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  • Conceptual drawing from the George Street Living Room by Nicola Balch and Albert Quizon – the winning entry in the ULI 2015 Urban Innovations ideas competition ‘George Street 2020’. The ‘living furniture’ and the ‘smart carpet’ give a feedback system in which ideas about our urban spaces could be designed, implemented, analysed and refined over time
Intervention Placemaking meets tactical urbanism in a CBD innovation proposal. Text: Nicola Balch
George Street Living Room
Intervention Placemaking meets tactical urbanism in a CBD innovation proposal. Text: Nicola Balch

Placemaking is a strategic process guided by local communities and grounded on ownership. Success lies in a project’s ability to strategically combine analysis with the knowledge and aspirations of a community into a shared vision for a given place.

Tactical urbanism, on the other hand, achieves maximum short-term impact by being flexible, cheap and achievable. While the implementation of these initiatives may be low cost, considerable investment in proper consultation processes is needed to drive them. In many cases participating consultants working on these projects can be poorly paid or they may rely solely on volunteers. It is easy enough to quantify the aesthetic and the product but how do we also quantify the importance of these processes?

Last year, the Urban Land Institute Asia Pacific Chapter launched its inaugural Urban Innovations idea competition ‘George Street 2020’. The brief was to deliver an innovative proposal for George Street once the light rail and pedestrianisation had taken hold. Albert Quizon and I were lucky enough to offer the winning scheme and it was these ideas that became the key driver for our submission. Our aim was to offer a democratic public space for the city that delivers a variety of social infrastructure types that create diversity. As a benchmark, we selected the two user groups to which cities are infamously hostile: children and the less mobile. We aimed to balance the impermanence and testing that are fundamental to tactical urbanism with the authenticity and ownership achieved by real placemaking, and at the same time adding significantly to the social infrastructure of the street.

2015 was a prolific year for initiatives of this type: MOMA’s architecture exhibition Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities in New York reframed interventionist projects as ‘an alternative to neo-liberal urbanism’; Assemble Studios won the Turner Prize, Britain’s most prestigious art award; and Newcastle’s very own Marcus Westbury, founder of Renew Australia, was busy crowdfunding his book Creating Cities.

In the same year, Sydney-based Place Partners launched Oxford Street Activators in the wake of Oxford Street’s continuing struggle to rediscover the vibrancy of the 1970s and 80s as a result of the lockout laws. Working with local businesses and residents, the project aims to heighten community activity in the area through crowdfunding and workshop sessions. Their current projects Oxford Stories and Oxford Galley include partnerships with the UNSW, Laneway Learning, Work-Shop, Gap Filler and Art and About. Oxford Stories presents musings about the area and its history through art installations; Oxford Galley takes advantage of empty or underutilised shop fronts to create sites for temporary installations that are helping to rebuild the local gallery scene.

Starting in 2013, the Park to Pacific project had been using temporary projects to develop a movement that stretches from Centennial Park to Clovelly Beach, envisioning Clovelly Road ‘as a greener, safer and more sustainable street’.

The parklet concept is one of the most well-known progeny of a movement made famous by the Rebar team in San Francisco (who have since joined Gehl Architects) and which went global though Park-ing Day. In Glebe, due to the hard work of urbanist Elise O’Ryan and Chamber of Commerce President Kris Spann, parklets have now been seen in six different locations as part of a study that relies heavily on manual counting and surveys as a means of estimating the public benefit of urban design initiatives though quantifiable data. This type of data collection operates in a similar way to the methods of internationally renowned placemakers Gehl Architects (authors of the George Street Concept Design and Urban Design Strategy for Sydney). The process is rigorous, organisationally complex and time-consuming with a heavy reliance on volunteers.

Our shortlisted proposal for stage one of George Street 2020, was a simple suite of plug and play furniture elements, a kit-of-parts that targeted specific ages and demographics and urban social situations that could be installed to respond to the light rail construction timetable, yet also change in accordance with the city’s needs. But how could we two twenty-somethings design on behalf of children and the less mobile? Even if we ran a small-scale consultation, our response would be static: once we tested them, how could we know if our targets are reached? It was these questions that enabled the design to evolve from a fixed, top-down design solution to the design of a system that would allow George Street to reimagine itself, set targets, measure feedback and achieve the targets.

The catalyst for this transition was a session with one of our mentors Bruce Taper of Kinesis, a data-led sustainability and strategic urban design consultancy that aims to make cities more resilient, productive and sustainable. The notion was: if we have smart cities, why can’t we have smart public spaces? To enable this, our kit-of-parts furniture system was refined and broken down further so that it could be assembled and disassembled like Lego, to offer an endless number of configurations for different uses and users.

Secondly, we developed an underlying ‘services carpet’ consisting of paving modules arranged along a pixel grid not unlike the cobblestone streets of old Sydney. These modules use low-tech pressure sensors to gather footfall data, which can then be collected, analysed and interpreted. The types of software capable of analysing these types of data sets are already in use by the City of Sydney through Kinesis. The interaction between these two systems – the kit-of-parts ‘living furniture’ and the ‘smart carpet’ – would establish a positive feedback loop in which ideas about our urban spaces could be designed, implemented, analysed and refined in a continuous improvement process. This real-time feedback mechanism could make George Street a street that learns from itself, responds to public input and communicates intelligently with its stakeholders and the council on how to collectively maintain and improve the health of our public space.

‘The interaction between these two systems – the kit-of-parts ‘living furniture’ and the ‘smart carpet’ – would establish a real-time feedback mechanism that could make George Street a street that learns from itself, responds to public input and communicates intelligently with its stakeholders and the council on how to collectively maintain and improve the health of our public space’

The aim of the kit-of-parts was then to create maximum flexibility and design to traditional measurements with even increments: the step, the seat, the table, the countertop, the canopy, the umbrella; working with a range of additional plug-in mechanisms, bespoke play equipment and configuration, handrails, backrests, bike racks, outdoor libraries, planters, free wi-fi and powerfitted benches for outdoor classrooms and working scenarios. Each will fit within a simple aesthetic framework that interacts with Sydney’s existing and future icons – the Opera House and Junya Ishigami’s Cloud Arch over George Street – while aiming to minimise street clutter.

Oddly enough, a precedent for this concept came from the universal shopping centre, the traditional nemesis of the urbanist cohort. To companies like Westfield, the idea of tracking customer movements with infrared cameras or wi-fi mobile signals is nothing new. The analytical insights generated by this technology enable retailers to understand their customers: where they spend time and how long they pause at a single display. This is a feedback process that can result in the remodelling of whole stores.

So our shopping centres have learnt and leveraged the power of flexibility and testing. There are, however, some major red flags raised when translating these tracking mechanisms into the design of public space, primarily regarding the issue of privacy. In addition, the use of wi-fi tracking can miss large sectors of the very demographics our project intended to target, in particular, the very young. Our project therefore opted for an alternative approach used though the paving. This would allow the public to vote with their feet, continually propose and test new social interventions and learn from them in real time. To navigate and translate the data into useable information, an online platform would become a shared resource communicating with the council, stakeholders and the public for ongoing consultation and real-time updates.

The value of the data itself also allowed the project to generate income as a way of securing the financial sustainability of costly exercises such as regular transformations. For example, perhaps urban-focused research institutions could ‘rent’ portions of George St to gather high fidelity data on new urban interventions. Corporations could test event-based marketing strategies, while local businesses could pay for access to the data to better understand their customer’s preferences. The data could also allow the council to optimise its resource allocation, adjusting the level of maintenance personnel response, based on intensity of use. Flexible street use arrangements could be developed with small businesses, allowing extra commercial capacity during off-peak pedestrian times. Finally, the data generated could be used to prove and encourage the transfer of these types of social infrastructure to other locations, both locally and globally.

By following these themes of tactical urbanism and placemaking, we had to transform ourselves from being designers of a singular space to becoming designers of a system that would allow the public and stakeholders to have continual input into the design and use of public space. The result is the creation of a quantifiable solution capable of gathering the information we need to make better decisions about our cities.

Nicola Balch is an urban designer at McGregor Coxall and teaches at the UTS School of Architecture. She is a member of the AB editorial board
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