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Brand and the City

Brand and the City;                               An authentic sense of place by design
Brand and the City; An authentic sense of place by design

 

We have come to a startling realisation. Melbourne, despite being the ‘World’s most liveable city,’ is in the midst of having a major identity crisis. It is a critical time to evaluate our city values and vision as our population is predicted to grow by 2.3 million people in the next thirty years.

There has been a groundswell of commentary about Melbourne’s future challenged by this rapid population growth and we (Büro North) have some ideas to shape our cities visionary response.

Over the last decade we have participated in the design of over 300 projects nation wide. Through these exists a continuous exploration and articulation of place, context, history, story and narrative. From integrating uniquely Victorian landscapes, animals and stories in the theming at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne to collaborating with an emerging indigenous artist (Jasmine Sarin) on the recently completed Barangaroo place-making wayfinding. Working to honour the heritage of a given place is embedded in our design approach, but our experience working abroad has made it clear that we can go further. We found design clarity and confidence from the New Zealand Story and see value in applying what we learned in NZ to our hometown of Melbourne.

 

We have experienced first hand how the New Zealand Story shapes city experiences by immersing visitors in the best the country has to offer. The story is distilled into a tangible tool kit which makes it easy to engage with. The story honours and actively promotes the Māori culture and defines an approach to designing a city and the experiences accordingly. From school-age, New Zealand children are encouraged and given the opportunity to learn to speak Māori. All signs throughout the cities include both Māori and English so the traditional language is part of the New Zealand vernacular. The story provides guidance and creates cohesion; from understanding traditional greetings to the local beers on tap. The New Zealand story simultaneously cultivates and promotes a sense of national pride so the experience of visiting a city such as Wellington is distinctly different to anywhere else in the world.

The New Zealand Story simultaneously cultivates and promotes a sense of national pride so the experience of visiting a city like Wellington is distinctly different to anywhere else in the world.

When we went in search of something akin to the New Zealand Story for Australia, we found blank pages where our story was supposed to be;

 

 

In a globalised world, what is culturally unique to one place is often appropriated by another. This erodes the uniqueness of city experiences around the globe. Melbourne is quick to culturally appropriate ideas from elsewhere as we are part of a young country with a fluid national identity. As a nation, we cringe at the ‘Aussie’ stereotype of wearing stubby shorts and saying “g’day,” but we don’t necessarily have a more current definition of our national identity to step in where Crocodile Dundee left off. Our culture is enriched by our Indigenous history and multiculturalism, but how do we unitedly define ourselves beyond the sharing of a location branded as the ‘lucky country’?

Our culture is enriched by our Indigenous history and multiculturalism, but how do we unitedly define ourselves beyond the sharing of a location branded as the ‘lucky country’?

As Melbournians, we are keen to reject the outmoded Aussie stereotypes and embrace our cosmopolitan side. We prefer our laneway lattes to lamington’s as our coffee, food and fashion have been amplified to become a signature of our city. While these cultural pursuits are enjoyable, they are not unique to Melbourne.

We must be wary of compounding our cultural appropriation when we look for design direction from overseas before searching locally. Importing skills and talent may have been necessary back when Melbourne was a young city finding its feet. However, we now have a mature, world-class design establishment from which we can draw before looking abroad. As our increasing population places demand on infrastructure, many major projects are being undertaken within our city. For the vast majority of these, the design is being lead by an international firm.

By trying to conform to the global rather than the local standard, we miss what is critical to defining our sense of place. We lack a distinct voice telling our story. According to Tim Williams from Arup, we also lack the governance that could create the unified ‘all of city’ strength and develop this voice. As he explains, “the problem is that state governments are, whatever their intentions and values, too big, remote, siloed and unaccountable to the inhabitants of our cities”. Without a guiding story and unified governance leading our city, everything is open for interpretation or misinterpretation.

 

Without a guiding story and unified governance leading the design direction for our city, everything is open for interpretation or misinterpretation.

There has been significant public concern over the Koori Trust being ejected from their recently refurbished premises at Federation Square to make space for a new Apple Store. There have been attempts to placate public disappointment by reporting that the trust, who actively work to promote Indigenous culture in Melbourne, will be relocated to a bigger space in Federation square. Regardless, it is problematic that these decisions are made behind closed doors, rather than prescribed by a more cohesive vision for Melbourne that reflects our cultural values. Graeme Davison, author of The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, fears this decision symbolises our city losing it’s civic soul. He asked; “isn’t it time we grew up and recognised that not everything that is important to our collective life has a price? That commercial values do not trump civic ideals?”

 

 

There is another problem arising as our cities identity crisis looms and our population increases. Without embedding the provenance of a place in the value, brand and growth strategy you risk ending up with cities like Dubai where design-wise, anything goes. If things get out of hand, you can end up with a giant space-age wheel in the centre of your cityscape. We need leadership defining what our city design vernacular should be so that our city evolves strategically rather than ad-hoc.

How can we improve Melbourne’s future? Before we can develop a strategic vision, we need to re-evaluate our core values. The current Melbourne values defined by the City of Melbourne include being prosperous, knowledgeable, connected, people-centric, creative and sustainable. From our research, these values also define no less than nine other prominent cities. When it comes to capturing the essence of a city like Melbourne driven by admirable, yet generic, future-forward values, we are losing our distinction.

 

When it comes to capturing the essence of a city like Melbourne driven by admirable, yet generic, future-forward values, we are losing our distinction.

Since the 1980’s, the state government has shifted from shaping our cities to merely servicing them according to Chris Chersterfield, Monash University. He says much of the planning which led us to become the World’s most liveable city’ can be attributed before this time. We need to look within, to the past and to the future to redefine these values. We need to drive a visionary response to developing our city and transition from servicing back to shaping a better future for Melbourne.

 

We need to look within, to the past and to the future to redefine these values to drive a visionary response to developing our city and shift from servicing back to shaping a better future for Melbourne.

We have a rich, Indigenous history which as a society, we endeavour to honour in Melbourne. Accordingly, The City of Melbourne actively promotes Indigenous culture in Melbourne. Despite the best of intentions, our approach is arguably piecemeal rather than a true integration of our heritage into our city experience. Indigenous imagery is appropriated for everything from building design to tea-towels and it is not always done so respectfully or with consent. The confusion remains about how to best honour our first Australians, Indigenous people or Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal communities. Respect needs to be paid to our Indigenous community through fostering understanding and engagement in a holistic rather than piecemeal way.

According to Gay Alcorn, right now Melbourne is “uneasy about where it’s going, uncertain whether it wants to be a global megacity doubling its population to eight million by midcentury, or hang on to its charms.” It is critical that we define the values that influence the broader growth strategy to ensure the best possible future for Melbourne. These values need to reflect our unique heritage, Indigenous history and culture. We need to learn from the New Zealand example and develop our story that resonates and inspires. From this, we need a framework to enable designers and planners to deliver on those values to shape our unique city experience.

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This article is based on a presentation “Brand and the City” for SEGD “Off Grid 2018” by Büro North Creative Director Soren Luckins. Researched and written by Communications Strategist Kate Luckins, we welcome feedback and further insights from any party with a vested interest in this topic as we seek to develop our knowledge of these critical issues explored. Please contact [email protected]