Last week, I met with John Mongard, a Brisbane-based landscape architect and urban innovator, who has been running a practice for about two decades. As a practitioner who approaches design and landscape from a culturally enriched and environmentally responsible perspective, he has consistently worked with communities to realise dynamic and liveable places and spaces. Mongard is deeply reflective in his approach to the integration of design, community and environment and critical of the way in which normative consulting practices can have a corrosive impact on urban development: “the conventional consultant fee structure and current neo-rational economics collude with this uni-dimensional design process to create a paradigm for an impoverished public realm. [Consultants] deliver what the market wants – fast landscapes at expedient prices and with an impassive cultural dimension, if any.”
I first became aware of Mongard’s work through discussions about the Community Environment Art & Design program of the Australia Council in the 1990s. The program was established in 1989 to “provide opportunities for communities to express their cultural identity through the arts by encouraging artists, designers and communities to work together developing links between the cultural life of communities and the quality of their physical environment”. As I recall, the program ceased in the late 1990s having spawned many placemaking and community engagement projects founded on community cultural development, participatory design and cultural citizenship principles. Providing evidence of the value of collaborative placemaking, the program was perhaps the precursor to many integrated public art programs administered by local and state government. Mongard has worked on seven CEAD projects and through these projects he developed ways of working with people in place to develop strategies to realise a place specific future. Many of these are documented on his website. Through these kinds of community engagements, Mongard developed the ‘set-up shop’ which continues to underwrite his practice. Setting up shop means occupying space in the community (such as an empty shop, or setting up a footpath stall) and talking to the community, using a variety of methods for visualising and narrating. For example, the set-up shop process in the Town of 1770, North Queensland, for developing a boardwalk along the foreshore took place in marquees in which the consultants camped, met and workshopped the project with local people on site. In the photographs Mongard showed me, the set up had an indescribable immersive intensity. Ideas of writing place, talking place and making place are embedded in the process.
The projects which we discussed at some length were the Currumbin Ecovillage and a pro bono speculative project he is presently undertaking with the West End Community Association to develop ‘Hampstead Common’, both of which require/d some significant regulatory or standards change before they could/can be realised. Moreover they also require some change in attitude – a cultural change – in order to enliven new approaches for urban development. The Currumbin Ecovillage draws further on ideas Mongard developed for a pamphlet he produced in 1996 with funding from the CEAD program. The pamphlet presented arguments about suburban settlement patterns that we have increasingly heard with ever more urgency over the past decade: this pattern of development is not sustainable and that there is a better alternative. Such alternatives should start becoming mainstreamed. While the Currumbin Ecovillage wins awards for sustainable design and is upheld as exemplary by industry and government, less sustainable sprawling developments continue to be the norm in cities and regions alike. Exceptions can be developments such as the Pimpana Coomera Water Future development which has set new standards for water use and harvesting, perhaps pre-empted in part by Mongard’s earlier work in the area.
The 1996 pamphlet, co-authored with Architect Caroline Stalker, was produced as part of a collaboration with the Coomera Valley Progress Association and addressed the possibility of an environmentally friendly village. In the pamphlet, Mongard explored the problem of spreading suburban development encroaching on environmentally and agriculturally valuable land and through workshops with the local community developed some values and principles for development. These values and principles articulated an alternative type of settlement pattern that would contain the spread and enable living with the environment, ensuring environmental values are retained while designing for linkages, flexible travel modes and sociability. The Gold Coast Council indicated its support for the aims of the project at the time of publication.
Concept plan for a village neighbourhood at Upper Coomera
The pamphlet was distributed around the community and, by chance, it was picked up by the developer ultimately responsible for the Currumbin Ecovillage who commissioned Mongard for the project. He worked for nearly a decade to realise it as the design team tested various standards and regulations. Mongard described the process as waiting for “the decision makers to catch up” given the breadth of the development’s sustainability measures, ranging from composting toilets and water harvesting to densities and mixed use. Mongard has documented this process in his own writings, and the project is also well documented online, including a Wikipedia entry.
As a long term resident of the inner city suburb of West End, Mongard said that he was interested to see what he could do with (or for) his own community and is currently working on pro bono projects to seize local opportunities for ‘feeding, greening and caring’. His concern is that planning and design are being done to the community rather than with the community which is clearly frustrated by the disengagement of both local and state government in (non-)planning for population growth, stating that no vision or funding for new green or sustainable infrastructure has been forthcoming. While density increases significantly, there are no additional provisions for open space. In response to this disengagement, the community has decided to run with its own vision: “We can show how our community can invent Feeding/Greening/Caring solutions for itself, just like it always did in the past. West End can continue its transformation, but with sustainability and community at its core.”
Hampstead Road, West End
Under the feeding/greening/caring mantle, Mongard is presently working on a proposal to transform Hampstead Road into a ‘common’ that returns some of the bitumen road to the community through greening. The Hampstead Common is a response to the growing population of the area (due in part to increasing densities in redevelopment projects particularly on industrial land) and the need for more green space. Lined with beautiful aged shade trees, Hampstead Road is an unnecessarily and wastefully wide street that Mongard believes can be reduced to less than 60% of its current footprint while remaining two lanes wide with driveway access and parking space. This would mean reclaiming 40% for social, growing and recreational uses.
In April, after a local area letterbox dropped invitation, over 25 local residents and business people attended a design workshop at the Lookout Park on Dornoch Terrace. Mongard reported that the main emerging themes included an edible garden park and the creation of a community destination place. As the name implies, Hampstead Common will be a place for meeting not just a road to pass through. Other ideas from the workshop included the planting of groves of fruit trees and productive plants in pocket parks and water harvesting for gardens (you can imagine the water gushing down the hill during our dramatic summer storms) as well as activities for children. He stresses the need to find ways of growing food locally and re-establishing local food networks. Informally, he mentioned that the Queensland streets manual have expressed interest in including this project as an exemplar of street retrofitting.
It’s no surprise that Mongard has been able to develop ideas that stick when he collaborates with communities by working with them in place. His processes, as values led, draw people into a space of visioning and aspiration. More importantly, they become embedded in community memory as positive and affirmative experiences. It’s not just the design of a place that matters, it’s the way in which it has been designed that is also the stuff of meaning or significance. Recently, while attending a meeting at a city council, a community engagement officer spoke effusively of the way in which Mongard’s set up shop drew people into the redesign of the main street. These planning and co-design processes become part of memory, becoming embedded in a community’s narrative of itself, not just the tool for planning or design. In another, almost guerrilla, initiative, Mongard is investigating the sustainability of development applications for projects in the local area, particularly those that are encroaching on the inner urban fabric. The objective is to suggest how those proposals can be improved. These projects exemplify how designers can marshal new energies for change by simply being present in their communities and in their projects. Through this assertive agency, they can direct their practices towards more critical spheres as facilitators and changemakers. Both the Upper Coomera and Hampstead Common projects have enabled communities to speculate and deliberate through design and to establish an alternative set of expectations about how we should or could be living.