Last week I spent some time dipping into the Unlimited Design Triennial, a festival that promoted design thinking with presentations by diverse speakers including Bunker Roy, Mark Bennett, CJ Lim, Jeb Brugmann and many others. Design thinking remains somewhat diffused throughout this event – it seems like an open ended kind of plea for innovation and difference in problem solving. Sometimes, it seems, problem solving can simply reproduce the problem. Many of the speakers refer back to first principles – ask questions, listen, have conversations. I am heartened to hear this because such processes lie at the heart of my interest in cities and communities. This is part of a generative process – learn through interaction, research and doing – and focus on ‘critical smallness’. Designing means ‘doing things’ in a tangible way. It’s all about designing for people – though not in an abstract way – designing with people in mind or, even better, just design with people and connect people.
I participated in the Platform: Mobility workshop during which the participants formed small groups to reconsider the transport hub and develop ideas about how they can become facilities that afford a much better transport experience and energise a place. Some interesting facts are imparted by the workshop leader, Michael Trudgeon: 40% of the city is dedicated to mobility; 80% of public space is given over to movement. Consequently, he says, what goes on in mobility spaces influences the sense of the city. Transport systems need to mature into multimodal connected networks that provide optimal results.
My group focused on the bus station at Chermside, squashed into a corner of the Westfield Shopping Centre grounds. In setting up the site, one the facilitators describe the site as ‘isolated out there’. I refute that as an assumption – isolated isn’t the right description for a locale that’s a mere 10km from the city. Brisbane’s sense of distance has always been skewed.
Importantly, earlier in the session, Tony Fry put some questions to the group for considering the ecology of transport and movement:
- Understanding what moves
- When does it move?
- Why does it move?
- Does it need to move?
- Can we change the time of which things move?
Fry explained that he was concerned with slowing the city down and the transformative potential of transport for places and people. And this is a curious proposition because there is a strange and seemingly contrary relationship between cities and speed. On the one hand, the city operates at the speed of information, yet on the other, as density and walkability become urbanist realities, the city becomes more compressed – closer – and slows to the pace, rhythm and pleasures of walking and cycling. The street must move more slowly. In the suburban environment of Chermside, a sprawling kind of density is on offer, not quite in step or attuned. It’s not quite there – highrise apartments tower over that icon of car dependency, the shopping-centre-come-megaplex. It’s still disintegrated. Presence, sensemaking and mobility in this environment can be fraught and complex. If movement in a place is a type of interaction, then what sort of knowledge, self or culture is negotiated? Several student groups present projects that explore relationships between information and transport – for most of these projects the smart phone is part of the solution, for some it IS the solution. As a prescription this leaves me cold – what of the digital divide and other layers of exclusion? Who does that solution really serve? What does an inclusive and sustainable transport and information system look like – how can it be used as a catalyst for reknitting and renewing the fragmented social ecology of Chermside? Can the transport system be generous – give people space rather than take it away?
So, in our small groups, we don’t have much to work with and less than an hour to work with it – some local knowledge and a sense that it could be better, that it’s not performing ways that encourage use, that encourage generosity. We accept that we’ve make some assumptions and settle into a process of analysis based on those. The key points we covered included:
- We really want to talk to people about this, involve them in creating a space, networks and services that works for them.
- A centre in transition. City planning aims to hang a regional centre off concentrated retail activity within the typical large block pattern of outer suburban layouts. Recognition that the local area experiences high disadvantage (based on SEIFA); some level of social housing; high level of aged population with aged care facilities; domination by a large shopping centre which sucks the activity of the streets; car and highway domination; hospital and health precinct nearby.
- How sustainable is it? What about the structure itself and its own footprint?
- Concerns about the location of the transport hub – more connected to a private/commercial space than to public and community facilities. Is this really where community want to be?
- Lack of a sense of arrival. Reinforces the sense that people leave/flee the suburbs rather than move through and around as part of a network of movements and flows
- Can the transport connections be used to promote enhanced community connections – libraries, community centre, club and pool?
- The transport hub is woven into a larger web of transport connections – other shopping centres, other suburbs and train stations. Can negotiate linkages to Caboolture via Carseldine. Also connects to the city as it is located on the main arterial road – reinforces the radial nature of transport and mobility.
- Disconnections in transport modes. Shopping centre does not provide significant parking – so no real park and ride focus. Bike locker is disconnected and does not link to dedicated bikeways. Walking is uncomfortable – overwhelmed by highway. The space is always moving, burdened by traffic noise – no place for rest or quiet.
- The buses do not easily navigate the bus station – sometimes too crowded. When people wait for the buses, they are sitting next to full rubbish bins.
- If they go to the shopping centre, they enter via a side entrance which is a brutal and unwelcoming facade, negotiating buses and traffic to get there. Better people focused pathways.
- Needs greater engagement with community – need to connect the community to its locality and place; the bus station itself needs to welcome.
- Issues of access for young people – shopping centres don’t tend to be youth friendly – contested territories.
- Propose relocating the bus station closer to the community facilities cluster – easy walking distance to the shopping centre and situates the transit in a way that connects people in their community rather than to the private interests of a corporation
The most enjoyable and productive part of this workshop was the discussion itself. No one is really sure that this is design thinking but we do think we engaged critically and creatively with an issue to start developing an outcome intended to improved the experience in some way. We didn’t necessarily engage the questions that Fry posed in a systematic way either. Someone told me once that Chermside was a great example of social planning and urban design – I don’t see it. We do, however, hope we asserted a view that suburbs deserve better than domination by massive retail centres with community facilities struggling in peripheral and discarded sites. Such centres reproduce the problems of car domination and steal space from community by only providing conditional access to their private commercial realms in areas where the public realm is eroded. Suburban communities deserve better than the provision of services that seem to serve the commerical interests over and above the community in which they are located.
Since completing the workshop, I have read a handful of articles addressing issues of transport, suburban communities and poverty:
- Strained Suburbs: The Social Service Challenges of Rising Suburban Poverty
- As Suburban Poverty Grows, U.S. Fails to Respond Adequately
- Sprawl Repair: What It Is and Why We Need It
- Suburban Underbelly
While these articles refer to the American context, they bear a warning for us in this country, especially as suburban and exurban communities continue to expand and bear the brunt of transport and planning lags and gaps. Worse still, the city-centrism that continues to prevail in urban and service planning – it’s an ‘attitude’ that reproduces and upholds the idea that people in outlying areas can access services if those services are situated on centrally located transport hubs. This puts a mobility imperative and burden on those who live further out from the city.