Cities throughout the world are becoming bigger and denser and – in some ways – more and more alike.
Yet paradoxically, many of the most beloved cities have achieved that status by focusing on the features that make them unique or different.
People feel an innate connection to the communities and places in which they grew up. Newcomers are often drawn to a city by its promise of the same sense of connection and community. It is a designer’s job to ensure that the connection between people, the place and their communities is unbroken and enhanced as our cities change and grow. That is what we mean when we talk about the importance of site, place and specificity.
It is particularly important in urban renewal and regeneration projects. It is amazing how many opportunities there are for such projects in the major cities of the world, often on derelict, former industrial and infrastructure sites. Many such sites are in the centre of cities, something that makes them attractive to people wanting to live within immediate reach of transport, work, social structure, education – the amenities that make urban living so appealing. City planners also favour these projects, as they help limit urban sprawl and take advantage of existing city infrastructure.
The challenge for designers is to get the best out of these sites – for governments, city planners, developers and communities, both new and old.
As landscape architects, we draw on the geologies, natural systems, the environment, surrounding designs, local materials, existing city grain – elements that anchor a design proposition in its location. We start from the histories of the places we work in. We interpret those histories, taking our design cues from the nuances that make a place special. We do this whether we are designing buildings, a new community, precinct or public realm.
The history of a site is not necessarily reflected in a very literal way. However, it does become at least a framework to stimulate or inspire our ideas and challenge our design thinking. The questions we ask are: what part of the historic context, character and quality of the site is relevant in today’s terms and can be carried through in a new and creative way? How can we build on history to add economic, social and cultural value for our clients and the people who will use the places we create?
One of the challenges is deciding how far to go – what is the right level of history and site context to take into the design? Getting that wrong can lead to twee or even tacky design. Getting it right involves deep research and engagement with community stakeholders and clients.
Every site is different and every site has its challenges. Each one has to be tackled in a different way. If you think of the place or site we work with as a canvas, the richness of that canvas can be an obstacle, or it can be a dynamic, positive challenge. Our designs can create a new identity for a place that is built on and enriches the qualities of the existing environment. Or you can treat the canvas as quite blank for the creation of something new.
The public domain of the Victoria Park project in Sydney was completed in the early 2000s and involved converting a 24-hectare site, previously used for naval stores, into a high density mixed use precinct housing 5,000 people. The challenge at Victoria Park was to ensure cultural and ecological authenticity on a site where most visual evidence of its past had been obliterated.
A major feature of the site and its pre-industrial past was the way stormwater was collected there, and this became the key design driver for the project. The story of water and the process of water filtration and management is foremost in the public realm that the community now uses as its core open space. It is heavily expressed in the road infrastructure and it helped formed the brief for the iconic central water feature art. It is through the story of water that the urban design and public realm at Victoria Park has been connected to the site.
In a piece in the book MULTITUDES, SueAnne Ware says buildings and their interiors do not need to rely as much on their external environments as landscapes. In architectural commissions for new buildings, she writes that “site and place can be either ignored or engaged with.”
While this might be true of some single building commissions, it is not so for major urban renewal projects and the design work of most landscape architects.
One such example is the redevelopment of Darling Harbour in Sydney. The project included three new entertainment and exhibition buildings. But on a 20-hectare site that links the city’s central business district to inner ring suburbs, the collaborative architectural and landscape architecture design work not only needed to stitch the buildings together but also stitch the entire Darling Harbour precinct into the city – with the landscape architecture and public realm helping to firmly anchor the materials, the buildings and the project precinct as a whole in site and place.
One of the dynamic and inspiring parts of being a landscape architect is you have to, in some ways, be a jack of all trades. You have to understand the intent of the architect and what they are trying to do with their built form. You have to understand how the building or buildings will be anchored to the land they are sited on. You have to work with engineers and with a broad-range of consultants and community groups to ensure everything comes together in a homogeneous way that it is richly integrated as opposed to a collection of parts.
On some projects, you are trying to touch the land softly, and in others you want to carry the architecture and the language of its design right through the public realm. As you get into detailed design, you have to stay true to the design principles for the project.
For landscape architects, the different perspectives that influence design thinking on any single project do not just come from the different design disciplines that we work with. They are geographic and cultural as well. There is the constant conscious need to ensure local relevance as well as design quality. This requires a high level of understanding about community and location and a clear grasp on context wherever one works. It is from this clarity that designs can be culturally and contextually relevant to their environment and their communities.
In a world that is at times inspired by images of other places, Pinterest precedents and the work of a globally accessible design community, it is important to work hard to start with local knowledge as the very powerful point of connection of any design.