Shaun Carter: In his book, The Nature of Urban Design, Mayor Bloomberg’s former chief urban designer, Alexandros Washburn, says that economics, community and design, in equal measure, shape effective, resilient, equitable and well-designed cities. Your two fellow commissioners cover economics and community. Does this mean that your environment role also encompasses design?
Rod Simpson: The overarching framework for the work of the three of us is sustainability. The way we’ve conceived sustainability is to break it into these three aspects – environment, economics and community – but in a broader conception there’s really five aspects to sustainability. The fourth aspect is culture and the fifth aspect is how we actually govern: how do we actually deliver sustainability? In other words, how do we engage with the community, what are the governance structures?
Regarding the end of your question, I think that I was appointed environment commissioner because I’m expected to bridge over into design.
I think it’s important to distinguish urban design or city design from architectural design or landscape design. I think it’s important to recognise the importance of design as a process as well as a product. The particular skills that we have as designers are not only to think laterally but to join many different influences together into a coherent proposition. To my mind, that is our key and foremost skill.
How do we deal with the complexity, the mosaic of the city, the variation, the hyperdiversity that we have in communities in Sydney? What sort of form of governance? What sort of design process? What sort of planning process do we need to put in place to actually give respect to that diversity and to realise its full potential?
We can’t simply have a top-down process in the way that we plan for those places. It also has to be localised, so that we produce urban quality as opposed to simply architectural excellence or design excellence.
‘It would be a fundamental mistake to rely on architectural excellence or the idea that panels that assess the design excellence of individual buildings are going to necessarily produce good cities. Urban quality, I think, needs to be the focus.’
I think that’s a very important distinction. We’re interested in the liveability of places, which then expands into issues of social equity. We’re interested in the social mix, the diversity of household types. These are the things that we recognise as making a place liveable, interesting and capable of further evolution and adaptation. The key challenge is: how do we imagine those places into the future?
On top of that we have architectural excellence. It would be a fundamental mistake, though, to rely on architectural excellence or the idea that panels that assess the design excellence of individual buildings are going to necessarily produce good cities. Urban quality, I think, needs to be the focus.
Design excellence is too late if you got the masterplan wrong?
We have to think of every place as being a system. It’s a social system, an environmental system; we’re also starting to think about green infrastructure.
How do all these things actually interact to create a sense of place but also to perform more efficiently? That’s very different. Not so much the masterplan but the urban proposition. What’s the affordability of living in that place? What are the daily patterns of living that are possible or not possible through that design? Actually thinking about that consciously … that’s very different from simply architectural excellence.
Rod, thinking about these propositions, the great challenge is that you’ve got all these government department silos. So is your role to divert the agencies from this hegemony of specific thinking to embrace this complexity?
The way to cut through the silos is through place-based planning. What that means is that you have everyone engaged in a project to make a great place, recognising that everyone has a part to play.
It needs to be a collaborative, integrated design process. I think it’s also important to recognise that it happens already to a certain extent – with new motorway design for example. We can question motorways, but now we have them with some fantastic cycleways alongside. Conceivably, we can think of those as also being vegetation corridors. You can see how you can think about the infrastructure doing more than performing a single function.
The way that we’ve set up the planning system in the past, the way the land is subdivided, the way that we lay out streets, the variation in the size of lots, the way that large areas of commercial land might be handed over to a single developer … we’ve set up a very efficient system to produce only one form of urbanism.
It’s possible to think about different ways of designing places by actually looking for evidence in the city that already exists. This isn’t theory, it’s simply a pure observation and understanding the underlying reason why the patterns of living are different. We can decode those very different patterns of living and then think about applying them in other places where the underlying conditions or potentials are similar.
It’s the idea of an open city. It’s the idea of being open ended. The design is never finished. In Sydney, the process that we’ve set up really tends towards completion of a project, as opposed to a proposition which is open ended and able to evolve and adapt over time.
Rod Simpson is also an associate professor at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney and a founding partner of the architectural and urban design practice simpson+wilson.