In this thought leadership article, hear from Charlotte Lee (Beca Senior Associate – Social Outcomes) on UrbanismNZ 2023 - a conference with the core theme of 'Shaping Our Urban Legacy', and an emphasis on making connections to bring about meaningful change.
In late April I attended UrbanismNZ. As a multi-disciplinary event for professionals in urban design, transport, planning, engagement and development, the conference provided a forum and space for conversation on our diverse urban environments, their form, function, and delivery. Under its central 'Shaping our Urban Legacy' theme, it focused on what makes good urban environments and outcomes for all people.
It was an excellent opportunity to share ideas and discuss some of our most complex urban issues as a sector. And it was especially inspiring to hear from a number of fantastic speakers on Mātauranga Māori, climate responsiveness, designing for a healthy urban environment, and on our infrastructure requirements and connectivity.
I also had the opportunity to present in the Regenerative Workstream, alongside Eddie Dolan, Principal Planning Advisor - Urban Development at Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, on integrated transport and land use planning. Such integration is a critically important component of reducing transport emissions and creating an urban environment that achieves broader social, economic, and environmental outcomes.
Together we discussed our joint research into the optimal conditions for urban form and transport planning to reduce emissions in Aotearoa. We noted the challenge in convincing people to make trade-offs in favour of more sustainable urban form and transport, and that a combination of many elements and measures is needed to enable land use and urban transport integration.
As a social outcomes practitioner, I am naturally interested in the way in which people live in and interact with the urban environment and, in particular, its impacts on health and wellbeing, community cohesion and equity. This was an important thread of our presentation, and of the conference overall, with questions and discussion poised around how we can co-deliver change to help communities thrive in a more equitable Aotearoa.
This is also a question that drives a lot of the work we do in our Social Outcomes Practice at Beca, where we strive for 'a community for everybody – driving sustainable and equitable social outcomes,' and focus on providing a human-centric perspective to projects: assessing, analysing, measuring, and reporting on the social and broader outcomes.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the conference, and how the ideas and practices discussed align with the work our team does every day.
How best do we go about creating a community for everybody, and providing opportunities for the delivery of socially sustainable and equitable outcomes? What are the steps that we need to take to achieve this?
There were a number of ideas and principles that particularly resonated for me:
1. Understanding our communities is essential
In order to provide good urban outcomes for all people, it is important to start with an understanding of the needs and behaviour of the people you are designing for. Therefore, it is critically important to understand the baseline: who is the community we are planning / designing / providing for? What is the local context and what are the unique challenges and opportunities for this group? We want to go beyond just managing and mitigating negative impacts and look for opportunities to maximise and facilitate socially sustainable and equitable outcomes.
2. All voices need to be heard
We need to make sure we get as many people 'at the table' as possible. We want to hear the voices of our tamariki and rangatahi, our elderly, and our other most vulnerable members of society. We need to think carefully about the best way to do that, providing opportunity and accessible platforms for active participation wherever possible. We can and should make use of digital technology in our consultation with communities. Tools like Frankly AI can help us do this, by increasing access and inclusivity, allowing more people to participate in decision-making processes and have their voices heard.
3. Embed social outcomes at the heart of projects
Considering and embedding positive social outcomes in projects involves consciously thinking about users, communities, and local people from the outset and through the whole project lifecycle: from bidding and design, through construction and operation. This is critical for the delivery of successful and socially responsible projects. It also helps to promote long-term sustainability; ensuring that the project continues to benefit the community over time.
4. Collaboration, and systems-based thinking is key
Collaboration and systems thinking, from the community and our industry, is fundamental to achieving our common goal of better outcomes for all people. A collective approach to problem-solving can result in solutions that are more effective, innovative, sustainable, and equitable. But we can’t just talk to the people within our comfort zone, or those we know are already on our page. Involvement of diverse perspectives can help to identify potential unintended consequences, and lead to more socially sustainable and equitable solutions. Our systems approach should be joined-up and collaborative and needs to be nuanced and place-based to recognise the unique characteristics, opportunities and challenges of places and projects.
In our work today, we all have the opportunity to create good urban outcomes. Together we can strive to understand the needs and aspirations of our communities, get as many people at the table as possible, consider social outcomes throughout the project lifecycle, and apply a collaborative and cooperative systems approach. Through this, we can leave a legacy of resilient, inclusive and sustainable communities for everybody.