By Jo Blackmore, Associate Director, Landscape Architect, Design + Planning

We live in a world dominated by technology. After living in the shadow of coronavirus for most of 2020 and managing the associated lockdowns and social distancing, I know I am not the only one who feels as though technology has only tightened its grip on our society.

It’s hugely important in these difficult times to have access to public spaces that are accessible, equitable and meet the needs of the whole community.  As designers we need to reflect on how these spaces can foster community connection in ways that we may not have considered before.

Community engagement is a vital part of this and needs to be accomplished in a way that allows real input into the design. However, now more than ever we need to be mindful of everyone during this process, and not bypass the quieter parts of our community – open space may well be more important to them than anyone.

Our approach to design needs to ensure that each element of the environment is finetuned to deliver the maximum value to the whole community. Good design is not generally any more expensive than poor design, but it takes more effort.

The diagram below shows how the more traditional landscape architectural design elements can be distilled into more holistic overarching principles that really focus on the community outcomes.

The GSC Greater Sydney Region Plan ‘A Metropolis of 3 Cities’: outlines key components of liveable cities including healthy, resilient and socially connected communities. Looking at those three aspects in more detail, it is important to consider the following when creating new public spaces for a community:

  • Healthy Communities: Physical activity means different things to different demographics, and the balance of organised sport versus informal recreation needs to uniquely respond to each community. Passive activities such as walking and cycling are hugely popular, especially in today’s environment – and opportunities for small moments to take notice of our environment shouldn’t be underestimated. Open spaces can have a big impact on mental health too – I think we’ve all experienced cabin fever from staring at a screen for too long. Being able to escape somewhere green and tranquil to decompress has certainly become an essential part of my day. AECOM’s recent project Wyndham Park, the first major public park connected to Werribee City Centre in Victoria, works hard to provide inclusive opportunities for many parts of the community. This natural riverbank environment integrates cycling, walking, running and exercise trails with event spaces, playgrounds and quieter seating areas.
  • Socially Connected Communities: Being in lockdown has confirmed how important social interaction is to most of the community. Large community gatherings, family celebrations or bumping into a neighbour at a local dog park – often-overlooked public spaces can help to facilitate these informal social connections. A friendly chat with someone in the park may be the only real social interaction some people have in a day. We must ensure we design our spaces with these possibilities in mind. I’m looking forward to seeing more community events like Googfest, hosted by Googong New Community in New South Wales early this year.
  • Resilient Communities: How are communities likely to change over time and are the places we create flexible enough to ensure they can evolve with the community? To serve the needs of a community we need to understand its social and cultural complexities and embrace its natural assets to create safe, green, shaded spaces and activities for everyone to enjoy.

As natural landscapes change over time and seasons, it may help to think of our landscapes in this way, encouraging flexibility and resilience through multiple user groups We must consider resilience to climate change, especially when the allocated open space is the result of ‘undevelopable’ land such as bushfire offset zones, flood zones or riparian corridors alongside a river or stream. As extreme weather events become more common, relying on these areas for usable open space may not be the best outcome for the community.

In summary, it is clear to most of us how important our open spaces are to our health and wellbeing and as designers we need to step into the shoes of the people we are designing for to ensure that we are doing the very best we can for them. This involves really listening and appreciating their problems, dreams and aspirations; if you can get them involved in the design process, even better!

We need to understand and communicate what a healthy, connected and resilient open space could mean in practical terms for them. There are many overlaps between what is good for a community, and what is good for the environment, and if we take a holistic approach to our design there is a better likelihood that we will create places that are cherished by the community for many years to come.

Jo Blackmore is an Associate Director, Landscape Architect in the Design and Planning team at AECOM and is based in Sydney.

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Banner Image – Wyndham Park, Victoria