How design can help your neighbourhood

Dr Anna Rubbo, Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, New York, and founder of Global Studio, ...
David Killick

Dr Anna Rubbo, Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, New York, and founder of Global Studio, at the People Building Better Cities exhibition in Christchurch.


How could design help improve your neighbourhood or city? Here are some suggestions penned on Post-It notes:

"Include affordable well-designed housing."

"Accessible means access for all citizens, not traffic flow."

"Design can foster conversations about people's dreams and make them real."

"Make it feel like somewhere I'd like to live (not dodgy, dirty, or dingy)."

If those thoughts sound a lot like Share An Idea, the Christchurch City Council's acclaimed post-earthquake campaign of 2011, they have a lot in common. The ideas board ­ – for Christchurch people to have a say – is part of  People Building Better Cities, a travelling exhibition now visiting town.

The exhibition is a collaboration between Global Studio and the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University in New York. There are two main parts: The exhibition highlights the massive challenges facing cities over the next century and proposes ways to combat them. It also details successful projects around the world where community engagement has made a real difference.

It's like Share An Idea taken to the next level and beyond.

Dr Anna Rubbo, now based at Columbia University, founded Global Studio in 2004 while working at Sydney University. After studying urbanisation and the disastrous effects on both society and the environment, she decided, "Why don't we do something about this?"

Global Studio forged partnerships among academic, professional, and United Nations organisations, architects, engineers, and citizens, to create what Rubbo calls "participatory planning and design".

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The initiative ran from 2005 to 2012. Case studies outline diverse projects that share a common theme: All were in cities grappling with calamitous problems; sometimes so seemingly intractable that local authorities had given up on them and didn't even try.

Many people remember the horrendous Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984, in which as many as 3700 people are believed to have died and many thousands more were critically injured. However, there has been little publicity what life was like for people living there following the disaster.

Global Studio worked on a project for "an inclusive city centre", and developed proposals for a pedestrian-cyclist friendly lakefront and a "We Are Bhopal" festival.

At Prempura, an urban village just outside Bhopal,  Global Studio sought to improve school facilities with better hygiene and health, community spaces, and landscaping.

Global Studio partnered with WITS University in South Africa to improve living conditions in three townships near Johannesburg. Environment, sanitation, and arts and culture were all addressed. One successful outcome was the creation of public art works.

Another project by Healthabitat focused on "Housing For Health" and "Health Through Design" for people in Nepal, Haiti, and Cameroon, as well as indigenous Australians and New York City's urban poor.

Other organisations worked on projects in Thailand and Bangladesh.

While the projects may have not solved all the problems for the urban poor in those areas, they have made a difference.

Rubbo is under no illusions about the scale of the challenges facing the planet. Seventy per cent of the world's population will be living in cities by 2050. Pollution and climate change will have a growing impact.

She cautions that while big countries like China produce the lion's share of emissions, Australia and New Zealand cannot afford to be complacent.

The outlook is not all grim, however. Possible solutions might include urban agriculture, mass transit, bicycles, density and mixed use, green building and tree planting.

According to Global Studio, top-down planning and design can "put urban professionals in the driver's seat" but loses out on community engagement; while "bottom-up planning does the reverse, and loses the benefits of professional expertise".  The best solution is a combination.

Global Studio came up with a non-linear diagram that features a series of colourful icons with names such as observe, listen, talk, brainstorm, collaborate, design, plan, develop, debate, and implement.

"The process of city making is so complicated," says Rubbo. "It's not just a planning matter or an architectural matter; it's a very broad-based matter."

Talking with people is vital, she insists. "If you can help start something and can do it in a  collaborative way, then people take it with them. It's that process of taking it forward."

Issues and possible solutions are, of course, highly relevant to Christchurch as it continues to rebuild and reinvent itself after the earthquakes.

Dr Jessica Halliday, who helped bring the People Building Better Cities exhibition to Christchurch, says she hopes it will "stimulate conversations and action ... how everyday citizens can be involved in urban form, services, transportation, and projects large and small in the city they make home."

People Building Better Cities is on display at Te Pūtahi Pop-Up Space in Gloucester Street, just along from the Isaac Theatre Royal, and runs to August 29. Information: For a schedule of public lectures and talks, see:

 - The Press


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