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Mark McClellend - The Argument for Better Development Process

“We see a profoundly and rapidly changing operating environment for governments and developers. People are just not going to be ignored, and they’re not going to accept poor consultation processes.” Mark McClelland, Principal and Creative Director at Cultural Capital.

The most recognisable characteristic of Australian urban development is the adversarial nature of its process.

Every day brings highly publicised media stories of infrastructure projects and developments mired in conflict; bogged down in disputes between competing interest groups.

In Sydney alone examples best known for the controversies that surround them include; Wesconnex, the Lightrail Program, Crown Barangaroo, the Balmain Tigers site, the Waterloo Eveleigh project and residential developments across the city. For media consumers these controversies make interesting stories but for the people involved they’re disastrous. 

The damage from poor development process spreads out like a toxic bloom, taking in residents, interest groups, developers and their representatives, politicians and media. It’s incredibly wasteful; burning time, money and energy.

When things go really wrong developments become stalled, at high cost, as entrenched interest groups harden their positions and opposition to one another. In the contemporary urban landscape where development is inevitable - the very nature of cities implies constant building and renewal - we must find ways to minimize this pain. But until we develop much better engagement processes that enable differing voices in the community to find their common ground, the pain is going to increase. It’s going to become chronic.

What’s required is truly effective engagement across all interest groups right through the development process - from the very start to the very end.

As an organisation concerned with art and creativity in urban development, we need to ask: can art contribute here? Well; yes it can.

For fifteen years I built and ran a business which relied on artists and designers to deliver community to big global brands like Porsche, IBM, Nike, Nissan and Hyundai. All those companies wanted to produce what we now call community and tribe around experience and engagement – and it always needed to be done rapidly. What I learned in that time directly informs the urban development environment in which I now work.

Leveraging from that experience, and the capabilities we’ve built delivering art and creativity in the development realm, we’ve created a process called Cultural Mapping to provide a better engagement methodology for urban development.

Cultural Mapping blends best practice engagement techniques with art process, design thinking and strategic facilitation.

Within the Cultural Mapping framework, proven engagement methodology is enhanced with the creativity and insight that comes from art practice; the empathy of design thinking and the healing nature of strategic facilitation. The process brings disparate community voices together, allowing groups with opposing views to find and value the things they have in common rather than those that divide them.

Cultural Mapping delivers a methodology for communities to engage in the co-design of their own places and futures. It enables the unearthing of deep cultural threads that underlie place and create meaning that galvanizes the community around that place. Cultural Mapping is a process authored to suit current urban development – it’s designed for now and available now.

Recently, I took this a step further. In a focused session over two days in London I was joined by a small, high-level group of thinker/practitioners in the urban development space to look into the future of development and how its engagement processes will need to evolve.

We see a profoundly and rapidly changing operating environment for governments and developers. The increase in democratized participation facilitated by social media leads to greater need for project validation from affected communities. People and communities are becoming quicker to form interest groups and increasingly sophisticated users of the media that makes their voices really count. People are just not going to be ignored, and they’re not going to accept poor consultation processes.

Another way of saying this is that the cost of developers’ social license to operate is going to get much higher. Developers will encounter a continually increasing need for effective social contracts to do their work from the communities in which they operate.

As an output of our London Sessions we authored a process called Community-led development which sees the developer as a partner with the community in shaping the urban/cultural landscape. To do this well requires professional strategic facilitation as the glue that holds the process together, ensuring all voices are heard and considered and that common interests are given primacy over competitive tensions.

In Australia, the market needs to evolve in this direction, while in London for example, major developers like Lend Lease are already seeking ways for private companies to work with governments to achieve the best possible social outcomes from major developments like Elephant and Castle.

We foresee a time in the very near-future when it will be taken as a given that the way development gets done is via a process that affords the voices of the community equal weight with those of the developers’.

Developers can view this as an opportunity; those willing to explore the methods required to successfully engage with tomorrow’s communities will find themselves best-prepared for the future as it arrives. It’s simple competitive advantage. And they’ll get a direct and immediate pay-off; what they learn can be employed in today’s projects to reduce conflict, negative media and cost, right now.

This is an example of what Cultural Capital means by creative development. New ways to approach the shaping of the world we’re creating together; development by development, community by community, idea by idea. 

Mark McClelland - What Future for Public Realm?

“Modern project constraints require that buildings rise from the ground at breakneck speed. So developments created for literally thousands of people to live and work within that would traditionally have evolved over decades and centuries emerge almost overnight.” Mark McClelland, Principal and Creative Director at Cultural Capital.

It is universally understood that the quality of public realm determines the liveability of cities and towns. Accessible to all, public realm is the connective tissue of urban design, linking the individual elements of our built environment. Public realm comprises the everyday spaces where we often work, think, play, meet and socialise.

In the Sydney Morning Herald on June 22nd, John Landis, Professor of Planning at the University of Pennsylvania who’s been attached to Sydney University for the last six months, wrote about the quality of Glebe’s public realm “The big and little interconnected parks and reserves, the green byways, the small pedestrian alleys….all of these combine to make a neighbourhood that is comfortably liveable“.

Then he adds “Today’s large development projects are mostly lacking in such amenities. Unfortunately, in their rush to maximise the velocity of new development, the NSW government and many local councils are giving short shrift to public realm”.

We encounter diminishment of public realm daily. It’s a pretty phrase, but more often said than enacted. It’s as if no-one really cares about public realm beyond the abstraction and the requisite box-tick. I wonder if that’s because so few of us have experienced the lived benefits of good public realm.

I’m writing this from my home in Braidwood, in the southern tablelands of NSW, where, in a rural parallel to inner-city Glebe, our town’s public realm composes its cultural identity and defines our relationship to this place and one another.

Like many of the places in the world where we can feel most comfortable, Braidwood has evolved relatively slowly, at a human pace and scale in step with the culture that thrives here. Open spaces and laneways reveal themselves between the buildings, which individually reflect their functional purpose and the character of their creators.

Life is lived in the street here. The whole town is treated as public realm. It’s a common joke that a five minute walk to the supermarket often takes an hour on account of all the social exchange that take place along the way. People walk in and out of each other’s shops for chats and coffees, the café’s spill onto the street as does the hall on market day, the line between public and private space is permeable.

When I’m home in Braidwood, I wonder how to apply the lessons of this place to my work bringing creativity to contemporary urban development. In our modern approach to development, human scale can be lost in the quest for size and our techno-mechanistic ability to deliver it. And a human pace of development is not considered in any way desirable; instead modern project constraints require that buildings rise from the ground at breakneck speed. So developments created for literally thousands of people to live and work within that would traditionally have evolved over decades and centuries emerge almost overnight.

When entire contemporary built environments spring from the ground fully formed, seeking maximum return on investment, public realm loses out. It’s public – so it can’t be sold or leased. But recently, the NSW State Government made an interesting decision that offers hope. The government rejected all thirteen private sector proposals for the redevelopment of Rozelle’s historic White Bay Power Station in Sydney. Instead they plan to break the site down into smaller parcels and run a staged development process with different developers taking individual pieces of the project. Let’s hope this means that the texture and distinctive characters of individual approaches to each part of the site make it a place instead of a race, and allow public realm to flourish.

This mosaic approach to development creates an opportunity to define edge zones of public realm where the parcels allotted to individual developers meet. And, just as in nature where edge zones between ecosystems act as crucibles of fertility, these urban edge zones should be places in which we encourage diverse and less predictable things to happen. In these fertile and unpredictable public spaces, Undesign (the idea of places shaped more by their users than by external design professionals) can be given primacy; encouraging people to take ownership of the places they share, without the preponderate hand of the designer determining every bush, pebble and bench.

We won’t build another Glebe, or another Braidwood, and nor should we. Those places got started in the early nineteenth century and have evolved, little by little since. As a community of Australians, the requirements of our built environment are different now, and so are the methods available to us for creating them. But as humans, our needs haven’t changed so much; we still need space to share, to meet and talk, to play and to enjoy each other’s company. And we want to be able to play a role ourselves in bringing that public realm into being, so that instead of demonstrating the intention of a third party design professional, it reflects and supports the culture of our own community.