Just over seven years ago I helped set up Beca’s urban design business, leading a team that quickly expanded to include landscape architecture, and that with architecture is now part of an integrated Design Practice working alongside engineering and other disciplines.
I wasn't always an urban designer. I was an academic, a management trainee, a bookseller, a marketing communications manager, and then an architecture student. Along the way and in between ‘real’ jobs I waitressed, worked in an art gallery, taught piano, sewed soft furnishings, looked after other people’s children, was a research assistant, and provided administrative support.
This wasn’t unusual but it took me a while to realise that it was formative. The variety of people I worked with taught me patience, noticing and listening. The range of activities taught me balance and appreciation. The fact I got a job at all – when things were really tight – taught me gratitude.
All these qualities sound very ‘soft’ – not the things you usually want to foreground in a technical services consultancy lest you risk the ‘green fluff and gold plating’ labels that dog landscape and urban design. However, they are fundamental to the value structure that underpins our design practice and that is increasingly recognised across our business.
Just over seven years ago I helped set up Beca’s urban design business, leading a team that quickly expanded to include landscape architecture, and that with architecture is now part of an integrated Design Practice working alongside engineering and other disciplines. New in the role, I presented (cautiously) to about 200 senior leaders across Beca, to introduce what I thought we had to offer.
The questions I asked then are the questions I still ask today, of myself, all the time:
• How can urban and landscape design add value?
• What sort of value are we talking about?
‘Value’ goes straight to the heart of our role. It can be about cost savings and process efficiencies, but that’s not enough. It’s also – and more meaningfully – about delivering value to communities by contributing to the quality of the built environment. It’s about how we recognise, respect and reflect other people’s values in the work we do. In this people-focused (or user-centric) approach, it’s not that the client disappears from the equation; it’s that in every project, there is an opportunity to both serve the client and make a difference.
Preparing for that long-ago leadership forum I interviewed my parents – because our parents, children, families and friends are all users of our projects. I asked, what was value for them?
My father said
It’s especially important with the population increasing that there is enough for everyone, that there are good places to live, and that everyone gets access to things like the foreshore and beautiful natural areas.”
My mother said
You need to have structure so that you can provide all the things that people need: schools, hospitals, parks. And you need to make sure they all work together. And places need to be safe and easy to use, and everyone should be able to use them”. And – “I could live without my grandchildren, but I couldn’t live without a tree!”
The things my parents valued translate well to urban and landscape design drivers: functionality, accessibility, equity, social sustainability, valuing natural heritage, and residential amenity. That little exercise underlined for me that people appreciate the difference between a poor environment and a good one, and it follows that they know when our projects work for them or not.
Good urban form has been described as the “glue for a community”, supporting interaction and involvement, shared activities and a sense of belonging. When those things are in the foreground, then you have a process or a project that links ‘value’ with ‘quality’; and ‘design quality’ with the quality of people’s lives.
Surely these are things we are all, in our work, concerned with? Across all our disciplines is the possibility to plan, design, engineer, build and manage places everyone can use and enjoy using. This is not just an urban design aspiration. But we need to work together to consciously improve the quality of our infrastructure, towns and districts, way beyond the spatial or temporal boundaries of the project.
We hear a lot about putting the client in the middle, about user-centric design. I think these are useful phrases so long as we remember that projects have a long life and a long reach; and that ‘users’ are legion.
In a collaborative design environment I think we can all share in conversations, projects, processes that are value-focused; that by doing so we create shared possibilities; and that those conversations are enormously valuable to us as individuals, as professionals, as teams, as an organisation, and as part of the communities we serve.