In this opinion piece, Naomi Barun, AILA Victoria Jury Chair, shares her thoughts on this topic.
As we come out of yet another lockdown, I reflect on the past 12 months, and cannot do so without acknowledging the emptiness of our cities, the challenges in merging our work and home lives, and the uncomfortable distance between family and friends. However, this past year also saw changes in the way public places were valued and used in new, and sometimes, old ways.
Our local public spaces have been rediscovered, enabling new forms of connection and expression. They’ve become the backdrop for social exchange, exercise, and mental reprieve. This demand for locally accessible public spaces also saw privately managed open spaces repositioned. These external spaces were sought out as venues for organised gatherings and work meetings whilst our cities became increasingly reliant on public spaces to aid economic recovery. The acknowledgement over the past year that public life is critical to our mental and social wellbeing as well as the revitalisation of our cities and economy puts public spaces and as such the landscape architecture industry front and centre.
The pandemic has highlighted the strengths and vulnerabilities of our cities, stressing the need for our built and natural environment to deliver and drive fundamental social, environmental, and economic change. Despite all the challenges the pandemic delivered, it has presented a great opportunity for the industry to re-position itself, reinforce the value of public spaces, and highlight the increased need for investment to realise these benefits.
The observation of and increased commentary on the importance of public spaces reinforces what landscape architects have been undeniably aware of, connections to each other, the natural environment, and our cultural heritage is fundamental to the future of Australian cities. The industry is committed to generating opportunities and embracing the difficulties we face to provide spaces which serve the new economic and social needs of Australia’s communities in a post-pandemic environment.
Humans naturally look for connection and belonging. We want to know our place in our community, the world, and in time. A successful public space enables this connection in a way that embodies inclusivity, a feeling of comfort, and a little curiosity. This is not only achieved in how spaces are designed and constructed, but by how they are curated. Attributes of landscape architecture entails an application of scientific knowledge such as horticulture, materials, and structures, as well as an understanding of human behaviour. It is through this,
that practitioners curate spaces that enable those values to be transferred, shared and explored by people generally.
Central to the understanding of public space is the idea that a ‘sense of place’ is created through human interaction. Put simply, spaces become ‘places’ through the meaning that people ascribe to them. People form attachments to places which are fundamental aspects of our identity, a source of community and a sense of belonging. Places, and the connections, rituals and everyday life they support are a source of local identity and pride. This then has a flow on effect for social and economic benefits for a city or local area.
In more recent years we have seen landscape architects taking a greater role in contributing to the future of our city through participation in city shaping and precinct scaled projects. This has allowed for an integrated approach in embedding knowledge of human behaviour, environmental systems, materials and structures on a large scale. This will not only ensure our cities are planned and designed in a place-based way but also in a way that positions public life as central to the future resilience and success of our cities.
This success is also a testament to a growing collaboration between landscape architects, and other built environmental professionals as well as the increasing role we have taken in authoring major city planning documents. This has increasingly embedded the core values of the landscape architecture industry in these large-scale projects and important policy documents ensuring future success even in the absence of the hand of the landscape architect.
The best possible outcome for our public spaces is a broad ownership, an investment of not just money but time and care. Reflecting on my own experiences, it is rewarding to see a place being used differently to how it was originally conceived. To see people finding other ways to use a space in a way that evolves that meaning through a behavioural scribing, a nurturing that comes from everyday life. To know that you have curated a space that provides permission to engage and embed individual and collective meaning provides a feedback mechanism that informs future projects.
As an industry, we are fortunate to have bodies such as the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects to advocate on behalf of the design community and steer spaces in a new direction which will align with the new societal needs in a new COVID-world. Collectively, we need to further engage and educate those we partner with to make our collaboration early in the planning and development phase a priority moving forward.