By Trevor Boobyer, Associate Director – Landscape Architecture, Design + Planning

Hopefully, most people who pass through the projects I have helped to design in South East Queensland have no idea about the ups and downs that we went through to bring the vision to reality. In my opinion, the value of great design is its ability to embrace the complexity within a site and achieve an outcome that seems effortless.

I’m not suggesting this is the ultimate check list that all designers should follow, however these are my hard-won lessons, from successes and failures on many projects over many years. Projects including Southport Broadwater Parklands, Beenleigh Town Centre and the Mooloolaba foreshore as well as countless smaller neighbourhood parks and open spaces have all shaped my top four principles for designing complex public spaces:

1. Purpose. public spaces need to focus on people. They should be memorable and leave a legacy big or small. As designers we’re often aware of the physical and functional requirements of the space, although not the needs, wants and aspirations of the people using it. The coronavirus pandemic has brought the purpose of public open space into sharp focus. As our cities become denser, these places have become the ‘release valves’ for many, an extension of our back yards or units, and places to just ‘get out of the house’. Let’s not forget that hundreds of years ago, public parks were established in cities to serve a very similar restorative purpose.

2. Vision. A design that creates priorities and direction. I cannot overstate the value in using graphic illustrations to make the vision accessible to all. Over the years I’ve learnt that I must ensure that this is a truly shared vision, related to the collective purpose, and not my own personal vision being imposed on the site. These drawings are the designer’s opportunity to ‘ground’ the site, test and iron out the impractical and unworkable aspects. Successfully articulating the vision relies on being able to translate the purpose into the practical.

The Mooloolaba foreshore project came with a huge aspiration – to create the most beautiful and enjoyable foreshore along one of the country’s most iconic coastlines. Looking back, the success of that masterplan lay not in the evocative images we developed but in setting a vision built on clear direction and rigorous priority setting. (Although the drawings and renderings were beautiful!)

Early sketches can help clients and stakeholders to understand the end vision, but it’s the practical grasp on how the concept is going to be delivered that really counts, only then can you fully anticipate the larger issues you’re likely to face. This ability to anticipate the complex issues comes with experience and lessons learnt through collaboration with a diverse team.

3. Innovation & collaboration. Public places serve a broad spectrum of needs, many of which compete, and seem to have no obvious solution. Yet designers must negotiate this tension to create places that reflect the values and needs of the greater community and leave a lasting positive legacy.

Planning, designing and delivering the Southport Broadwater Parkland required a large collaborative AECOM team. We developed the master plan, project managed the project and executed a variety of engineering roles. The project was incredibly complex and required a range of innovative approaches.

However, these innovations had to coalesce and no one innovation could work alone, no matter how clever. A highly complex system of ground water flow through and under the all-sand site, was initially seen as a problem. However, it provided an excellent opportunity to bring a sustainable water source into the site. As the landscape architect in this team I developed ways of safely opening up a range of water areas and created a more memorable and stimulating visitor experience. We agreed on an inclusive design philosophy which helped unlock solutions no one profession could have done in isolation.

The design of public places is a balancing act and requires tenacity. Complexity underpins the design of our community spaces and design will evolve all the way to construction finalisation. The process can be difficult, time consuming and at times personally draining. However, when completed, it is immensely rewarding to see that these places are loved and cherished.

4. Custodian. The designer’s role is to orchestrate the place based on knowledge, experience and process. Designers shape and deliver places for others. We must never lose sight of how they will be experienced and the legacy they will leave to the community. To combat the threat of ‘design for design’s sake’, we should always start the design process with the end in mind – a successful, vibrant and lasting people-centred place – and use that to craft a powerful cohesive vision. We must create in consultation with the end users – people who may not understand the design process nor be familiar with the language designers use. We must inspire and advocate for great spaces while being responsive to the myriad of challenges and issues along the way.

Big or small, all cherished public spaces need to embrace complexity, from diverse cultural and social needs; competing commercial interests; physical, technical and operational challenges.

Great places are multidimensional, intricate and have been refined and shaped by many hands. As designers we need to ask ourselves, what is going to make people fall in love with this place? Where are the opportunities for people to connect, gather, and form bonds? How do we integrate the purposeful, elegant, enduring and flexible qualities that form truly great public places?

In my experience, if the designer and the broader team has a clear purpose, articulated into a vision that is accessible to all stakeholders and delivered by a multi-disciplinary team with a collaborative culture, then any complexity can be overcome to deliver the great public spaces our community deserves.

Trevor Boobyer is an Associate Director in the Landscape Architecture team at AECOM and is based in Brisbane.

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Banner Image – The Beenleigh Town Square Civic project is the culmination of a long term investment in planning and community capacity building and addresses a long standing dominance of the space by roads, cars and civil infrastructure. The Landscape Architects have delivered a civic space that reclaims the heart of Beenleigh and which meets local community needs for social engagement, celebrating local culture and identity. The project has enabled the community to hold markets, festivals and community concerts and significantly improved pedestrian connectivity, safety and equitable access. The project has become a catalyst for spontaneous and adaptive use of the space by the community and is a source of community pride and celebration.

(AILA QLD 2017 Civic Landscape Award jury citation)