This past August, two of us spent a total of four weeks in Australia, following a two week visit to Australia and New Zealand last year by Ethan Kent.  We view this wonderful part of the world as the hotbed of Placemaking and Place Management, as we have more than 1200 people who receive our email newsletters and many questions and visitors come from this part of the world.

Ethan Kent went back to Melbourne for two weeks, and I went to Perth, Stirling, Fremantle, Melbourne, The Gold Coast and Brisbane.  Between the two of us, we gave keynote speeches, presentations, and workshops, and became acutely aware of the key issues facing each community we visited.

Some general observations:
•    Every place we visited and every person we met with was extremely eager to learn how we understand and apply “Placemaking.” People were, without a doubt, the most receptive of anywhere.
•    Each region and city we visited has both strong public and private leadership, but noticeably lacks strong, visionary non-profits with citywide agendas.
•    The key issue in almost every community was the lack of great destinations.  Perth by its own account did not have any destinations within its downtown, but has great opportunities. Melbourne has four (Federation Square, the Queen Victoria Market, The Block Arcade and the Laneways), and Brisbane has their pedestrian mall and South Bank.
•    All of the major cities were dealing with waterfront development. None were satisfied with their progress so far.
•    Urban design, architecture, and landscape architecture firms are grappling with the idea of place and placemaking, but many think that it is just more thoughtful design. Urban designers are particularly sensitive and many feel they already do Placemaking. Design, like everywhere else, is overrated and underperforming when applied to important destinations.
•    The most difficult part of placemaking is dealing effectively with community participation. One government official in Perth realized after the presentation that “government could not do placemaking…only the community could.” Their role should be to set it up effectively for community participation.

Perth, Stirling, and Fremantle. Doing a workshop with the Committee of Perth, we had them do a “Power of 10” exercise.  Before the meeting, they listed their five best destinations, five worst, and five with the most potential. They then placed different colored dots for each category. Since I had only been there 10 hours, I had no comment. They were quick to assess their work by noting that there were no destinations built after 1950 and the suburbs developed after that point in time had very few potential dots. Downtown Perth had many exceptional opportunities. Fremantle, which is supposedly a waterfront city, has very little presence on the waterfront because a Port Authority controls it and does not consider the potential for a broad set of uses, defined by destinations, to be a priority. Instead they have proposed a shopping center with no local character as their contribution.

Melbourne. Without question, Melbourne has been the most active in seeking and realizing the vast potential of their terrific city. Their Federation Square is the best new square in the world and has extraordinarily broken through the glass ceiling of contemporary architecture where designers are more interested in defining their work as an object rather than as an active destination. This is primarily achieved by a strong professional management organization, but the design allows for the flexibility required for great destinations. However, like everywhere else, Melbourne does not have an effective way of drawing out their population, and many of their newest efforts are developed by designers with limited to poor results. Their waterfront is very weak and does not reach the high standards one would expect from such a great city. Lendlease is creating a private mixed use development on the Docklands with limited broader public appeal on the waterfront. Both Lendlease and the city will lose.

Gold Coast. The Gold Coast is one of the fastest growing parts of Australia and even has cities named Miami and Palm Beach, picking up on a similar subtropical setting on Florida’s east coast. They are undertaking a seminal project with light rail that would be the envy of coastal settings everywhere. Their sensitivity was evidenced by their eagerness to do a Placemaking exercise at one of their most prominent destinations. Like most transportation developments, they were focused on transportation oriented development but overlooked the context where each stop would be located. The opportunities revealed during the Placemaking exercised showed the importance of the integration. Creating a great destination, rather than just placing a transit building to identify a stop, was very exciting to the leadership group participating in the Placemaking workshop.

Brisbane. Brisbane has two “best in the world” examples of great destinations. Their pedestrian mall and the South Bank Development are world class examples of how to create great places. But Brisbane also has the worst traffic of any city in Australia and no vision on how to change it. They are on a fast track to stagnation unless they deal expeditiously with a different agenda than building themselves out with more road capacity. I thought that that era has long since passed. On the other hand, Brisbane has some wonderful examples of subtropical architecture that, when done effectively, best exemplifies our initiative of an “Architecture of Place.” The state library and many of the developments within the South Bank are wonderful examples of open architecture where the buildings are also public space integrated with the exterior environment. The only problem is that when you get to the outside of public spaces, over zealous design replaces the flexibility within the buildings.

The highlight of the trip was working with the design leader for Delfin Lendlease.

Five world class destinations
•    Federation Square, Melbourne, Australia
•    The Block Arcade, Melbourne
•    The Laneways, Melbourne
•    The Pedestrian Mall, Brisbane, Australia
•    South Bank Development, Brisbane, Australia
Others: Queen Victoria market Melbourne, State Library in Brisborne, Park in Perth

DIARY: Four weeks in Australia was last modified: March 6th, 2012 by Fred Kent
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