An important area of my work is our
URBAN DESIGN ADVOCACY practise.

This business is the ‘naming’ of work that has run parallel to my architecture practice since graduation, and even earlier, from the day I commenced as a student at Auckland University School of Architecture.

I discuss it in this blog, as the concerns I was working with from the start, are now being more fully addressed across architecture, urban design, landscape, environmental planning, social housing and all related disciplines serving community in our built world.

What is most meaningful to me, as an approach to this urban discipline, is action.

Anywhere in Aotearoa today, the public will be asked to contribute their ideas and comments to a local urban build project, as part of a community consultant engagement programme. Currently Waikanae residents are being asked for their comments on three options for a rebuild / refurbishment of our local Library complex.

This is laudable, and in accordance with contemporary, local authority planning practice. We are at a pivotal point in local authority governance where the social / cultural / environmental pressures, headlined worldwide, are making themselves felt locally in the nature of informed and motivated Councillors, with eyes and ears close to their communities.

However, to commit to delivering the maximum potential of any built work within neighbourhood, district and region, local governance requires design systems thinking at the table, across all phases of process.

In working in the built environment, design systems thinking lies within the first briefing process and can enhance how our community is engaged at the earliest stage. Councils will see how architecture and urban design disciplines are important across every management platform: infrastructure; planning; utilities; strategic growth and finance; parks; roading; housing; communications; social equity.

Ultimately all these governance functions flow from and toward the urban form of each of the towns our councils act to represent. Councils as a public service are tasked with maximising the best public good our towns can provide, not just economically but socially, culturally, environmentally, and spiritually.

Achieving a check sheet that the community has had their say in consultation on any one of a number of building proposals, will not relieve staff, management and councillors of the task to follow through with the best contemporary design processes, through early feasibility stage, community engagement, design, procurement, construction and post-occupancy use.

Why design and why must urban design advocacy be more closely aligned with governance?

Designers are as dedicated to asking what the problem is, as to providing a solution and with our experience and love of people, land and place are the best placed to ensure the right questions are being asked, to solve the right problems. This is the earliest stage of design thinking within our urban realm. The complex questions within the balancing of available resources of land, finance and materials toward both immediate and long-term benefit of our diverse communities, are the natural challenges of urban design thinking. These challenges we can meet, and as designers within governance, we finish with action and result, not just a strategy document for others to enact.

What does URBAN DESIGN effectively mean for today? Or in fact to ME?

It is the love of shared public space. It is the continued felt response to our local, built environment as a social experience, which strengthens our sense of identity about the place we choose to live in or visit. It is a professional offering by designers to the public realm, which taps into and identifies what is really going on positively in an existing built space and reinforcing it with both an architectural and landscaped built response. A designed response which successfully gives people back what they natively know is right about the place where they live and what they know supports them socially, emotionally, physically, psychologically, culturally and environmentally. It is a designed response, which is humble to the native intelligence of both local residents and eager visitors, to achieve a built public realm, representative of the good of history and optimism for the future use of all.

Why care, why bother to discuss and employ good urban design in our local neighbourhoods, towns and cityscapes?

Because it is an effective opportunity to ensure a positive economy. Through the sense of public ownership of open space, a democracy of public space experience increases activity, interaction and community connection. In the most contemporary manner, we all begin to see the solutions for ourselves and feel free to ask questions about what we all love and see as possible in our collective understanding of our immediate social environment. We are all respected as players and are able to affect what happens around us in the present, not limited and constrained by the many mistakes of past builds, which depress us and negatively affect our collective well-being.

What does urban design advocacy look like?

Urban design advocacy could be very successful, immediate and revitalising. However, residents’ disillusion in urban growth and change is the result of limited approaches within those bodies responsible for our social well-being, as affected by our built environment.

Local Authorities are on a tightrope trying to achieve economic growth. The rates they receive imply this. But what is economic growth? These questions are not thoroughly asked, and our local councils don’t seem to equate design with effective use of funds. They hire economists, financial analysts, transport engineers, policy analysts, planners, strategists and fortunately, sometimes landscape architects (as a nod to parks and trees).

Unfortunately, the whole mechanism is fraught with individuals with a sense of insecurity about their own collective skills to solve the seemingly unsurmountable problems of the present and the future. Programming is siloed down through chains of Group Managers, separated within the limitation of their respective departments.

This dismisses the important contribution that design systems thinking can have throughout all dimensions of local government decision-making. Urban design advocacy ‘advocates’ for a properly ‘horizontal’ system of group solutions thinking, where departments collaborate across disciplines and share concepts and ideas, bringing staff in at all levels to the table. Processes are shared to push for change, innovation and local solutions, having decisions considered upfront, rather than repetitive reports made and remade within separate management groups.

Rather than District Councils seated confidently in their capacity to exhibit clarity, skill, ingenuity and local knowledge, we witness a flourishing consultancy industry required to advise council and staff how to resolve many current projects or conflicts.

In these times of crisis and with our increased appreciation of the limited resources of land and materials to meet evolving social and economic concerns, we have to be able to design decision making that maximises the inherent skills, knowledge and expertise already within local authority staffing. Rate paying residents deserve this. I observed recently a young Councillor chairing a Finance and Strategic Growth committee meeting, with an unusual ability to enable uncertainty in decision-making around the table. This open-ended approach set a tone in the space, which allowed confidence from Councillors to contribute strong ideas and move the meeting forward successfully.

When speaking to Urban Design solutions in this decisionmakers framework, we need to have time offered up to welcome uncertainty and to begin at the earliest stages of a questioning Brief. This includes a belief in the potential of the existing fabric of local authorities to work with what they have, to solve the problems they confront. This is the fundamental nature of design thinking.

Architecture / Urban design is not a commodity to be plugged in between Tender Procurement and Building Consent application.

Urban design advocacy acts as a positive intervention of inquiry. We may begin with direct, expressive statements, vividly knowing what is wrong with a space, before being overwhelmed with complexities. As designers we are also speaking for people as residents / visitors / users.

‘What do we like? What is this place?’ Urban Design can start at the first inquiry and explore a brief through seeing visually ‘what is here? what is this moment of joy? Is this important? Yes, it is! it is our place, and we live here, fully in the now.

What do we know? What enables us to rest and enjoy and feel at home and relaxed and experience enjoyable creative thinking?’

Wall mural: historic CBD, downtown Whanganui, Aotearoa NZ

Forms of urban design

Urban design, as a discipline, introduces approaches to open public space that generate linkages between existing or proposed new buildings, to give safe, comfortable and meaningful ‘ownership’ of the urban realm to the public user. Urban design also introduces built pavilion forms that give renewed life, clarity, focus and identity to an otherwise vacant, unreadable public open space.

  • Urban design thinking may start with an ‘inventory’ of all existing public land areas, within an identifiable neighbourhood or district, and value these empty spaces as useable urban precincts, for further enhanced design and a strengthened urban experience for residents and visitors.
  • Urban design may begin with a ‘mapmaking’ cartographic representation of the geographic character of a neighbourhood or district. Marking hills, waterways, open land, streets, trees, and urban clusters either commercial, industrial or residential. This visually arresting graphic ‘map’, if designed as an open-ended, community dialogue tool, can engage people across every social level, to interpret positively how they relate to the place they live in or visit. In this way prompting them to freely contribute their own understanding and ideas about their own sense of their place
  • The ‘hardware’ of urban design implementation can be:
    • directional paving and planting at the horizontal plane, indicating the character of the specific place in terms of texture and material and providing navigational linkages with the orientation of material layout in the ground plane. Linkages which are meaningful in connecting people with what is already around them and with new proposed buildings.
    • Small built interventions like a ‘pou’ or post, with local peoples’ carved impressions Such a ‘pou’ acts as a marker or focal point in an existing open space and then generates human activity or repose and rest around it. This first, simple, built form can help to indicate how people may want to use an open space, before more complex and expensive built expressions are introduced.
    • Following through with larger temporary or permanent architectural pavilions which are creative, inspire, indicate local cultural ideas and may introduce new design concepts which draw on an existing sense of place. Pavilions can be fabric canopies, slatted pergola, clear brightly coloured polycarbonates and solid roofing. Pavilion design potential and scale is limitless and is referenced by existing buildings, geography, culture and local identity.
  • urban design thinking learns to ‘love the ugly’ and work with it. Not expecting total demolition of existing structures, to create brand new.
  • Urban design is not just a ‘masterplan’ or complete redesign. It is attention to the ‘finer grained’ detail of the seemingly insignificant, existing corners of open or built space and strengthening them as new ‘people places’ for adaptive reuse.

Salt and Wood Collective, BBQ Restaurant, Waikanae, Kapiti: colonising a corner of a busy intersection as green, social, active space; and the interior offers table views of planted, timber pavilions silhouetted against the local hill-scape. Simple gestures that have real strength, in welcoming distracted workers and supermarket shoppers in the carpark opposite, to take a pause and experience a sense of the local.

A view through Paekakariki village: a sense of place and local identity important to locals and visitors. Urban Design Advocacy forms inventories of such local spaces seeing strength in identity of place to ensure any change into the future, builds on these innate qualities going forward, for our well-being and community connection.

In New York: ‘Paley Park, a small urban pocket of a city, is a space you encounter unexpectedly and didn’t realize you needed: light filtered by nature, sound filtered by falling water, a chair you can move, a platform that enables you to take a break and dream about your next adventure’ by Angelica Trevino Baccon from SHoP Architects on the 1967 design by Zion Breen Richardson Associates. ‘…

Sketch by Rosalind Derby

Good urban design…forming built interventions in existing public space…seeks to form linkages across precincts, to enhance peoples’ presence throughout the day. Visual aesthetics, comfort from climate and places to pause and rest, activates peoples’ use of the space, which then positively impacts the local economy and further revitalizes the townscape and local neighbourhood.

Rosalind Derby’s work within The Green City Project Team Auckland Regional Authority Aotearoa: editing and producing Green Press newsletter and advocating, designing and implementing streetscape schemes throughout Ponsonby and Herne Bay Auckland.

‘Contextual Design: Urban design advocates emphasize the importance of designing buildings and spaces that respect and respond to the local context, history, and culture. This can involve preserving historic buildings, promoting local architectural styles, and integrating design elements that reflect the unique character of a place.’