Public participation in today’s communal affairs – most visibly, the dramatic new role of social media in unfolding news stories – has increased enormously in recent years and this leads us to question how the design industry is responding to the public’s growing expectation of direct involvement with the design process. This is especially relevant given that public spaces are required to respond to economic circumstances, site ecology and social and cultural connection, and to resolve ongoing site governance.
The language surrounding public engagement seems to be fraught with ambiguous and polarizing ideology, and our introduction to this issue of Landscape Architecture Australia raises more questions than it gives answers. Nevertheless, directly focusing on this topic allows us to corral thoughts on a subject that is full of complexities, in the hope of informing the contemporary design process.
Mae Shaw observes that the terms used in the realm of public engagement, such as “community” and “place,” have become infused with idealistic ambiguity and partisan political nuance.1 This ambiguity can be problematic unless the language of public engagement is clarified. For example, a “healthy community” is often politically portrayed as a group of people united in similar lifestyle ideals, class and/or socioeconomic circumstance. The same can be said of the word “place” (placemaking). These terms frequently refer to a glassy-eyed, media-driven view of communities notable for who and what is excluded or marginalized.
Developers often romanticize the idea of “community” by promoting aspirational scenes of middle-class, sanitized lifestyles, whereas an actual community cannot be nearly so neatly depicted. Communities are far more diverse, far messier and considerably more complex. They could be more objectively described as “a congregation” of people sharing an area defined by a particular spatial or environmental characteristic. In other words, communities are groups of people who share a physical proximity and connection to a place.
While generalizations may be made about shared aspirations, they can’t be said to describe a community. Essentially it boils down to “people” and “place.” For this reason, broader, catch-all terms for community such as “the public” or “the people” are used. The term “general public” can be broken down into subgroups such as citizens, stakeholders, interest groups, NGOs, cultural/ethnic/religious groups, generational groupings, and the list goes on.
This essay suggests that most design professionals still undertake a traditional design process that may include site analysis, a survey of client requirements and expectations, and possibly a shallow level of “public consultation” (often only informing certain members of the public about the already-agreed-on plan). These preliminary actions are then followed by studio-based documentation and implementation, and in this way the design process plays out literally behind closed doors. End users of the designed space awaken from their metaphorical slumber to be greeted by the day’s news spruiking the latest shiny development to be imposed on their town.
In his radio blog Public engagement and co-design for wicked problems,2 Dr Don Lenihan discusses facilitating broad public engagement given the complexities of implementing policy in the contemporary public realm.
… Traditionally policy (design) making in the public realm can be said to be a competitive process where within the power stakes there are winners and losers. The winners tend to be the policy makers (designers) who hold the power of decision whereas the loser tends to be the end user who is required to accept the (spatial) outcomes without the possibility of participating within the decision-making process.
Dr Lenihan proceeds to observe that the modus operandi of “command and control” is deeply entrenched in all levels of the professional and government systems. This traditional approach does not allow for complex public-sphere issues to be appropriately engaged with and holistically addressed. As such, the “command and control” approach to public matters is increasingly not being accepted by the general public due to a developing history of failure, misaligned expectations or recognized poor outcomes (also possibly due to a generational response to the Global Financial Crisis and mistrust in “the system”). If people are expected to accept decisions made from above, without information or the opportunity for personal engagement and meaningful feedback, the decision-making process will become a relic of the past.
In the the 2013 Urban Issue of Landscape Architecture Australia (No 137.) – the opening essay discussed landscape urbanism’s layered approach to comprehending the conditions of the city. Landscape is not understood as “scenic or cosmetic, but the ecological, social and economic field conditions of the contemporary city in all its mind-boggling complexity.”3 People’s connection to space is rich and complex and includes strands of individual and collective memory, history, culture, ownership, custodianship, production, aesthetic appreciation and so on. As such, the public realm can be understood as a tapestry of individual and incomplete narratives of the past, present and future. All associated spatial attributes begin to hint at the complexities of the myriad relationships embedded in the public realm.
Public engagement in design projects can have a similar immediacy and responsive quality, whether authorities and design professionals like it or not, due to the emergence of social media. With change, as always, there is opportunity. Landscape architects have the potential to offer some kind of stewardship to steer this process.
Lilli Licka’s essay “Landscape X-Periments – about landscape architectural design approaches”4 discusses this understanding of a dynamic landscape. “Landscape is not static but is a continuous process of alteration and development. As landscape architects we interfere in this process.” Dynamic landscape architecture is thus a continuous feedback loop between communities, decision-makers and designers, offering a robust solution that gives permission for a space to be interpreted and changed through ongoing public interaction, public governance and design processes.
This issue does not focus on why the landscape architectural profession should engage meaningfully in the public realm design process. It assumes that public engagement is now an expectation of contemporary society. It may take some time for traditional systems to meet this expectation of design engagement and an integrated, inclusive process. Necessity, however, always drives change.
1. Mae Shaw, “Community Development and the Politics of Community,” Community Development Journal, vol 43 no 1, Jan 2008, 24–36.
2. Dr Don Lenihan, Public engagement and co-design for wicked problems, Gov 2.0 Radio, May 11 2012, gov20radio.com/2012/05/public-engagement/ (accessed 23 May 2013).
3. Richard Weller, “The Urban Issue,” Landscape Architecture Australia no 137, Feb 2013, 12–17.
4. Lilli Licka, “Landscape X-Periments – about landscape architectural design approaches,” BOKU Vienna, 2006, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, rali.boku.ac.at/7672.html (accessed 23 May 2013).