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AILA National Conference presenter Fiona Robbe, specialist in designing for children

2017 AILA Conference – The 3rd City

November 28, 2017

By Andrew Partos 

The 2017 Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) ‘Festival of Landscape Architecture’ conference was held at the Sydney Passenger Terminal over 3 days in Mid-October.

AILA’s conference theme was the ‘Third City’. This theme was both vested in the emerging Sydney metropolitan typology: a ‘third city’ being built across the Cumberland Plain beyond Sydney’s west – extending to the banks of the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers (and an adjunct to Sydney’s first and second cities centred on the CBD and Parramatta respectively). It also invited a commentary on cities of the future – the role of landscape architects in imagining and creating cities in the future.

Presentations from an outstanding range of local and international academics and (importantly) practitioners, seem to channel their focus into transport oriented design (TOD) and water management in response to climate change.

Rod Simpson – the Environment Commissioner for Sydney who debunked the real-estate developer driven approach to city creation. In deference to Jane Jacobs, he reminded us that cities were traditionally walkable, mixed use places – reflecting the economic necessity of a pedestrian community rather than a response to top-down planning. Contemporary city design is more often a reflection of transport and road planning anchored by retail centres. We often call these TOD’s – but are they just another of a long list of ‘orthodoxies’ that set ‘rules’ about how people should live? ‘New Urbanism’ and ‘Aerotropolis’ were also cited as other orthodoxies requiring critique. Rod emphasised that cities are not naturally hierarchical, but better reflect the pattern networks espoused by Christopher Alexander. Importantly, it is the public domain – in particular the road spaces – that bind cities together. The overarching principle should be walkability. Rod raised the notion of ‘adaptive capacity and resilience’ as essential to ensuring cities remain sustainable into the future. In response to the tendency towards ‘hyperconcentration’ maximum supermarket footprints are now considered as current best practice, a strategy now being adopted in the ACT.

UNSW Professor Rob Freestone focussed on Western Sydney, and the ‘superficial urbanology’ of projects based on the ‘hyper-specialisation of one objective’. (I kid you not!). Rob critiqued Aerotropolis as a catalyst for city creation, reminding us that the economic success model required the closure of the existing Sydney airport. He emphasised that ‘Aerotropolis’ was in fact a marketing machine – trademarked by an international company and charged with a creating a global network of matching vibrant aero city franchises. ‘Success’ would likely be a logistics park. Despite the efforts of GAAM (the Global Anti-Aerotropolis Movement), speculation by developers is rife, and a single runway airport has full political commitment. Professor Freestone’s talk identified the folly of relying on single-vision mega-projects as a catalyst for good city design. They aid in local land speculation, but in creating fine grained walkable cities, they are an abject failure.

Professor of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic, Melissa Cate Christ shifted the focus to South East Asia. Forming an essential component of the pedestrian street network, stairs around Hong Kong Central are vibrant active spaces regularly used by local residents as both thoroughfares and public gathering spaces. Her presentation focussed on the opportunity stairs provided in creating places for events, festivals and other activities.. In creating effective spaces for people, their engagement in the design process was essential, although in Hong Kong, this often proved culturally difficult.

Toronto based Professor Nina-Marie Lister refocussed the discussion around blue and green infrastructure, and indeed the importance of waterways to city health. A committed ‘biophiliac’, Nina-Marie reminded us of the importance of waterways in creating biological health within urban environments, and also their role in the creation of simply ‘beautiful places’. Libby Gallagher suggested that as 32.5% of Sydney’s land area consists of streets, these are the places where the greatest difference can be achieved. Her PhD research found that a mixture of large trees had the greatest effect in mitigating the impact of Climate Change in suburban environments. In developing strategies for street tree planting in western Sydney communities, Libby emphasised the importance of engagement with the local residents to achieve a successful outcome. Whilst most residents are reticent about planting large trees along their streets, once taken on the journey through the design process, residents revise their expectations and often assume ownership of the outcomes. No surprises there!

Amy Hahs spoke on urban ecology. Cities cover only 3% of the earth’s surface, but host more than 50% of its population. Yet, surprisingly, they feature hot spots of biodiversity, small forgotten spaces containing the only remnants of the past, original landscapes. Her presentation continued a theme of biodiversity, emphasizing the important role small urban open spaces have in providing habitat, human comfort and climate change resilience.

Professor Hillary Brown brought the latest trends in stream and water management from New York. Themes of stream protection, water cleaning and reuse and community resilience re-emerged – although I could not help but think that New York’s ‘latest and greatest’ appeared very similar to work we were accustomed to twenty years ago such as kerb-side rain gardens, water treatment ponds and 3rd pipe reticulation.

After numerous presentations ranging from despair to hope, Harvard based Canadian, Dr. Pierre Bellanger angrily presented a thesis that re-asserted the importance of defying rules and regulations and governments’ urge to control humanity. His presentation was both confronting and whimsical – ranging from the power of mining company goliaths, colonialism, and the mistreatment and ongoing disempowerment of local communities and in particular, indigenous people. The day’s presentations concluded with a confronting video from the Venice Biennale capturing 400 years of Canadian exploitation.

University of Washington Professor, Jeff Hou, continuing the theme of revolt and revolution. He argued that the ‘Guerrilla City’ was essential for successful urban spaces – places that people could occupy and modify in ways never anticipated by their creators. Skateboarders in Seattle, Filipinos in Hong Kong and busking bands in Tokyo illustrated local communities taking ownership of public open space in defiance of local rules and regulations.

Fiona Robbe, specialist in designing for children, implored us to avoid paternalism and conjecture in designing children’s spaces. Despite expectations that children’s responses are often fanciful and misguided, Fiona’s presentation illustrated that with appropriately targeted questioning, children are adept in providing thoughtful and insightful answers. These can considerably enhance design solutions tailored to their needs.

Landscapology’s Amalie Wright took us back to waterway restorations. Based on a project in southern Queensland, Amalie’s presentation was a hilarious debunking of the myths and agendas around contemporary landscape practice. She re-asserted the importance of high quality stream restoration, but questioned the role of councils, stakeholders, cities, project managers, standards and detailed briefs in the process. The role of the Landscape Architect, she asserted, was to prepare a deeper brief, one that actually sought to achieve an enduring outcome for the city, not one devised to meet the KPI’s of local council staff.

Mia Lehrer, a Los Angeles based practitioner discussed the landscape issues facing Los Angeles. With a greater metropolitan area of 18 million people, water has been, and continues to be LA’s greatest problem. The practice has embarked on formally de-engineering kilometres of concrete waterways flowing through the city centre, creating an extensive city park network. Despite pursuing innovative initiatives revisioning Los Angeles as a non-car dependent city, Mia reminded us that the city still suffers from a homeless population of 250,000 people.

Dutch landscape architect, Jan van der Grift spoke about the Rhine Delta in the Netherlands and the efforts being undertaken to accommodate rapidly increasing high water marks in response to climate change. The work exemplified the successful integration of land owners in working with the landscape architects and local governments in developing multi-faceted solutions that ensures their livelihoods, whilst accommodating the regular recurrences of inundation.

The conference was closed by Helen Lockhead who beautifully summarised each of the presenters, including the dozen or so I failed to mention.  The conference reemphasised well established principles of Landscape Architecture and how these can and should be applied to city design. The conference avoided the Anthropocene despair of the 2016 AILA National conference, presenting a mostly hopeful response to the planet’s future. But there were no new ‘aha!’ insights or new agendas. The strength of the conference was the commitment to large scale projects, skilfully delivered with an emphasis on community engagement. Business as usual – keep up the good work!

This article first appeared on LinkedIn. Andrew Partos is a Principal at Hansen Partnership. You can email him here.

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