Designing for people

By Sandra Carrasco

Dr Sandra Carrasco is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Melbourne School of Design whose research is centred to resident issues in massively built housing projects including the analysis of the transformation of the built environment and the appropriateness of rebuilt settlements, incremental housing, informal settlements and post-disaster reconstruction and community resilience.

Dr Carrasco’s current research focus has been the Carlton public housing estates and the communities that live there.

What is your research currently focusing on?

My research addresses housing issues of vulnerable and socio-economically disadvantaged communities through the exploration of the people’s interaction with their immediate built-environment, i.e. house and neighbourhood. My targets are displaced communities and short- and long-term migrants. For my current focus, I am working closely with residents of primarily the Carlton public housing estates and specifically the inhabitants of African background.

Why have you chosen to focus on this?

Firstly because I am a migrant myself and I’ve lived the challenges for integration but also the possibilities that can emerge from being in this position. After direct involvement in the reconstruction process after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the 2011 Typhoon Washi in southern Philippines, I experienced the tremendous impact that even small architecture projects could produce in rebuilding a sense of community by actively probing for and integrating the needs of the people being facilitated.

This experience marked my life and gave direction to my professional career. When I arrived in Melbourne, I found a vibrant multi-cultural environment shaping a tolerant and inclusive society. However, it became clear that some minorities such as African Australians are more distinctive than others due to their visible ethnic, cultural and religious characteristics and these communities have been broadly misrepresented through media and political rhetoric. The need to pull away this veil of misunderstanding is very important to me.

What effects are in place to make migrants and refugees living in public housing feel excluded from their local communities?

I consider three main reasons: The first is related to the stigmatisation of public housing in Australia with an unfortunate but popular consensus labelling these environments as poor, unsafe and undesirable. These characterizations are projected beyond the environment and onto the inhabitants.

Secondly, an image has been created in Australian media related to the notion of “African gangs”, fed by shameful political discourse. The African community is aware of this social rejection, which in my opinion has fostered a caution toward the broader Australian community.

The final issue is related to a public neglection of the migrant and refugee contribution to Australia. It can be the case that minorities need to work harder than locals, developing a sense of isolation and exclusion from the society they live in.

How do migrant and refugee communities living in public housing work to preserve their cultural identity?

As my research has focused primarily on the Somali communities I can only really remark on their experience. To regain a sense of cultural identity the environment of public housing becomes a place through which these displaced people reconstruct their traditions and memories of what constitutes a home. We observed in Muslim Somali homes that the living room was a space of great social importance. The floor and the carpets become a centre of activity especially during events like Ramadan when families and communities use the centre of the living room to place food, sit and eat on the carpeted floor.

Additionally, the television becomes a point of recognition and comfort with families frequently watching African television, even if the programming isn’t from their country of origin. They recognise the black African skin and feel identified.

The kitchens are also play a pivotal role. Within the housing units the kitchens tend to be positioned close to the shared hallways. During events like Ramadan the women from neighbouring houses or floors visit one another by knocking on the door or the window next to the kitchen and they share food. During these times the corridors connecting apartments become extremely social areas.

Open spaces are very important as a social catalyser. Housing estate playgrounds are interesting places because children don’t recognize ethnic differences. They interact and their mothers watch. I have witnessed nice moments where mothers of all ethnicities interact with the common ground of their children. Whenever possible families from the Carlton housing estate travel to the North Melbourne Mosque, a very important places for Somalis to converge and feel identified.

What has your research found in terms of the effect the challenges and the opportunities these groups have in creating stronger communities that co-exist with their homeland traditions and the potential contributions these groups can have to their host country?

I have observed the Carlton housing estate as a reference for the Somali community in Melbourne. In fact, I found that public housing has an “incubator” potential making people feel familiar and safe, which can be a “shelter” to be themselves beyond the unfriendly lenses of a foreign society. However, it also enhances the sense of urban segregation where the transition to the city is one of their main concerns.

Therefore, I consider it crucial to work on the possibilities to physically and socially articulate this with Melburnians through participative approaches involving different stakeholders from the differing levels of governance. University of Melbourne students I teach from the Urban Precinct Studio have felt inspired by the possibilities to create an inclusive city and are targeting these issues in their projects.

Segregation can have a positive effect. These families and individuals would not have been able to establish such a strong sense of community if there had a been a more diluted sense of environment. Habitants may not have felt as safe or as comfortable in restarting life here.

What does the future of your research look like?

This topic has a huge potential to make tangible change first in public opinion but also in the process of integration and community development for African residents in Melbourne. My objectives are to explore different dimensions of integration mainly related to housing and human environments. I anticipate that this project can trigger international collaboration research to learn from global experiences of residential integration. Thus, we can make an impact on the community and the broader Australian society.

Photograph supplied.