Considering ‘Creating Places for People: An urban design protocol for Australian cities’

Creating Places for People: An urban design protocol for Australian cities is a document that feels nice and manageable to hold (you can download an electronic copy here). The heavy weight, non glossy paper has the slightly speckled look of recycled paper (which it is), and the cover is similar but a slightly heavier cardboard. It is a thin, smaller than A4, document, which has been printed in landscape and bound with a fold and two staples. Most of the text is black, but throughout colour is used for parts of headings, dot points and diagrams, with the main colour theme being blue and green. There are three full page colour photographs featuring action shots of people in three different award winning projects aroundAustralia. Just like four of the five smaller images on the front cover, these images are not referred to in the text. The fifth image on the front cover is a larger version of the ‘town/district’ illustration used in a diagram outlining the ‘national to site level’ of scale contexts.

The first part of the title of the document, Creating places for people is in itself interesting. The primacy of human needs is first and foremost, which is hardly surprising, but the active stance of ‘creating’, the approach to looking at ‘places’ rather than just buildings, and I choose to read into the word ‘people’ not just humans, but ones that are socially embedded.

That it is an urban design protocol for Australian cities seems to make sense in such a highly urbanised country. Furthermore, we seem to have some obsession with splintering urban and rural/regional research (and then remote ATSI communities are a whole other story), so I guess a blanket ‘Australian design protocol’ would be out of the question. However, it seems I misread what counts as ‘urban’ or a ‘city’, as the ’12 broadly agreed principles… can be applied to any project or location – whether it is in a large capital city, regional centre or rural town.’ (1).

In the foreword the protocol is described as ‘a collective commitment to best practice urban design’ which ‘is the result of two ears of collaboration between peak community and industry organisations, and governments at all levels.’ (iv) Indeed, the list of organisations involved does include the Australian Government, state government architect offices, Property Council of Australia, and others including the National Heart Foundation of Australia (v).

As for the content of the protocol itself, they certainly managed to meet what I would think of as being any vague ‘broadly agreeable’ criteria. People using spaces is an aim, and there is specific mention of respecting ‘the needs and aspirations of the community that lives and works there’ (9). There is mention of cultivating ‘cohesive + inclusive communities’ (7). As I am not used to reading diagrams it took me a few minutes (and moving onto the next page to work out that it is part of the definition of one the ‘five pillars, Liveability, which the ‘twelve basic principles’ are ticked off again (8).

Liveability is dealt with primarily through ‘design principles about people’ (comfortable, vibrant, safe, walkable), although it apparently also has a lighter grey tick against some of the ‘design principles about place’ (enhancing, connected, diverse), and one of the ‘principles about leadership and governance’ (engagement) (8). I was most interested in the ‘connected’ principle, which is defined as, ‘Connects physically + socially.’ (8). However, I was not too surprised in a design protocol that the ‘Attributes-How it helps to achieve world-class urban design’ did not include any mention of fostering connections between people.

In conclusion, while the document does appear to be something that you would expect to find broad agreement on, there are clearly some very big claims about people and places in this document. It is not necessarily a bad thing that such a document makes claims, just if I was to unpack it far enough to actually start to discuss the politics behind the protocols I would probably come across as being more than a bit of a tosser.

P.S. The little icons used throughout the report are sort of cute and do make it easier to see where each box in the summary (Appendix A) was drawn from in the report, but who decided that ‘comfortable’ would be a girl with pigtails holding hands with a man, who is holding hands with a woman, who is holding hands with a boy in shorts?

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