Teaching for design of ethical communities

By Dr Dominique Hes

Thrive is a transdisciplinary research hub. Our vision is that it must be possible to have a sustainable, thriving built environment for people and ecosystems. The hub uses applied industry-relevant research to create visible outcomes in the world.

Projects to date range from assessing thermal comfort in apartments (Living Well Grant), working with industry on communicating thriving buildings (our partnership with Tarkett), working with marketing and horticultural groups on plants and health (the Plant Life Balance app), connecting people to their ecosystems (Co-Seeding the Future, Refugium and the Living Stage) and the co-creation of Regenerative Developments (Seacombe West, in regional Victoria). What all Thrive’s projects have in common is a holistic approach: applying whole systems design and resilience thinking to create projects that have
the potential to trigger positive change.

How do we engage students in creating thriving cities? We work within a great university; most of our time goes towards developing and sharing knowledge with each other and our students.

Recently, we decided to look a little closer to home: how do we engage students in creating thriving cities? We work within a great university; most of our time goes towards developing and sharing knowledge with each other and our students. We train them to think about the user, those who will interact with their designs. We teach them to think about inclusivity and the importance of cities that support minorities and vulnerable communities. We teach them to think about the ecological impact of a building, neighbourhood or city. We teach them about the history and theory of city making.

But, what are we preparing them to do?

Last year Thrive carried out research through interviews and content analysis, speaking to academics and practitioners of ‘placemaking’ and, through many engaging conversations, we identified a strong focus on the theoretical foundation of ‘place’. Through many interacting lenses (wellbeing, healthy spaces, designing for children, urban greenery, etc), the research showed that universities encourage students to ask the big questions.

Yet the research also highlighted that students were not equipped as strongly as they could be to carry out small activation projects, or engage with the community and effectively respond to their needs and feedback. In short, there is a need to balance theory and practice for students to learn the hard skills, soft skills and thinking skills needed in the ‘doing’ of their professional future. Some felt that this might not be the role of a university, within its limited timeframe working with students, and that this was more for the first years in industry.

By using design studios as living laboratories or ‘sandboxes’, a variety of approaches will be constantly trialled improving the way we teach and the strategies used to identify the story of place.

Given Thrive’s aim is to carry out real, tangible, built projects with students and industry we developed a project that tries to ‘build a bridge’. This exciting new project is called the Placemaking Sandbox. Funded by the Myer Foundation and coordinated by the Thrive Research Hub, the University of Melbourne is partnering with universities across Australia along with placemaking industry practitioners to co-develop a placemaking program that brings together theory and practice. It will be made up of three components: a subject with eight modules of placemaking for teaching at the university level; a yearly industry summit in each participating state for upskilling and inspiration; and seed funding for studios where students work with councils, developers and community to create tangible, community-led placemaking initiatives.

In the initial stages, seed funding from the Myer Foundation will be available to support costs associated with, for example, consultation, design, implementation, evaluation and risk management. By using design studios as living laboratories or ‘sandboxes’, a variety of approaches will be constantly trialled improving the way we teach and the strategies used to identify the story of place, engage with the community, implement a placemaking project or evaluate its short and long term outcomes.

Village Well

The participants of the placemaking sandbox studios will have an opportunity to improve their skills and confidence to pave the way for a greater receptivity by councils to work with their communities to enliven their neighbourhoods, resulting in more vibrant and resilient cities. Most importantly, we will equip the students for their future careers. Wherever they may end in their future practice, they will go with a toolbox filled with strategies they can readily access as they encourage their industry to be more inclusive, ethical and regenerative.

Dr Dominique Hes is Director of the Thrive Research Hub at the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne.