Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

IDEAS | UK Study Tour

by Linda Carroli

I’ve just returned from the UK where I completed an informal study tour, starting in Newcastle with the CABE Urban Design Summer School (UDSS) at Newcastle Gateshead. The main benefit of the UDSS was the interdisciplinary engagement across a range of built environment professions. Of the 130 participants, there were three other Australians, including Phil Follent, who has recently been appointed Government Architect. My participation in the UDSS was assisted with funding from the state government’s arts funding body, Arts Queensland.

As a consultant, working in community, cultural and urban contexts, the UDSS delivered some valuable insights into how different professions approach urban problem solving. It was a very rich experience with exposure to a variety of design ideas and methodologies including several from the non-profit organisations such as Groundwork and Living Streets.

The UK has made major investments in their urban environments and regional communities, which we are yet to see in Australia. Though many of the speakers commented that this is not enough. One of the highlights for me was the lecture by Ricardo Marini who is the City of Edinburgh’s urban design leader. “I’m fed up with designers being wheeled in at the end of the day to make a load of crap look pretty,” he declared.

Given Harbinger’s work in public art, we can sympathise. Artists can suffer the same fate in building and planning projects – coming in at the end rather than integrated into the planning and design process. Another observation from Marini was: “In the UK we don’t do masterplanning. We do development planning. They may be called masterplans but usually the designers are planning for a particular landowner and they are interested only in the area within the red line.”

Another highlight was architect Howard Liddell’s workshops on sustainability. He coined the term ‘eco bling’ to describe expensive high tech sustainability ‘solutions’. Instead, he advocates for ecominimalism, as a more simple design focused approach to building and design: “let’s design buildings with better science and less technology”.

He also lay down the gauntlet – “no more pilot projects including eco-towns”. It’s as simple as buildings need to get greener faster while also needing to stop being regarded as ‘special’ – it has to be the norm. Incidentally, Liddell has just released a book titled Ecominimalism: the antidote to eco-bling.

Many of the speakers throughout the school highlighted the importance of starting with public space rather than making public space out of the leftovers. They also foregrounded community engagement and consultation. If great design is about making a place for people, then this emphasis on community reinforced the idea that people going about their daily lives make the final call on a great place and great design.

My specific interest in this event was to engage more with design thinking. For me, designiing buildings and places is only part of the picture – we have to be applying design thinking and methodology to the whole process, designing consultation and ensuring that we get the most out of people. One of the other important points came from one of the other participants who commented that the better design was needed in the suburbs too. In general, urban design principles are drawn from and favour the inner cities while surburban and outer areas are at the mercy of poor planning decisions and sloppy design that leaves many suburbs unwalkable, overwhelmed by cars and unable to sustain a vital street and community life.

The UDSS was a delectable experience – and being held at the Hilton was a great bonus. Beautiful views of the River Tyne, sumptuous breakfasts, walking distance to the town centre and gorgeous institutions like the Baltic and Sage Gateshead. Since the end of the school, many people have stayed in touch via Ning and remain part of the UDSS Alumni.

After the school, I visited Manchester, where I explored creative industries and urban revitalisation, and then to London, where I was subsumed by the Festival of Architecture and Lift Festival.


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