Address to the Comprehensive Impact Statement (CIS)’, 10 April 2014.)

Yet, as Richard Bawden once said, “no time is ever wasted”, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with such an incredibly eager, brave, courageous and appreciative class of students that made #UPSTREAM. For without the studio I may, today, still be pushing a line that says strategic purpose is the preeminent consideration in strengthening community futures, rather than accepting strategic purpose as a vital emergent property of those from whom a purpose may only be purposed and validated.

Change is happening off the sheet

Change is happening off this sheet
End of year Landscape Architecture exhibition: use of the prescribed 1 x A0-width sheet. #UPSTREAM panel (centre left), and adjacent digitally displayed images of student modelling and action (centre right)


1. Richard Bawden, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less traveled, paper prepared for the “Workshop on New Directions in Agroecology Research and Education”, University of Wisconsin-Madison 29-31 May, 2002. Later published as: Bawden, R.J. (2005) “The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less traveled.” Chapter 14 in The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Agriculture, J. Pretty (ed), Earthscan (London).

2. Despite the hegemony of the  ‘built environment’ professions in the making and re-making of the city over the last few decades, the current development of design in business schools, and the notion of the ‘smart city’ (read citizen), demonstrate encouraging signs of ‘strategy’ and citizen empowerment respectively, especially in ways which could never be imagined by focusing on form and the technical. 

3. Alexander Cuthbert, Understanding Cities: Method in urban design, Routledge, (Oxon), 2011.

4. In Understanding Cities, Method in urban design, Alexander Cuthbert makes the sustained case for the ‘field’ of urban design to be redirected toward the social and economic sciences as a way to better position it in relation to spatial political economy. I have questioned the legitimacy of ‘transdisciplinary’ design learning and practice as an apparent break-through in traditional silo-ed approaches to design education and practice (and I don’t suggest a breakthrough isn’t needed), in a previous post (2nd para.), simply on the grounds that if we are talking about design, then working across the fields is inherent, and especially so if the focus of the design in question is the urban. I would simply rather define the meaning of concepts, and perhaps revive original meanings of old terms, than to seek new terms that appear tautological.

5. Richard Bawden, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less traveled, op cit.

6. Eliel Saarinen, Architect (1873-1950), as quoted in Future Practice – Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, by Rory Hyde, 2013, Routledge, New York.

7. Kurt Lewin, as quoted by Peter Checkland in a lecture at University of Western Sydney, circa 1986.


#UPSTREAM Studio details

University: RMIT

Faculty: School of Architecture and Design

Level: Upper Pool

Studio: Landscape Architecture Design Research

Duration: Spring Semester 2013

Time: Fridays 9:30am – 1:30pm

Room: 08.12.36

UPSTREAM student projects websitehttp://rmitstudio.wix.com/upstream



Gagani Warnakulasooriya

Yi Ren Sun

Jiayu Hu

IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts

Candice Qih Yu Teok

Mohamad Dzulfadzli Baharudin

Dong Woo Kwak


Hengwei Sun

Jin Wang

Yunlan Fan

SOWING @Sowing_Upstream

Hui Shuai

De Qiang Yu

Yuxuan Yang

SPONDGE @UpstreamSpondge

Chu Chu

Dimitri Russo

Ye Ma

TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

Kyle Bush

Huangguan Lu

Rajiv Bhageerutty

Mid and end of semester ‘crit’ guests:

Dr Ingo Kumic, Knox City Council

Alastair Kilpatrick, RMIT

Studio learnings: Critical thinking, Strategy, Systems, Spatial political economy, Brand, Participatory design, Change management, Governance, Ecology, Hydrology, Social media, Communication.

A new urban politics II: the urban paradox — how determines what

“Most cities, like the rest of life, evolved gradually on the basis of trial and error, and what we have today, in every case, is the best solution to the problem, for the simple reason that speculation on other solutions, while entertaining, constitutes misguided Utopianism/essentialism and simply avoids the elementary facts of urban development.” — Alexander Cuthbert1

“An Army requires a theory of an Army… There must exist something in addition to its soldiers and tanks and guns — a concept, a strategy, a notion, of who it is and what it wants to be, of what it is about and what it wants to be about.” — Carl H. Builder2

“The distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” — Albert Einstein3


It goes without saying that in order to work out how to do something, one must first know what that something is. Indeed, ‘how?’ (question, e.g. “How will we make the city sustainable?”), is a relative term: to ‘what’ (defined purpose, or objective, e.g. “The city is to be sustainable by 2030”). But both ‘what’ and ‘how’ have different tenses too. ‘How’ can be not only question, but explanation (how cities exist, e.g. “Cities exist for exchange”). ‘What’ can also be a question, not just purpose, (e.g. “What are cities for?”).

But back to the original tense of the terms, and statement. It would follow that in order for a city, i.e. its people, to determine how they should live, make and re-make place, a purpose about living, making and re-making must be upheld (i.e. ‘what’, the intention). In order for us to work out how to make change we must first know what it is we seek. This expectation of ‘how’ relates to method, not explanation.

But if ‘how?’ (i.e. method) must follow ‘what’ (i.e. purpose), where does that ‘what’ come from? If it is to be generated, just how does it come about? Herein is the urban paradox: the question the world is asking as to how we should be making change cannot, counter-intuitively, be answered by determining what change it is we need, because determining firstly what to do requires its own process. Where there is no vision, the people perish, but how are people to determine vision?

The paradox exists because the essential property of cities is their cultural basis: people.

In space.

In time.

Constantly moving perceptions of past, present and future, in a slowing rotating and orbiting planet.

Space is shared with other life forms, and nature has its own cycles and rhythms, but both space and time are only understood as long as one exists to perceive them. And cities can only exist as long as there is more than just one person in space.

A city is alive as long as its people are alive. A city can die, if its entire people in its space no longer live, and only if there are other cities, or individuals, alive to perceive it. After all, nothing to humans exists without our perception.

As the world is only comprehensible to humans through their own perception, cities only emerge when numbers of people together occupy space and time and perceive each other.

But what draws people to be together rather than being alone? The answer, of course, is social, but simply being together to be together is not a reason enough to do so. At people’s most basic level, one can only continue to perceive the world — and others — as long as one is able to continue to perceive. And that requires life itself. Perception is relative — to survival. Choosing to be with others is choosing to survive.

In an age of modernity we have lost the knowledge of survival. Perhaps we have lost the sense of what it is to be living. Death is deferred through modern medicine, city planning has distanced us from nature, and food is now something we judge others by. “Liveability” is anything but living. That’s why I like to go camping. To fetch one’s own water from a running creek, boil it, and share it in drinking, cooking and cleaning is one of the essential joys of being alive.

By the time the first city formed, humans had already mastered the art of staying alive. The will and means to survival was established through family and tribe. But the wealth generated was limited. The laws of the former world would reason that more people would require more food, a simple demand-supply principle that the pre-urbanite would have instinctively understood, and perhaps feared. So the choice to be with more people could have only ever been purposeful — to advance one’s own wealth, not diminish it. Cities are social, and economics is a social pursuit. Cities exist for the production of wealth.

But survival, or wealth creation, are broad terms. And we only understand them in the abstract. People define cities. What conversations led to the formation of the first cities as we know of them? How did people convey among themselves, or with others, that they sought to live together, trade and survive? What enabled them to mutually consent to joint survival? How did they mutually commit to the wealth imperative? Language is only one consideration. How did they declare this intent? How did they decide?

This brings us to the other half of that which defines cities as cultural places (recognising people in space and time). The coming together of people to cohabit and produce wealth through economy was a social behaviour, but the means by which people were able to agree to their collective purpose to survive through a means of production was political. Cities exist for the production of wealth and they do so through social relations that are political in character. This purposeful activity through politics that defines cities can be defined as design. The fact that this design relates to production and social relations makes it urban design.

But what came — and comes — first? For a city, there must obviously be people. But what unites them? How can a discussion about ‘what’ (to do) be separate from ‘how’ (that discussion plays out)? An innate will to survive must be shared before discussing it and then deciding how to survive.

We can begin to understand this symbiotic interrelationship by comparing it with the brain/mind complex. The mind cannot exist without the brain, but the brain cannot function independent of the mind. They are like two sides of the one coin.

So too purpose and method, economics and politics in cities; the will for survival (economic), and the fight to do so (politics). Or is it the fight to exercise will?

Perhaps we can get close to unlocking this dilemma, by asking who we really are. Are we the product of what we think? Thoughts are brain functions, random at time, even uncontrollable as to what they are. Are we more than this? What about our observation of these thoughts? Observation is mind. The mind cannot be without the brain, but we are not humane without the mind. We are, indeed, the observers of our thoughts. Cities and (their) design are not, at their foremost, technical considerations.

So where does this leave the meaning of our urban paradox?

The cultural defining of cities will always be its most essential quality because everything else can only ‘emerge’ from that cultural ‘property’. Purpose can be tacit, implied, and instinctive even, within an individual or common to individuals, but the determination and declaration of that purpose among people can only occur through the social, and is political.

The essential meaning of the paradox is that for cities, declared purpose cannot be determined a priori, it can only be emergent from people, through politics.  For cities, ‘what’ (question) they are about, what they should do is, therefore, subordinate to a (different) ‘how’: not the relational question to purpose; not the method for some assumed intent; for it is the origin of purpose we seek; but from the realisation of the way things are (explanation).  How a city exists (politics) will explain both why it does so and how it can determine what it should therefore do. ‘How’ leads to the all important ‘why?’.

And this leads me to concluding with reference to the conclusion of my last post, and the reason for this expansion! Although this post is further elaboration of the ideas presented in the last post of the same title-prefix, that post ended with a statement consistent with the orthodox what-how logic sequence: that the determination of ‘what’ cities should be about was a more important consideration and priority than the demonstration of any ‘how’ that the world (says it) seeks, because discussion and realisation of the ‘what’ (cities are to be about) is absent in contemporary life and debate.

The elaboration here, developed from my RMIT #UPSTREAM studio last semester (Spring 2013), the work of which I nevertheless promised in my last post to provide as examples of the ‘how’, has suggested otherwise: I have come to learn that that there is no universal truth, no single irrefutable purpose that can determine what we should all be doing. Whose purpose? To people, there are only people: their perceptions, their space, their time. Their nature, their god, their survival. And perhaps this is why collective purpose — either as a general acknowledgment of a city’s most basic reason for being (i.e. production of wealth) or as a defined declaration of what that production is to be that we might devise methods of ‘how?’ — is entirely absent today. It is not (yet) a political consideration.

And so the creation of a ‘new urban politics’ is the preeminent challenge and opportunity to enable people to reflect on why they exist; on the collective intention that binds them. It is also the means for the city to define what that intention is to be: it is the ‘how’ (description and method) from which a ‘what’ (question and declaration) can (only) emerge. A new urban politics is a reflective description; an explanation; a condition; a capacity; the determinate, and the only measure, ultimately, all in one. It is a generative ‘solution’. It is only through a more critical questioning of the city that an understanding of their political nature can lead to a greater definition of the ‘what’ (we are to urgently do); it is only through defining purpose that we can pose new performance criteria for the creation of new forms of change the world is demanding. But this comes first from urban politics; ‘how?’ (question) follows ‘what’ (purpose) follows ‘how’ (politics). As always, the right question is more important than the right answer.

So without a new urban politics, a more agreeable, more humane, more equally distributed wealth in harmony with the rhythms of the planet our survival is, ultimately, dependent upon, is only my idea, or your dream, and is Utopian, and essentialist, to borrow Cuthbert’s terms.4 But what is meant by ‘new’? Does this imply some ‘other’ intervention driven by some ‘other’ person, and, therefore, a prior determination of the ‘what’? Does this suggest the breaking of this urban paradox? For exploration we can now turn to the work of the #UPSTREAM studio I promised to report on in the first of this series on a new urban politics. The studio work will form the introduction of the next post that I will write in quicker succession than the time taken for this second of the series. I hope this post clarifies the final footnote of the previous post, and serves as an introduction to the #UPSTREAM studio, and to the wonderful praxial strategic and pragmatic work of the students.

“To be is to learn” — Richard Bawden5

1. Alexander Cuthbert, Understanding Cities: Method in urban design, Routledge, (Oxon), 2011.

2. Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War, 1986, as quoted in “The Essential Service: The Future of the Australian Army in a Global Age”, Quadrant, Vol LVI, Number 10, (Balmain), October 2012.

3. Albert Einstein, (unsourced).

4. Cuthbert, Understanding Cities: Method in urban design, op cit.

5. Richard Bawden, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled, paper prepared for the “Workshop on New Directions in Agroecology Research and Education”, University of Wisconsin-Madison 29-31 May, 2002. Later published as: Bawden, R.J. (2005) “The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled.” Chapter 14 in The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Agriculture, J. Pretty (ed), Earthscan (London).

A new urban politics

Fisherman, Moonee Ponds Creek
 No one place: a lone fisherman beside a forest of columns that support the CitiLink motorway over the Moonee Ponds Creek.
Photograph: Martin Rowland (martyr_67)
“Design is political, otherwise it’s just building” — Ingo Kumic 1

The trouble with the p-word, in city-thinking, is a little like the trouble with the e-word: economics. Both are narrowly defined when it comes to cities because the city itself is narrowly explained. And it seems politics and economics are considered to be somewhat “dirty” words in the contemporary fascination with the city aesthetic. Yet politics and economics are fundamental to cities; the former explaining how they exist, the latter why they exist.

Let us be clear. By politics, I’m not referring simply to the big parties — or big personalities — that run countries, states, localities; or to their respective “party politics”. I’m referring to politics as in the power relations among people — all people, citizens.

By economics, I’m neither referring to economics as some separate discipline, or to the economics associated with discrete, individual enterprise — what they individually require or deliver — I’m referring to economics as in the social capacity of citizens to address themselves — the city as a whole — that concern for the performance of a city may be a measure for determining the individual investments within it. And in saying the reason why cities exist is economic is to recognise that the discretionary coming together of people just to be with other people is not reason enough, alone, for them to do so. The reason for cities is purposeful; to produce wealth. Economics is social, fundamentally; it exists as, and for, people.

So in understanding that cities exist through the exchange of culture and commerce for the production of wealth, the real consideration in thinking about cities is no different to that of any other critical enquiry; the vital consideration is just what type (of subject) are we talking about? Just what type of politics concerning what type of economics do we have — or need? What forms of wealth are to be generated, and for whom?

In a design studio I am running at RMIT (entitled #UPSTREAM), I am trying to help Landscape Architecture students adopt a political economic lens to their investigation of the Moonee Ponds Creek, a 28-km length (approx.) waterway in Melbourne. In so doing, I’m hoping that this will give them new ways to understand and make sense of the technical/ physical, enabling comprehensive ways of defining the “creek” itself, and enhanced ways of defining and bringing about “improvement”. (I hope to report on this here, at EnvisagedCity, at the conclusion of the semester.)

In considering Moonee Ponds Creek it has been impossible not to enquire into the Victorian State government’s proposal to build the East West Link, a road tunnel project that will connect perpendicularly to the existing above-ground motorway (CitiLink) that currently runs parallel and alongside the lower reaches of the creek — a condition which is to be duplicated on the opposite side of the creek in Stage 2 (“planning”) of the project. The proposal has captured much attention in the media, causing concern among many local residents, local schools and local businesses, not least those whose properties will be compulsory acquired. Debate has focused on how the project will be funded, the lack community consultation among locals and local authorities, the absence of a disclosed business case and cost-benefit analysis for the project, the priorities of government spending (roads versus trains), and the impacts of the proposed infrastructure on parkland. Also contentious has been the intention of the Victorian state government to secure the project contract just in time before the next state election scheduled for November, 2014, reducing the capacity of the state government opposition who oppose it, to prevent it. The divide in the state’s capital-P Politics was mirrored in the division of the nation’s capital-P Politics in the lead-up to the recent federal election on 9th September. That election was won by the conservative Liberal/ National coalition party who, unlike their Labour predecessor, has pledged $1.5 billion in support for the estimated $6-8 billion project.

What this state government infrastructure proposal so clearly demonstrates, for students of the city, is the political economy of transportation. And two things are revealed:

  1. That space is produced through social relations that are political, and
  2. These social relations are the design-defining challenge for, and the design-defining role of, the urban designer.
Production of space

Whilst it is beyond the scope and purpose of this post to explain the meaning of production and the various meanings of space (for this refer Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space),2 the essential learning here is that in opposition to the contemporary urban design practice of examining the city as a physical, formal entity (that is wholly dependent on, and generates some form of economic activity, among other things), I’m suggesting that a more meaningful way to understand the city (and, indeed, its physical spatiality) and make effective change, is to understand that physical space is but one type of space — a formal/ technical one — that is determined by an entirely different spatiality: what Lefebvre refers to as the social space that is the product of  social relations which are, ultimately, political in character.3

And so to read the city in entirely formal terms is some four steps removed from reality! Form is built from the building trades that are employed by building contractors who may be working to a design required by principals — public and private — who are commissioning this building work from their sector of society — the space they occupy that is determined through particular social relations. In this sense, the notion of seeking to improve the city through suggestions about form alone, and especially at the outset as is custom in contemporary urban design, is a non sequitur. The true determinate of all space — formal and social — are the social relations among people: urban politics and what Dan Hill refers to as “the cultures of decision-making”.4

Because the reason for cities is economic, the ownership of power is a social pursuit, making politics and economics two sides of the one coin. But in the pursuit of power for only short periods of tenure, capital-P Politics has become the dominant spatiality of the city. Moreover, its hegemony has meant that it has become something unto itself: big Politics has become the city’s reason and the city’s means; a self-referential cycle that has essentially transgressed the inherent socially democratic nature of cities.

City "Gateway Artwork" and channelised Moonee Ponds Creek

Image of the city:  City “gateway artwork” beside a section of the Moonee Ponds Creek that was channelised in concert with the construction of the CitiLink motorway.
Photograph: Martin Rowland (martyr_67)

In skewing the reason for cities toward their own survival, big Politics supports the economics that supports them. And the economics supported give physical shape to the city — form fashioned for a political aesthetic: a new celebrated motorway (with an even greater celebrated “gateway”, but a lesser known channelised watercourse); a higher tower; a new “green” park. The image of the city generates political capital, for political tenure. The city as a social activity is not considered because the social has become a by-product of investments that have an entirely different purpose: the accumulation of power. Any notion of liveability, sustainability, productivity, therefore, is entirely irrelevant because the city is never conceived of in terms where these performance criteria could ever be applied. Just what city do we refer when we say, for example, that Melbourne is the World’s Most Liveable City for the 3rd year running? Moreover, what social space quickly claims this title? What city aesthetic promotes and is promoted by this title, and for what purpose? What economics is this politics dependent upon?  What politics do these economics require? And, most concerning of all, how resilient to change is the economics that this liveability is dependent upon?

And so it is with an understanding that cities are cultural, and the city’s social spatiality is the product of social relations of political economy that we can better explain that which produces what we see and experience. The critical measure for cities is not their world liveability ranking, or whether they invest in roads or trains (the big-party Political issue in the East West Link debate), or whether a naturalistic watercourse is further channelised (the impending fate of Moonee Ponds Creek if fashioned after precedent — see image, above), but their ability as social spaces, to produce, through social relations, the broad forms of wealth their survival is dependent upon.

Where is the understanding today that the city, as a collective of social relations with economic purpose, needs to be productive in delivering on that purpose: to generate its own production of wealth for those who are vested in the production? That the wealth produced can be broadly defined, and that the production and sharing of multiple forms of capital are defining criteria for investment?

If we cannot attend to these fundamental considerations, then what ensures the whole (the city’s fate) adds up to being supported by, yet entirely greater than, the sum of its parts? Who is concerned about the essential social relations that are required to produce the collectives upon which society relies? How and where do these relations take place?

Urban designers for a new urban politics

It is this very lacuna in a healthy politics concerning the fate of cities that defines the scope of urban design and, therefore, the role of an urban designer. And in the absence of any collective urban politics about collective ends, it is in the very making of a new urban politics where the challenge of, and hope for, our cities lies.

So the role of an urban designer is to facilitate new conversations around shared intentions — a new urban politics of and for the city. A politics where sustainability is a criterion for living and, therefore, a criterion in decision-making, not an abstract measure applied to the consequences of decisions made independent of any sustainability consideration; where the economics considered in decisions is about people exchanging to produce broadly defined forms of wealth, from within the city, that have collective value, not some separate, independent engine to be kept fuelled; where, say, Moonee Ponds Creek is a tactic in mediating such discussions, not a by-product of other specific and disparate projects or simply a physical space, alone, to be technically re-designed, and where infrastructure contributes to the city, rather than the city contributing infrastructure.

And in all this, and in the context of current big party Politics, it is the urban designer that needs to conduct themselves in ways where their own capability affords political capital! To be sought out as a trusted agent of change is the designer’s greatest brand. This requires the designer to be impartial, open and, most of all, strategically minded concerning what constitutes success.

In the case of the East West Link, specifically, the urban designer isn’t interested in debating cars versus trains, or measuring the likely impacts of its location; the urban designer, instead, seeks to understand why that proposal should exist. For this reason, the urban designer is neither “for” nor “against” such propositions; at least not without involvement in its reason — and among the communities of interest that are beyond those with only an interest in its infrastructure capital works.

So we need to reposition the city in its cultural definition, and in its culture’s defining economics. We need productive intentions for our cities, and for our cities to be productive in delivering on their intentions. This calls for a new urban politics, one where new conversations are held with new players about a different motive and outcome. This is vital to ensure the city’s economic engine is understood as a human exchange process to drive the generation of newly defined outcomes linked to the health of society and the earth that society inhabits.

To this end, we need urban designers who are capable of questioning that which is proposed. Designers who, at the outset, are able to forgo the design of the object and, instead, design the context (urban politics) within which objects (the physical) exists. For this we need urban designers who are Change Agents, not authors; designers who are leaders in the facilitation of change among those who make decisions: a new urban politics that is, ultimately, the responsibility of, and opportunity for, everybody.5

1. Ingo Kumic, ‘Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity’, article in Free Range Vol. 5: ‘Dangerous and Wrong’, Freerange Press (Australia).

2. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 1991.

3. Henri Lefebvre, ibid.

4. Dan Hill, ‘Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: a Vocabulary’, lecture at University of Melbourne, 2012.

5. Whilst the greatest challenge is, of course, to imagine how to do such things, I am strongly of the opinion that recognising what it is we should aim for, critically, is almost entirely lacking in contemporary urban politics and in contemporary design discourse concerning the city. Unless there is strong intention — for something else — then there can be no real re-design. (Our current circumstance is an outcome of design!)  Nevertheless, I hope that the RMIT design studio project I mention will yield some examples of the “how”, which I will be able to share.

The difference between architecture and urban design (and their pursuit of truth)

“No, he’s not [a musician] like Williamson; Callahan’s coming from a different place.”1 

The pairing of urban design and architecture, in a blog entitled EnvisagedCity, would almost certainly suggest that the architecture in question is that of…what, exactly? And here is the dilemma. How do you define something that in its traditional meaning refers to the design of buildings, and by another definition — the one prevalent in contemporary usage by other disciplines and the media — refers to the structure, or to the arrangement of something, anything: the ‘architecture’ of the carbon pricing scheme, the ‘architecture of problems’,2 the ‘architecture’ of the web? And if we were to acknowledge the growing concern to broaden the meaning of architecture — the discipline — beyond the design of buildings, to entail, in fact, the essence of the abstract meaning of the word (i.e. structure) and its application to cities, then what structure of the city are we referring — political, economic, spatial, or all three? Moreover, to what degree does architecture, of anything, penetrate beyond structure, or address the meta-structure? Did the architect of the carbon pricing scheme devise the idea of a scheme, or just devise the workings of the scheme? And if the architecture of problems gets to the essence of problems through an understanding of the structure and context of the problem, suggesting architecture is strategic, what then for ill-defined areas of concern that cannot be defined as ‘problems’, such as community futures? Can architecture — the discipline — cope with this or is it outside its scope?

Regardless of which meaning of architecture is adopted for the discipline, there is an apparent conflation of architecture and urban design today. The distinction made between them in academia and practice — usually within the one school or practice — and the adoption of the two disciplines by individual architects who are either ‘architects’ or ‘urban designers’, or both, is confusing and certainly limiting to the advancement and application of design expertise in the making of our cities. And if ‘transdisciplinary’ practice is apparently a breakthrough in traditional ‘siloed’ forms of education for ‘designers’ of the ‘built environment’, what is the discipline, exactly? Why not just ‘design’, or ‘urban design’, or, if architecture is to be more than buildings, then ‘architecture’?

Defining urban design

In a recent post, I defined through the comparison of planning and design, the meaning of urban design as essentially what the term attests to, i.e. the design of the urban. I defined design as an activity that begins with desire, and transforms or re-imagines existing conditions and circumstances toward an intention; and the urban as the basis of why cities exist and how they do so, which is through the exchange of culture and commerce for the generation and sharing of broad forms of wealth. So there isn’t a need to say too much more about urban design, except for the purpose of outlining how it differs to architecture — the discipline — which, in itself, first requires some exploration (and for the first time, specifically, on this blog).

Defining architecture — the discipline

Despite the generic nature of the term with which the discipline architecture now shares, architecture has been practiced for centuries, and has been synonymous with the design of buildings. In fact, architecture is considered to be a discipline of the ‘built environment’. But is it the ‘buildings’ and the ‘built environment’ that is to be designed?

Recently, an Architect friend ‘tweeted’ a photo of a large ocean liner moored in Circular Quay, in Sydney. He remarked that it would be fun to design one of those “buildings”.3 Having already begun to sketch this post at the time of receiving his tweet, and knowing my colleague’s keen interest in society and culture, I replied, via twitter: “If naval architects design boats, what do architects design?”

Unlike naval architecture or landscape architecture, architecture — the discipline — remains as just ‘architecture’. This raises questions to do with the discipline as well as those other disciplines which adopt the term architecture within their title. Is naval architecture termed as such simply to differentiate boats from buildings? Or is it so termed to capture the design of maritime infrastructure, and not just boats? Is landscape architecture the ‘architecture’ of landscape, or is ‘landscape’ a component of architecture? What if the ‘landscape’ in landscape architecture were to mean the abstract sense of the term? What ‘architecture’ would that imply: extensive? And would this ‘landscape’ be green? Where does this leave the architecture and landscape architecture disciplines?

Conflation of architecture and art

Despite architecture being linked so interdependently with buildings, there is a common understanding, founded by the Greeks, that Architecture is the master art, the ruling art: archi (ruling or principal) and technê (art or craft).4 But this is both ambiguous and inconsistent. For instance, did the Greeks refer to architecture as the principal or ruling art because the Greeks considered architecture itself to be art, and the preeminent one no less? Or did they consider it the principal or ruling art as in the principal housing structure within which art is displayed or performed; that architecture itself was not art, but above it — in the same way that the ‘creator’ made the earth and made the Greeks but the creator isn’t Greek nor the Greeks the creator? And in the context of the buildings for which the Greek architecon was responsible for delivering, it isn’t clear, at least lexically, whether the Greeks referred to the art or craft of the physical making of the building, or to the conception of the building, or both? Regardless, a builder/mason isn’t necessarily an artist, so the chief builder is hardly the greatest of all artists. And even if he were, art is not architecture, and architecture is not art.

I have never subscribed to the notion that architecture is art, because I maintain that architecture is design. Art and design are two very different subjects and processes. How is this important? In comparing architecture to art, we can eradicate common erroneous interpretations of what architecture is and get a little closer to comparing it with urban design.

Just as architecture is a generic term, applying to an abstract construct, not a specific application, there are many forms of art: visual art, fine art, performing art, to name a few. And we refer to many practices as ‘art’: the ‘art of writing’; the ‘art of bicycle maintenance’, the ‘art of public speaking’. We also use the term to describe cunning ways: the ‘Artful Dodger’, or peculiar difference: ‘arty’, even beauty in the human execution of a skill: the ‘artistry’ of Roger Federer.

Essentially architecture is not art because architecture is required to be something — related to human need. Art can be any thing — for anybody. That’s the fundamental difference between art and design. But they do share common characteristics. Both pursue truth, and both rely on spatiality to do so. The difference is in how they go about it.

If, as Picasso said, “art is a lie that makes us realise the truth”5 (think the cubist space-realism stemming from the distorted face of the Weeping Woman), architecture is, or should be, proof to truth. Where the artist works with a spatiality, e.g. visual (images and objects) and performance (dancer, sound, stage), to declare a truth that they have found, the architect’s very work — their responsibility — is to perceive from others their truth, and to enable, through a spatiality, that truth to become a lived reality.

The architect Timothy Hill refers to the process of architecture as being deductive, and not creative;6 design, not art. We could say that the process of architecture manifests as a spatiality of and for a truth deduced from what is observed and told — most of the time as a ‘lie’: the architect seeks to deduce the truth from the ‘lies’ that keep us beholden to the very realities that cause us to be in need of design: that which as people we all inherently know, even understand, but cannot identify or express. In architecture, the process of determining space, therefore, is not creative; the spatiality only exists by and for a truth that is deduced; we could say the spatiality is true to the truth. Art, on the other hand, manifests as a spatiality created — as a lie — in response to a truth that has been found; the lie made-up is essential to illicit the truth, just as darkness is necessary for the pureness of light to be perceived. The defining quality in each, therefore, is not defined by spatiality per se, but where that spatiality comes from. For where the spatiality is derived determines the meaning afforded. In architecture, the spatiality is derived from the deduction of truth from lie; in art it is derived through the creation of lie to reveal truth. No wonder artists Brian Eno (musician) and Peter Schmidt (painter) advocate the idea of “[g]ardening, not architecture” as a way to overcome blockages in creative work.7


What, then, of application, for architecture?  What is the nature and scope of the truth to be deduced and lived? Herein is the defining question for architecture.

If architecture’s focus is on people and living, as is urban design’s, the critical question for architecture is not what scale or scope of spatiality it should address (building, neighbourhood, district), but to what truth, in people and in living, does it seek to address, and to what degree? This is, ultimately, what would distinguish architecture from urban design.

To illustrate, I’ll refer to the renown, Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning Japanese architect, Fumihiko Maki, who said a house should be designed like a city, and a city like a house.8 After hearing the architect speak these words at a conference, and watching him break down with humility as he spoke of the responsibility of being charged with designing a school for children displaced and suffering from the horrific 2011 Tohoku earthquake, it seems almost sacrilegious to counter the respected man. But alas, I only offer this in critical review.

I do not concur with Maki on this idea, not only because, as Alexander Cuthbert said, buildings enclose and cities are open,9 or, as Richard Sennett reveals, because of the distinction between private and public life,10 but because a house, indeed any building, is part of the evidence of what makes the city — what Henri Lefebvre said was the “projection of society on the ground”.11 Any design for the city needs to deal with the decisions made by people who determine the building forms, not the other way round.

Cedric Price may have been close to this when he told his client that maybe they needed a divorce, not a new house.12 Architects can assist the lives of their clients, but architects for the building-client take-as-given their client’s physical and socio-economic conditions because they are operating within a component of the city. The service of this client’s architect is to the client, principally, with implication to a broader public; their service is not to or for a populous.

The essential difference, then, between this architecture and urban design, is that the former seeks to enable improvement in a client’s living, or in the lives of people for whom their client represents, through the client’s or the people represented by the client’s established means, whereas the latter seeks to establish the means of living, for a community.

Returning to my Sydney friend who tweeted the image of the boat he thought would be a fun building to design, he replied to my question that asked what architects designed, by saying “[w]as buildings then built environment. Now systems? Reshaping the flow of matter, energy and ideas to a more productive state.”13

My answer was that that was a “nice” response. But still, it seems a long, long way from the design of buildings derived from a client’s established means of living. The answer penetrates beyond appearances and forms, and deals with simple truths, although if I were to take the answer definitively, and ignore the limitations of writing within the maximum 140-characters required of tweets, then the response would seem to leave out people from the core of the definition, somewhat.14 After all, systems are a human construct devised to make sense of what humans’ sense. As such, they aren’t the focus of design; they are not themselves something to be designed. They are a tool or method used in the process of design; the process of enabling transformation of the human state, ultimately. And this is precisely why I refer to urban design as process, not product, and the urban designer as change agent, not producer of ‘designs’.

The difference between the discipline architecture, and urban design

So the difference between architecture — the discipline — and urban design is really a question relating to the application of architecture. If architecture refers root causes for living, core truths relating to life, to community, and to society, then it really refers the architecture of the urban. If it doesn’t, then it’s the architecture of something else.

Regardless of terminology, we can say that the vital urban project of generating broad forms of wealth that can be shared, is one that has to be enabled through spatial political economy — the very basis of society and, therefore, cities. This is both structure and phenomenon through, and by which, cities exist. And it is the means by which transformation of the human state — for many — may occur. Of critical importance is addressing how decisions are made, and the transformation that is needed in the values of the individuals who control politics, economy, and spatiality, and in the emergent cultures of the organisations of those individuals. This is an ‘honest’ meaning of the urban, and the vital challenge for an urban designer.

The critical issue facing cities, of course, is not one that is to do with distinguishing architects from urban designers, so much, but one concerning what architects and urban designers are doing — and can be doing — about cities. Importantly, understanding the difference between architecture and urban design may help us understand how a meaningful lived reality is an urban project that is multivalent, and one of great complexity that is in need of the transformational process of design — and the agents for this transformation. This is a challenge that is cultural. It is enacted through politics, enabled through economy, and is manifested spatially. It requires so much more than the design of buildings made with hands.

1. Stephen Scott, pers comm. Comment made whilst listening to Bill Callahan, in reply to a statement that Callahan sounded a lot like John Williamson (“True Blue”).

2. The Helsinki Design Lab refer to this as ‘strategic design’; refer HDL Blog: http://helsinkidesignlab.org/ Note: the HDL’s strategic design capability is to be closed in June 2013, as explained on the blog.

3. John Choi, tweet via @johnwchoi, 2013.

4. Robert Nelson, “Nightmare on Main Street”, Visual Arts in The Age, 2011.

5. Pablo Picasso, http://www.pablopicasso.org/index.jsp

6. Timothy Hill, “Side project with Timothy Hill”, State Library of Queensland, APDL lecture series, (Brisbane), 2012.

7. Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, Obliques Strategies.

8. Fumihiko Maki, presentation at the RAIA’s National Conference, Natural Artifice, (Melbourne), 2011.

9. Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 2006.

10. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Faber, 1977.

11. Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, University of Minnesota Press, (Minneapolis), 2003[1970], as quoted by Martin Kornberger in “Governing the City: From Planning to Urban Strategy”, Theory, Culture & Society 2012 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore), Vol. 0(0): 1-23.

12. Cedric Price, unsourced.

13. John Choi, tweet via @johnwchoi, op cit.

14. John subsequently kindly provided me with a copy of a lecture he gives, which provided context to his tweet. The lecture material provides provocative thought and historical context, and certainly is founded on a ‘productive state’ being about the ‘needs and desires of people’ within earth’s ‘closed loop system’.

The difference between planning and design (and their application to the urban)

A relative of mine asked me recently what the difference was between a planner and designer. My immediate response was that it was a “good question”. But the problem with generic labels and titles, like planner, designer, architect, engineer, is that they assume every practitioner of that discipline is the same. And that’s clearly not the case. What is absolute in the case of a planner and designer, however, irrespective of their particular application, is the concepts upon which the disciplines are defined and named by. To plan and to design are two very clearly defined and different activities. So to address the question it is best to define and explain the difference between planning and design. The question didn’t require me to define the difference between (urban) planning and (urban) design, so I didn’t lead my response with this. But by focusing on the concepts underpinning the two, a better understanding of their application to the city can be made (which I couldn’t help myself making).

Having received this question via email on the first day back to work from a holiday, I answered it with an example that was top-of-mind. Here is the first part of what I wrote in reply:

Good question. I had a holiday yesterday. If you plan your holidays, you tend to take-as-given a known or chosen destination, and map out how to best get there. If you design your holidays, you will question what it is you are really seeking. You may even discover that a holiday is not the best outcome for this. In city terms, planning tends to take-as-given existing circumstances, and at best re-configures them for the future. Design thinking re-imagines that future.1

And there you have it, at least as a fundamental distinction between the two activities.And as Paddy Harrington from Bruce Mau Design rightly declares, design “start[s] with desire”3 and is about addressing intentions, with imagination; planning, on the other hand, is about organisation within the known and the understood. Planning is accommodating; design is strategic.

Applying this theory to the making of the city, the difference between ‘urban planning’ and ‘urban design’ becomes clear. But is it?

Problems with nomenclature

The urban planning and urban design disciplines both make claim to the making of the city. The former has a longer history of recognition, and is a professional discipline with statutory entitlement. Urban design, on the other hand, has a much shorter history as a discipline, having only recently become a branch of academic study in its own right. But unlike urban planning it has no real professional representative body or professional recognition to date. In fact, the term urban design is inconsistently referred to. Is one an ‘urban designer’, or is one involved in an urban design process? Does one practice urban design, or does one produce urban designs as product? These questions reflect the current ambiguous nature and practice of the discipline, and its absence of a critical theoretical basis.4

Nevertheless, ‘urban designer’ has been taken as title. Despite a clear difference in the concepts by which each discipline is named (i.e. ‘planning’ and ‘design’), urban planners will have it that they are most formative in making cities, assuming a position that one must plan before one designs. ‘Urban designers’ will have it that they are able to create the best cities, combining the knowledge of what to make with how to make it. To add to the ambiguity, most ‘urban designers’ have backgrounds in another discipline and are also either planners, architects, landscape architects, or combinations thereof. Architects, for example, either claim they are best suited to ‘urban design’ or make the best ‘urban designers’, with a belief that other disciplines merely follow or support their lead. And then there is the counter-opinion of landscape architects who attest to the same claim based on their perceived superior capability to design at scale. The conservative consensus, however, being that everyone is a designer, and that urban design, indeed city making, is a collaborative process that needs to involve many disciplines! These, of course, are huge generalisations, as framed earlier.

The reality is that every problem situation or situation of unease, concern, need or desire, is a design opportunity, not a planning challenge. And herein lies the essential need for a recognition of the difference between design and planning; the important distinction between the designer (leader or change agent) and the design process (collaboration among many interested parties), and the meaning of the urban content in question, as distinct from its material evidence, the city. 

Defining the urban

Despite urban planning and urban design having clearly different conceptual foundations, both declare the same content, i.e. the ‘urban’, at least in name. And here is where the meaning and application of both is misleading and limited. As indicated in the About section of this website, and as readers of this blog’s posts will know, I advocate that cities are defined by people. And cities exist as people come together to produce broad forms of wealth that can be shared. The production of this wealth is through exchange of commerce and culture, principally. I refer to this exchange among citizens, as the ‘urban’. And I make distinction between the urban and its material evidence, the ‘city’.

The problem with appearances

Contemporary (urban) planning and (urban) design practice, paradoxically, prioritises the ‘city’ and its spatiality over any political and economic process and capacity that may be vital to enabling the production of community wealth. In this application, planning and design are more concerned with the effects of the urban — the outputs of exchange in the form of roads, houses, open spaces, social infrastructure, and accommodation of growth — that is to say, the ‘city’, than the causes for exchange — that which defines living and that which living is to be defined by, which is to say, human needs and values, the economic basis to survival, and the generation and sharing of broad forms of wealth in harmony with the rhythms of our living planet.

As Stephen Buckle points out, interpreting the work of David Hume, “the causes of events we observe in our daily lives are not themselves observed: that we generate causal explanations on the basis of the patterns we discern in experience.” He goes on to say “the best explanation of any experience or set of experiences depends on investigation into all the relevant patterns of human experience, not just into those that are most readily to hand.” And that “mixing up causes and effects is an easy thing to do”.5 Planning and designing a city based on what we see everyday in our lives (landuse, building forms, roads, open space) is not attending to the causes responsible for what we see (respective commercial interests), and certainly not in relation to the essential cause of cities (to produce and share broad forms of wealth).

Planning for, or designing the effects of, exchange rather than causes, misses the objective of the urban project. In so doing, this type of (urban) planning and (urban) ‘design’ falls short of addressing the urban it is named by. As a consequence, what is referred to as urban planning and urban design, in practice, simply does not address the urban; it does not address the reasons for which the city exists or the very basis by which it does. And since both planning and design are purposeful activities that are both real-world based and intended, it follows that any urban planning or urban design that isn’t about the urban is simply not planning or design; for it to be so, it would have to start with, address and deliver on the urban.

The difference between urban planning and urban design

The essential difference between urban planning and urban design is simply that the former makes provision for known spatial arrangements of known forms (land use, transport, open space, infrastructure) that are reliant upon the effects (outputs) of known forms of  exchange (particular industries, e.g. property development, housing, infrastructure, social and government services), and the latter makes imagined spatial arrangements (e.g. ‘village hearts’, ‘green lungs’, quay-sides, urban boulevards, housing typologies, single-loaded dwellings), the realisation of which are reliant upon the effects (outputs) of the very same known forms of exchange. Both do not enquire into intentions for living, or enquire into existing or imagined forms of exchange for living. Both promote effects over causes. Planning focuses on land use, rather than the use of living; on housing provision rather than a concept of home. Urban design focuses on how land is to be used, with little regard to who it may be for; on housing typologies with little enquiry into how housing is or could be delivered. Both promote ‘mixed use’ almost exclusively over mixing people, ideas, interests, resources. Both ignore the content they are named by. Both deny the cause of cities. In recalling the distinction in the underlying conceptual basis of planning and design made earlier, the fact that this planning deals only with the known and the given, and that this design imagines only formal outcomes of the city, and both are without relation to urban intention, means they could be more accurately described as ‘city engineering’.

City follows urban

Once it is apparent that this type of planning and design deals with effects over causes, it becomes clear that the way our cities are conceived and developed is less about “the people” than we may think. Moreover, not only is the essential cause of cities overlooked, but in prioritising the city’s form by focusing on the formal outputs of particular industries (e.g. property development, retail, infrastructure, government services) which constitute the city’s form, urban planning and design are prioritising those industries that produce those forms. And in so doing, they are supporting interests that are exclusive, not collective; causes that do not relate to the essential cause of cities. As revealed in a previous post, this planning and ‘design’ relies on, supports and defines the city by the business of industries, rather than being a process that devises strategic investments which would constitute the business of and for the citizens of community. 

As cities are about, and for, ways of life, for citizens, collectively, it is the collective ‘means’ by which they live (i.e. their economic capacity), for the collective ‘ends’ (their desired modes of living), which is important. It’s not that a city’s spatiality is of no importance, nor that the industries producing that spatiality are insignificant; it’s that industries need to be orchestrated to deliver on the shared objectives of community in ways that are resilient to change, that the resultant city spatiality will support the desired modes of living. For “city follows urban like form follows function”, as Ingo Kumic has succinctly identified.6

If we accept intention as the essential essence of design, then we could imagine better ways to live and better ways through which to live. If we were to take this urban as content, then it would follow that we would need to understand peoples’ values and needs, set performance targets for living, and creatively devise strategies to deliver on how people could live, both in terms of the ideal and the practical. This is an urban project that requires the questioning, imagining and testing of design. In this scenario, an urban designer would be a change agent; the urban design process inclusive and participatory. And if we designed this urban process, if we created these urban conditions for and by which to live, for real citizens, then we would have a clear picture of what must be planned accordingly. And perhaps instead of (urban) planning prioritising the management of the physical form of the city as a way of ‘making the city’ (through designation of land uses, activity centres, building heights, transport corridors and open spaces made by some form of (non designed and unplanned) exchange), it may more usefully support the urban design process and the urban conditions designed — that which would enable people to maintain the networks essential for exchange of commerce and culture — the planning of resource use and allocation for a community’s ability to ensure its own sustenance, shelter, mobility, exchange, learning. Planning that could lead to the production and sharing of broadly defined forms of wealth — physical and psychic health, access, choice, equality, democracy, prosperity, community, clean air and water, and contact with nature.

I haven’t attempted to address the particular forms of planning in city-making as we know them (‘strategic planning’ and ‘statutory planning’); that would be a topic for another day, perhaps. My main point here is that it is less meaningful to invest in planning until one knows what it is one must plan. And before we make plans, we must make sure of our intentions. Design explores, tests and delivers on intentions, and for this reason should be formative in shaping community futures.

The vital and unacknowledged opportunity in city-making is the urban, yet the urban planning and urban design disciplines neglect it. Moreover, the missing planning in the making of the city is the planning which supports the design of the urban. Yet the design of the urban is the missing design in the making of the city. It is also the missing design in urban design. Urban design, however, is the perfect name with which to identify this challenge. If only it were true to the content and process it describes. And that’s a challenge that could define the meaning of an urban designer.

1. Of course, design is a much layered subject that I won’t attempt to cover here, but for more on defining aspects of design, see previous posts: “First post and the (strategic) nature of starting (in design)“, and “What’s in a name? The city research we need“.

2. I generally dislike the popular use of ‘design thinking’ on the basis it is tautological; it is impossible to conduct design without thinking. Nevertheless, I use it here to emphasis the design process. It could well prove to be a necessary term to elevate what is an undervalued process that humans have practiced ever since they existed.

3. Paddy Harrington, lecture, Arts + Technology = Magic, Or Does It?, “Creative Mornings Toronto”, June, 2012. http://creativemorningstoronto.tumblr.com/post/33089433027/arts-technology-magic-or-does-it (To see the part referenced, watch 10 mins in.)

4. For a comprehensive review of western urban design theory and a critical review of urban design, see the remarkable text by Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 2006.

5. Stephen Buckle, “The Myth of Misogyny”, Quadrant, No.493, (Balmain), Jan-Feb 2013.

6. Ingo Kumic, pers comm., 2011. I would add that in referring to this concept I use ‘function’ in the broadest sense, equivalent to intent, and inclusive of emotional identity, not merely in its utilitarian sense.

Lessons from a child: thinking about thinking — about cities — and the design cities need: the business of community

If we define ourselves by our collective intentions, then we can define our cities by our collective selves.

One of the defining qualities of a designer is not just thinking about things — we all do that to some degree — but constantly thinking about the way we think. So it was of great surprise to me and the source of an immense feeling of pride to have one of my young daughters help me in this intriguing and at times burdensome tendency.

My daughter had been studying philosophy at school. She told me recently, at the tender age of 6, that she was learning about ‘metacognition’. I asked her what it was and she said “its thinking about thinking”, in that joyful, precise way most kids that age would say something that was of great importance to them, like in proudly telling which of their toys is their favourite or in pointing out their very own bedroom but, in this case, the answer was delivered with an extra level of excitement that would only come with the realisation knowing about the term and its meaning is less common for a child of that age than having one’s own toy or bedroom.

But if thinking about the way we think is a defining aspect of design, isn’t the city and its making constantly under critical review? That depends, of course, on whether you believe cities are designed. And that depends on what you term city, because I would argue that the city that is generally considered to be “designed” is not the core of our collective existence, and for this same reason, what is couched as design falls short of being design.

As I have outlined in the About section of this site and in a previous post, if the city is understood as citizens and their various activities of exchange, then the city as form (infrastructure, buildings and public space) could be understood to be the material evidence of its citizens. Design of cities would, therefore, address citizens — who they are, what they seek — and devise exchange activities that deliver on their expectations, rather than addressing the outputs (form) of some types of exchange which are not enquired into and are taken for granted (growth, urban expansion, infrastructure provision, and the normalisation of luxury lifestyles, for example).

How often do we discuss cities in terms of citizen needs, values and preferences? The language of time, convenience, sharing, affordability, accessibility and choice is drowned by the descriptive language of height, density, activity centres, facilities, growth and growth boundary. And how often do the designs produced for cities address and enable preferred ways of life? The image, master plan, singular-issue strategy and action plan for the city have predominance over governance strategies — partnerships that could create the right conditions for initiatives that respond directly to the expectations of community and are able to deliver on collective wealth.

In essence, could we prioritise the business of community (who it is, what it stands for, what it is to produce to sustain itself and share its wealth), over the businesses we think might make a “community” (government services, and the property development led retail, housing and commercial industries that drive our developments)? Could businesses be interested and play a vital part in the business of community? Could the sustainability of community (the economic, social and ecological networks vital to building resilience) be considered as important as building “sustainable” technologies (green roofs, green buses and green walls)?

The real challenge and opportunity in the design of our cities is to make community the business proposition.

It may sound overly complex, this thinking about the way we (currently) think; but it doesn’t have to be so hard: the irony is, to understand the city as citizens and their communities of exchange, and to undertake design that begins with citizens and devises investment strategies to deliver on their expectations is a lot more straightforward than the way the city is currently viewed and made. It may just take a little honesty, selflessness and imagination — as a child well knows.

Beauty and truth in Merewether – ritual and exchange through design at the ocean baths

One of my favourite places to grab a coffee from is the Cup of Truth, down in the subway at Flinders Street Railway Station, in Melbourne where I live. One routine morning upon arriving at my desk after grabbing a take-away coffee from this excellent hole-in-the-wall outlet, I found myself staring at the question the cafe had printed, stencil-like, on the outside of their cardboard cup: “WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR THE TRUTH” [no question mark].

As I sat at my desk, fixated on these profound words and contemplating their appeal, my own answer came to me. I wanted to reply. So I tweeted: “@cupoftruth: Where do you look 4 the truth? People don’t look for something they don’t want (THE truth); they prefer their own version of it.”

Just as people maintain their own versions of reality, operate within their own narrative on life, they also regard beauty independently. The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” suggests beauty is personally discerned.

But is it? Despite such personal interpretations of beauty and truth, it was Keats who said they were one and the same: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”1

The linking of the two is key to unlocking what they individually mean. Whilst we can walk around with our own version of reality, and debate whether something is beautiful or not, by defining beauty and truth as one the poet teaches us that perhaps not everything we hold as beautiful is beautiful, and not everything we believe to be true is true. Keats is not simply linking synonymous words. Keats links different words — words of different meaning — in a statement of qualification. The meaning of both words is conditional upon the other: beauty is only beauty if it is also true, and truth is only true if it is also beautiful.

So what does each word individually mean that they may be joined in association to give a greater, more complete and definitive meaning? Robert Grudin, in his book Design and Truth suggests truth “is the laws of nature as we experience them…[that] the truth lies in the rough but workable details of what we are and where we are.”2 He, too, links truth to beauty by suggesting good design — which he argues “tells the truth” — “honours the dominion of beauty and delight.”

What then of beauty? In his book The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, Juhani Pallasmaa teaches us that “beauty is not a detached aesthetic quality, the experience of beauty arises from grasping the unquestionable casualties and interdependencies of life.”3 Sounds a lot like truth.

In my first post, I introduced a rough definition of design. My main theme concerned the process of design and the importance of strategy in it. What I want to build in here, is just why design matters. Design is critical because through a process of observing our world and devising new ways of interacting with it, design can bring us in a direct and real relationship with our world and with ourselves in the world. And in this greater consciousness of ourselves and the world in which we are living — a greater sense of being alive — good design reveals the truth and affords beauty. The ocean baths at Merewether does both.

Designed and supervised by H.G. Skott, Engineer, Merewether Ocean Baths were built during the depression and completed in 1935 by unemployed labourers through a depression-relief scheme. At an overall dimension of 100-metres x 90-metres they are the largest ocean baths in the state of New South Wales, and possibly in Australia.4 (Many locals believe them to be the largest ocean baths complex in the southern hemisphere.) Merewether is a suburb of Newcastle, and is located 3 kilometres from the city centre. The city lies 162 kilometres north of Sydney.

The baths consist of two large rectangular pools (100-metres x 50-metres, and 100-metres x 27-metres) arranged perpendicular to the ocean, orientated with their equal longer sides parallel to the shoreline. The two pools are divided by a generous concrete walkway level with the edges of the pools. The wider, outer pool is tidal; the inner, narrower pool is partly filled with sand and water pumped from the ocean, and is used by young children for shallow swimming.

The shell and surrounds of the baths are constructed entirely of in situ concrete formed on natural rock shelf, and finished with whitewash applied after cleaning which occurs twice weekly during the swimming season and weekly the rest of the year. Bench seats line the dividing promenade between the two pools. Picnic tables and shelters and outdoor showers are provided just below the baths pavilion opposite the wading pool. The pavilion houses a life guard on duty seven days during the summer swimming season, and change rooms, toilets and showers.

The realness of the sea is all around. It is in the natural elements of the coast — the constantly moving ocean, the sound of waves and birds, the rocky shelf around the walls. Our own existential awareness is heightened in relation to these natural elements through the constructed: the feeling and appearance of the weathered whitewash-coated intermittently wetted concrete underfoot — the patchy arrangement of exposed stone and white coating illuminating the ocean waters to a translucent emerald colour. There is also an awareness that is internal — within ourselves — in the challenge the waters of the baths present to us as individuals with abilities and preferences known only to us. And there is our awareness of each other; of people similarly partaking in what is offered. Overall, there is a happiness, a joy of being there, a celebration in participation by all ages, all body types and all levels of swimming ability.

This joy of engagement is not something I have experienced, say, at a regular municipal public swimming pool. For starters, the ocean baths are free of charge. There are no lane shenanigans here — no abuse, no dropping in or charging ahead at the change of ends as is customary at in-ground public pools. (Perhaps paying a price to swim gives some false sense of entitlement or right of possession.) Here, nobody owns the ocean.

In the early hours of the morning, feeling awkward with camera in hand in a public place where everyone had next to no clothes on, I was taken with people’s acceptance of me being there. Everyone I politely asked for permission to allow me to take photographs in their vicinity had no objections. On the contrary, most enquiries led to prolonged discussion about the baths. Through this I learnt of one elderly lady who had the previous day lost her goggles, only to come back the following day to find them hanging visibly on the shelter adjacent the baths, where someone kindly and thoughtfully placed them. This was important to her; she suffered emphysema and had set herself a goal to swim one entire length of the baths. I benefited from a similar act of consideration when, occupied swimming laps on an incoming tide, someone had thoughtfully lifted my sandals from off the weathered pavement and onto a bench seat to save them from being washed away. Elsewhere, two local men proudly told me about the “Steps of Knowledge” where regulars, around 8.30am, would meet to discuss affairs. Two other men soaking up the sun and enjoying conversation, poolside, pointed out the defunct Burwood Colliery railway tunnel in the bluff behind the bathhouse.

As the morning developed, families occupied the smaller pool. Here, children in rashies safely paddled about in floaties and pool toys, closely observed by parents standing knee-deep in the same calm, protected water. Other families played in the sand, next to beach towels and under umbrellas, completing an overall colourful, carnival scene of innocence that both parent and child were equally enjoying.

It is not just the swimmers who enjoy the baths. Next to the Steps of Knowledge is a much longer flight of steps which afford a different type of workout to swimming laps. Here runners and walkers do climbing repeats. Nearby rails and benches are used for push-ups, step ups and crunches. Again, all ages and abilities are in action, and no one really seems to mind what anyone else is doing.

It can’t be the sunshine and ocean alone which make people so happy, so relaxed, so charged with enjoying the moment and life. Afterall, the beach is more natural and, although popular, does not match the baths for the united participation and rapport among individuals. (Besides, I was told by the two men on the Steps of Knowledge that they and their mates continue their daily ritual of laps and communion year-round without a wetsuit, and, apparently, winter is the season for more intense conversations focusing on the football performance of the city’s beloved Knights.) Nor is it merely the provision of a relatively safe area in which to swim, or the topography that is so ideally suited to other forms of outdoor exercise; there are plenty of community and sporting facilities in our cities. There is something more to Merewether Ocean Baths.

At 100-metres x 90-metres and possibly the largest of their kind south of the equator, these are indeed impressive dimensions (an olympic-size swimming pool measures 50-metres x 25-metres), but their size isn’t their significant quality. As Dutch Landscape Architect Paul van Beek has said of landscape design: “Size doesn’t matter; Scale does!”5 Here is where beauty and truth come in to play: scale is contextual. And in design, context is everything — literally (context is physical, social, cultural, psychic, economic) and metaphorically (design cannot be pursued independent of context). Context determines which rules of truth apply.

At this size the ocean baths would potentially obliterate parts of an inland suburban neighbourhood if installed there. But perched on the edge of Merewether’s rocky shoreline, at the base of a rugged, dramatic bluff, the baths are at one with tide, crashing wave and ocean horizon — whereupon enormous bulk carriers waiting in line for their turn at entering Newcastle port appear strangely unaffected by wind or current. This is due to scale, which here, is part size (just over six olympic-size swimming pools), part plan simplicity (rectangular against a rocky sea edge), part siting (just above high tide), and part robust and consistent use of the one material (concrete finished in whitewash). And because of the appropriateness of scale to context, (and in the greater context, a gritty, traditional working-class city founded on coal mining), people are at one with the baths, with each other, and with all the sounds, sights and smells of the sea this perfect relationship and synergy so vividly affords.

Beautiful because it is so irrefutably true. Our awareness of our human condition relative to nature is heightened: the clear but subtle juxtaposition of the framed water of the baths to the infinite vastness and uncontrollable power of the ocean heighten our appreciation of both nature’s strength and rhythms, and our own individual vulnerability in relation to it — perhaps more so than what the ocean separately induces. We appreciate the relative safety of the pool, and feel secure with fellow swimmers compared to creatures lurking in the untamed ocean depths. This reveals the truth about the tide and our limits.

There is an honesty to the baths, which is a form of truth. You can almost feel the hardened hands of those who built the massive, concrete battered outer pool walls. There is no other added aesthetic to this construction. Everything built is made for purpose. Form has followed function in the modern tradition, but my guess is when H.G. Skott designed these baths to be built by men who sustained their living in doing so, he was only thinking of tide, pool depth, swim length and maintenance. There is no other sense of consciousness here that invades our contemporary seaside promenades. No ubiquitous “surfboard” seats or “ship’s mooring” bollards — what Grudin would refer to as “design lies”.6 Just the amplification of the essence of being at the coast, which is defined not by what we can bring to the water’s edge, but what the expansive ocean horizon, flushing salty waters and wind and sun in your face can bring to us. Good design is about what it reveals about place and what it reveals about us. Beauty is in the revelation.

What impresses me most about the baths is the incredible level of communal exchange that occurs there. The baths are a platform for the daily ritual of immersion in nature, exercise, conversation, mateship and courtesy to others. Merewether Ocean Baths teaches us that good design is less about what a designer produces than what a designer enables. As Grudin argues, “good designers are truth-tellers, facilitators in the dialogue that allows us to comprehend and engage reality.”7 To this end it is worth returning to the complimentary wisdom of Juhani Pallasmaa who reminds us that “beauty and simplicity cannot be preconceived, conscious targets in artistic work; one arrives at these qualities by struggling for other ends.”8

When it comes to cities, the commercial foundation, existence and basis of their survival should not preclude the generation of wealth defined by non-financial terms. Cities need to be productive places where the economic livelihoods of their citizens are maintained, but, in ways which makes for a society rich in the cultural, the social, the psychic, and the sensory, as well. In this regard, Merewether Baths is a sound public investment in physical infrastructure that enables us to be brought into a closer connection with nature and our own biological part in it, and with our fellow human beings. And it is an investment which seems true to the city it is within: open, friendly and workman-like.

As concurred by the husband of the lady who had lost and recovered her goggles, I think the wonderful sense of genuine communal exchange and ritual down at the baths is due to the respect that we have for one another in recognition that we are all seeking and enjoying the very same thing. That’s a beautiful truth. And that is worth both designing and living for.

1. John Keats, poem titled ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, 1819.

2. Robert Grudin, Design and Truth, Yale University Press (New Haven and London), 2010.

3. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, Wiley (West Sussex), 2009.

4. NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Heritage Branch website, http://www.heritage.nsw.gov.au/07_subnav_04_2.cfm?itemid=2170762

5. Quoted from the presentation given by Paul van Beek at the AILA National Conference, 200 Mile City — Designing a sustainable urban future, Brisbane, 2004.

6. Grudin, Design and Truth, op cit.

7. Ibid.

8. Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, op cit.

First post, and the (strategic) nature of starting (in design)

Here is my first blog for my newly created EnvisagedCity website.

In thinking about a first post for EnvisagedCity, the immediate and prevailing question had been: what to write about? The obvious answer was that it should be something about EnvisagedCity/myself. But understanding I would cover this, somewhat, in the About and Background sections of this site, I was interested in how the requirement of writing a first post was an activity in starting something, and how this could become the very subject of a first post on the nature of “starting” in design.  Consequently, this first blog is partly about EnvisagedCity and partly about the nature of starting in relation to design. And given EnvisagedCity, like all brands, will be what people other than myself think it to be, the part about EnvisagedCity will not be articulated in a didactic way. It will begin to be revealed through the narrative on the nature of starting in design.

Starting something can mean different things to different people. For some it can be daunting; for others it can be exciting. No less in design, where the reality and complexity of the real world and the blankness of a “canvass”— site/trace/page/whiteboard — can provide great opportunity or bring about hesitation.

Design, for me, poses a particular challenge which demands a particular approach and, therefore, starting point. This is part design — wanting to address what I think is most relevant and important — and part management — wanting to do so most efficiently and effectively. It is with this consciousness and intent that I often check myself with the thought of one of “graphic designer” Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” items. His is an acknowledged quote from John Cage, providing encouragement to effectively start anywhere.

“Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.”

During my time at WEST 8, one of the firm’s partners, Edzo Bindels, would often say, in opposing reaction to some other firm’s design proposal or an audience’s suggestion that was contrary to his firm’s work: “… but it’s not our starting point!” The way WEST 8 approaches their work in urban design and landscape architecture all over the world is very particular, stemming from a highly developed and consistent position based on their world view — a world view different from that of mainstream urban design and landscape architecture practices. And there is their rationale for upholding the starting point as critical.  Who they are and how they see the world shapes their work; their work is defined by their world view. No wonder founding director, Adriaan Geuze, has aptly said, to get better at design “you need a life”.

Yet contrast this ideological approach to design, with the unbridled action of a child at play. Anything goes. Action and connection are everything. Not starting is not considered. As a consequence, the drawing, game or activity performed develops and builds, and an outcome is realised. And usually with children, this activity is highly creative.

This creative immersion in activity is perhaps partly what Cage and Mau are saying is important in beginning. Maybe they are saying what’s really critical is to simply begin, to make a start, to follow the essence of Nike’s slogan, “Just do it”.

But should design be started anywhere?

It’s worth framing just what design is. Design is a purposeful activity. Unlike music or art — both highly creative endeavours (interestingly, John Cage was a composer and artist) — design is defined by its intention-based application to provide something of use and meaning — either denotative (functional value) or connotative (emotional value and identity) — to people. It takes real-world experiences, problem situations and circumstances and through abstract conceptualisation develops ideas for accommodation back in the real-world. This is what makes design so useful, so applicable, and yet so misunderstood and undervalued. It is not something limited to the appearance of things, or confined only to the making of products, or only of relevance to particular industries.

Because design is both real-world derived and real-world intended, context is everything. What’s a good colour? Depends what it’s for. Is Madrid a nice city to visit? Depends who I’m with. How many lanes should this street have? Depends on the purpose the street is to serve within the way of urban life being envisaged.

So, should design be started anywhere?

My answer is: no, and yes!

My design starting point is always to enquire into context — the bigger picture, the essence of a problem, what the design is for, the ultimate reason why something exists (and hence my “no” to the question). With this approach to design — which isn’t child play nor, in the context of design in/for the “city”¹, necessarily confined in outlook to the particular level of urban intervention practiced by WEST 8 — my “yes” in support of starting design anywhere, is contingent upon a very BIG proviso: Yes, start anywhere if that’s what helps get you going, but as long as you can think and react strategically!

The transfer from the real-world to the abstract, from circumstance to idea in design requires strategy. Some products may be beautiful to look on. Some creations may be like no other. Some things may work extremely well — like machines, groups of people and organisations but, for something to have been designed it must be the outcome of conscious invention for an application to context. This demands strategy. And the starting point of design can be a vital part of that strategy.

For this reason I share and favour Bindels’ discipline in having a starting point in design. Especially in the complex environment of urban design. However, the only way starting anywhere can be truly effective, is if one has the capacity to constantly and progressively trim the consequences of starting anywhere toward context — like a skillful sailor on the jib of a yacht on-course — which is a form of progressive strategy.

The importance of a strategic process, with or without strategy as the starting point, is consistent with another one of Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth items, and which is a favourite of mine:

“Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.”

In stressing the importance of process, Mau is recognising strategy. He’s not just talking about an anything goes, random process of designing something. He’s talking about a driving force. And in seeking to go to new places, he’s talking about seeking a particular outcome, one not defined by what is already known, but defined none-the-less — by opportunity; the space for an idea. Strategic thinking is creative thinking. It is the defining essence of design.

So, in seeking to achieve great design, how we start is certainly less important than how we progress. “Just do it”² may work to sell running shoes and provide useful encouragement to begin design, but strategy — either at the outset or progressively developed immediately thereafter — is essential in design. It will help us creatively channel our efforts towards designing for application to context; towards designing just what the “it” ought to be.

1. For the city-urban distinction, refer the About section of this website.

2. Of course, the Nike slogan is a vital part of a well-conceived and executed design strategy. As Marty Neumeier points out in his book, The Brand Gap (2003), the “Just do it” slogan appeals to the well-understood tendency people have to procrastinate about undertaking exercise (and to quit soon after embarking on a new exercise regime), and it also provides encouragement to overcome any lingering doubts we may have about our actual ability to be “out there”.

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