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

learning cycle

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
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart
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Strategy as performative action
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart

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Iterative interventions with specific intents
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart


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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 
TROJAN ART @Trojantrashart


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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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IMAGE OF THOUGHTS @Imageofthoughts
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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.


What’s in a name? The city research we need

A review of the Grattan Institute’s report, Social Cities

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or so the saying goes. It depends, of course, on how you judge. Usually in any really good work, nothing is left to chance. In books, the cover is part of the package. If it is a badly produced book, chances are it won’t exhibit a good cover design. I don’t think I have read a bad book with a really great cover; can’t recall having a good wine with a really ugly label. Anyway, there are too many books to view, let alone read, and far too many bottles of wine than could be consumed to definitively prove the adage otherwise.

But what about the name of a book? Surely this is the element of the cover which most defines a book. “What’s in a name?”1 was Juliette’s rhetorical question; her heart-felt provocation of love for Romeo disregarding the Montague family name and family. But a family name identifies blood relations, not blood biology. Family names are arbitrary. So, too, common names of plants. Juliette’s rose would indeed smell as sweet by any other word, but as long as she is referring only to common names, and the rose’s smell, not what it is. Plant common names, like human family names, may be random, but their family names unlike those of their human counterparts are not. Rose — common name — is generalised; but the Rosaceae family — botanical — is descriptive. Like the scientific name of roses, book names generally refer content — a sense of what the book may be about, what it aspires to, what it addresses or alludes or attests to. And in reports, particularly research reports, titles would be especially well-considered and chosen.

When I first became aware that a new report was soon to be launched titled Social Cities,2 by the Grattan Institute, an independent think tank focused on Australian public policy, in Melbourne, with a diverse program and one dedicated to cities, I was immediately curious due to the title — without seeing the report. What’s in a name?

Social cities.

To engage the same level of astute enquiry Richard Weller demonstrated in his review of a book that is titled in a similar manner, Distributed Urbanism: Cities After Google Earth, where he asked: “How many urbanisms are there now?”3, we could similarly ask in relation to this research report title, Social Cities, just how many cities are there now?

Eco cities, creative cities, green cities; networked cities, smart cities, sister cities; polycentric cities, mono-centric cities, compact cities; World’s Most Liveable City, World Cycling City, Design City… and now, “Social Cities”.

To continue with Weller’s sequential observation from his same review: “if there is one thing we’ve learned from twentieth-century urban planning it is that cities defy reduction.”4 And, despite its most honourable intentions, I think reduction is the basis of this Grattan Institute research.

Social cities.

By alluding to the state of sociableness in cities the title assumes the city as an independent, inanimate object; a tangible entity that can somehow be made to be social — or friendly or green or eco or world-class; even unfriendly or whatever the case and reductionist focus may be.

Social cities.

Because aren’t cities social, anyway?

Scicinius, another Shakespearean character, reminds us, in Coriolanus, of what really defines a city when he declares “What is the city but the people?”5

Social cities.

What is meant or intended by the term social cities — defined in the report, in the singular, as “a city that helps to connect us with other people” — is, therefore, unclear. An extract of the Institute’s own promotional précis of the report, however, gives some clues as to what the report is about:

This report looks at ways to make cities better places to live by increasing our opportunities to connect with other people.

It examines how the design and functioning of a city — from transport networks to the availability of parks and sporting grounds to the architecture of public spaces and buildings — can help bring people together or keep them apart.6

Where the Social Cities tautological title suggests the city is an entity to be influenced independent of the people who comprise the city — to be made more social, (as if not already social) — the outline of the report indeed confirms the research position that the city is something that is made. Irrespective of how well intended the aspirations of the research are for better human relations, the objective to make cities “better places” is looking at the city through the wrong lens, and asking cities to be something they are not or can never be.

Cities are not defined by place. And seeking improvement of social relations by prioritising “places” as the instrument with which to increase opportunities to connect with other people will affect places more so than social relationships.

Notwithstanding, there is a limited notion of place considered in the report, and limited anticipation of what might be considered appropriate social behaviours. Sharing the same reduced notion of place as contemporary urban planning ideology, place is taken as object, the physical place, and is described by planning classification — buildings, streets, parks. And, like planning, there is an emphasis on programmed use of place with a promotion of activity and vibrancy.

But place is more complex than type. It exists both in the dimensions of physicality and mind. There is no acknowledgment of terrain vague and the importance of unprogrammed, unprescribed and boundless place. Instead, vacant and underused places are highlighted as opportunities for activation. Where would one take refuge in a city replete with activity and vibrancy? What are the implications of increasing social activity by bringing more and more people together, over providing capacity for distance, reflection, and discretionary solitude in terms of the psychic health of individuals?

There is no acknowledgment of the phenomenology of place induced by cognitive resonance through experiential contact with the spatial and material within type, nor recognition of genius loci, the spirit of a place. The systemic nature of place where place-as-whole is effected by place-as-parts, and where the emergent properties of place-as-whole are much more than the place-as-sum of its parts is not considered, nor are the systemic relations among places.

The authors qualify their focus on place, providing caveat that they are “Not suggesting that city design is the answer to every challenge.” That the “report is not driven by a belief in physical determinism.” And that “Many influences on quantity and quality of social connection are not related to urban form.” But this is the extent of the declaration, and as a consequence it appears incomplete, as if the influences unrelated to built form are considered less than significant or unrelated.

As well as couching a reduced notion of place, the report’s focus on place alone as a way to address what it seeks to enquire into: “the interaction between the physical and social” — itself a reduced notion of what cities are — is description by reduction. There is no sense of systemic thinking. Description by parts does not account for behaviours of the whole. Description of place without addressing other considerations, especially political economic (and other forms of place) does not deal with how places exist. The two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms comprising a water molecule do not account for how water behaves; like, for example, in the form of waves. Reductionist research has its place, as long as it is seeking to explain material composition, or is framed in a broader systemic sense, is part of a more holistic methodology of enquiry. But if social considerations are the topic of research, then reductionism is not an appropriate research method. And if the purpose of research is to inform policy development, and the “practical examples of things that have worked” provided in the report’s Appendix are an indication of how policy may develop, then any emerging policy directly relating to physical place and activity by word or pattern book design will not be appropriate. “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity;” writes Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., “I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”7

It perhaps appears sacrilegious to be critical of anything attempting to enable better human relations. But like buzzwords and other urban terms of a seemingly sacrosanct and uncontentious nature, say, (replicated) heritage, (more) parks, (more) trees and, in this case (more) activity, discussions about anything to do with providing better social connection remain almost entirely immune from almost any critical thought. And I don’t think that is healthy. My interest here is in cities and getting the research we need, not picking holes in published work. After all, the complexity of cities demands rigorous research into what makes them tick. So I hope my review will be useful among students of the city.

It is impossible to make genuine gains in cities if cities themselves are not understood in terms of what they really are and how they are really made. So there are two main themes I would like to address here. The first is about research; the second about cities.

Research as design

In my first post I indicated that there is a common view that design relates to the look and function of something and is therefore associated only with physical or aesthetic qualities — objects of use, visual images — and that designers are people who only design those things and not that much else.

Designers themselves can strangely refer to their own research conducted as part of design as “design research”, as if research is done to inform design, and design is something sequential, that happens separately afterwards in its own particular space.

But that’s not what design is. Nor what research is for. Design is research — and analysis, conceptualisation and testing, all in one.

During undergraduate training in experiential, “learning-by-doing” learning (after David Kolb8), a cycle involving concrete experiences, reflective observations, abstract conceptualisations and active experimentations, I soon became aware of the relevance and applicability of information to the process of learning and problem solving (and design).  “So what, now what?” was a saying heard around the studios, as colleagues challenged merely producing information and sought to assimilate real-world problem-situation-generated findings — in order to be able to conceptualise ideas that could be tested back in the real-world. “Converting data into information” was another favourite. In process, research/learning/design combined a continuing “recursive” flux among the four essential activities: (i) finding out in the concrete (observing/reflecting), (ii) finding out in the abstract (thinking/ assimilating), iii) taking action in the abstract (synthesising/ modelling/ inventing), and (iv) taking action in the concrete (acting/ accommodating).9 The whole “scientific” process (as distinct from scientific method but incorporating it as required) was in fact design. The essence of the methodology was informed by and intended for real-world situations.

How is this relevant?

Firstly, research which is intended to inform should first frame what it is that is to be informed — in concrete terms. In that way, research is assured of meeting the demands of what it seeks to enquire into and ultimately influence. To recall another saying from undergrad days, by psychologist, Kurt Lewin, “There is nothing so practical as good theory.”10 Research into cities, therefore, needs to frame just what cities are and how they exist, that they may provide insights and impetus for meaningful intervention.

Secondly, by thinking of research as part of a learning/design process, responding to the concrete and taking action in the concrete, the scope of research is potentially extended to address the political circumstances of cities which otherwise stand in the way of pure research reporting and need to be negotiated in effecting any change. The extension of research from “finding out” (and the generation of theoretical or propositional knowledge) to “taking action” (and the generation of practical knowledge) generates what Richard Bawdin refers to as experiential knowledge.11 The whole process (and challenge of addressing cities) is, in fact, one of design: the process required needs to be just as concerned with the nature of decisions as it is the nature of the content that is to be decided. Research, in the context of cities, is a vital part of that design because it needs to be considered as design. And, as highlighted in my previous post, “good design tells the truth”.12

Understanding cities

In the About section of my website I outline the abstract nature and arbitrariness of the use of the term city. I indicate that what is really of consequence is the urban — that which happens among people — and that the urban is not physically or geographically defined. Through this attention on citizens and their levels of commercial and cultural exchange, the city as place — as adopted in the Social Cities report — can be understood to be their material evidence.

It follows, then, that seeking improvement in how citizens exchange, from a social standpoint, would best be facilitated through research into the very forms of exchange, not through the evidence of that exchange. And this is not least because research would deal with subject matter, but also because the physical built environment which is the subject of most of the research’s identified social ills — and its answer to them — would be seen as a product of exchange in the political economy of place.

Because the built environment is not an appropriate starting point for addressing social concerns, the built environment professions — planning, architecture, and urban design, as we know them — are not appropriate professions to look to for dealing with them. As Pritzka award-winning renowned Dutch architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas has said: “People can inhabit anything. And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. Architecture has nothing to do with it.”13

What is noticeably absent from the report is any focus on the industry within which planners, architects and urban designers “planning” and “designing” places and buildings work. These professions merely support their particular industry of the political economy — the one responsible for delivering the places we visit and the buildings we inhabit. Notwithstanding the lack of attention on these processes, the entire development process whilst ever remaining focused on simply providing places and buildings — even ones considered to be good, friendly and social — cannot deliver the broader forms of social wealth required of sustainable communities. For the best proof of this we could look to naturally developed city events of an extremely unsocial nature. As reported in The Guardian, no amount of urban regeneration through refurbishments to housing estates in the UK, for example, could address the deep social and economic concerns of their communities, or prevent riots from occurring in their neighbourhoods.14

The critical challenge, then, is not how the city as built environment should be planned or designed to make better conditions for social friendliness and neighbourliness — a paradox in current development processes anyway — nor how developers might better build better, more social places and buildings, but how better defined social (and economic, environmental and health) outcomes, broadly, for community, can define more diverse and appropriate economies for generating the social outcomes sought — and broader forms of community wealth, too.

The design cities need

If the city is appreciated as citizens and their levels of commercial and cultural exchange, not buildings, streets and parks, and if research into improving social relations focused on citizens’ values of friendliness and neighbourliness, then their particular methods of exchange in the political economy would be an ideal and rich subject for research.

The subtitle of a report on Social Cities, in The Australian, states the Grattan Institute report claims Australia’s urban planning too often emphasises productivity and sustainability at the expense of friendliness and community.15 Despite the appearance that this might be the case, the critical issue here, as urban strategist Ingo Kumic has identified in email exchange with me, is, “That it’s not that planning emphasises productivity and sustainability at the expense of friendliness and community, it’s that planning doesn’t recognise friendliness and community as an important tactic in achieving productivity and sustainability.”16

In other words, it’s not whether our physical settings are socially conducive or not, or whether our economies responsible for those settings can create more friendly conditions. It’s whether community values can select and drive particular forms of commercial and cultural exchange to attain more social, sustainable ways of life.

As Wouter Vanstiphout highlights in his piece in BD online, in response to the UK’s recent riots: “… urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. The city has become a tool to achieve goals, political, cultural, economic or even environmental.”17 [Or social.]

The vital and missing research and discussion in relation to our cities is one of politics and community and the overall economies encouraged by them. “Cities”, “social”, and “social cities” are just names. There’s the irrefutable sweet smell of Juliette’s rose, and the beautiful sweet exchange of roses among people; and then there’s the production of roses to get that smell. But the question of roses in relation to cities must extend to — indeed penetrate — just how they are to be produced, broadly, within society: How would the production of roses embody social aspirations of community more broadly defined than by the desired smell or the ritualised exchange of the rose itself, that the enjoyment of roses through smell and gift may be sustainable?  That would be a conversation not limited to horticulture, but one inclusive of concepts of local and connected communities, home, work, travel and the environment.

Applied to the content of the Grattan Institute report, desirable and friendly places and buildings must not been seen as objectives in themselves. Nor should the processes of their creation be seen as potential solutions. Better places and buildings do not make better societies; and designers, government agencies and developers of places and buildings — in so far as they are developing just places and buildings — cannot bring about better societies. Better societies are created through the full gamete of society’s political economic undertakings.

It is one thing to recognise the outcomes we seek in our cities are a result of their productive capacities, but we need to enact those capacities through the values of community. Hovering above roses, it is clear the real value of bees is not in the honey they produce and we enjoy to taste, but in their productive ability to pollinate the world’s crops that we might indeed eat at all. But even then, their productive capacity is at the mercy of the hands of political economy and the impacts of urbanisation arising from it. How, then, could ideals of food provenance and quality and security, for example, determine approaches to broader economies and ways of life that conserve bees — and human life itself? Applied socially and more broadly, just how can social aspirations (as well as economic, environmental and psychic) be constructs for the determination of economies that are productive in social and broader forms of wealth?

The question for cities in relation to seeking social outcomes is really whether social values can be clearly defined and upheld as ideals to live by, and through. And that’s a challenge of design. Not the design of cities, places, buildings or even economies, but design of politics and community futures first.

1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliette, Penguin Books (Middlesex), 1967.

2. Kelly, J-F.; Breadon, P.; Davis, C.; Hunter, A.; Mares, P.; Mullerworth, D.; Weidmann, B., Social Cities, Grattan Institute (Melbourne), 2012.

3. Richard Weller, book review, Landscape Architecture Australia, No/129, Architecture Media (South Melbourne), February, 2011.

4. Ibid.

5. As quoted by Robert Nelson, The Space Wasters: The architecture of Australian misanthropy, Planning Institute of Australia (Carlton), 2011.

6. Grattan Institute Website: www.grattan.edu.au/home.php

7. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., (unsourced).

8. David Kolb, The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual, McBer and Company (Boston), 1976, as documented by Richard Bawdin, 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.

9. 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).

10. Kurt Lewin, (unsourced).

11. Bawdin, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled, op cit.

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

13. Rem Koolhaas, Tweet via @remkoolhaas.

14. Lynsey Hanley, “Invisable force-fields surround our estates”, The Guardian, Comment is free, 11 August, 2011.

15. Stephen Lunn, “Town planning hastening the slide to isolation”, The Australian, 27 March, 2012.

16. Ingo Kumic, pers comm., March, 2012.

17. Wouter Vanstiphout, “Back to normal?”, bdonline.co.uk, 11 August, 2011.

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