I have observed over the years, that the urban development process is often very siloed with a very conscious effort made to limit inputs from outside the developer’s core team. This may be seen as commercially and operationally astute and necessary to prevent budget, planning approval and program blow outs.
However, in an increasingly networked society and business world, successful and innovative developments are more often borne out of collaboration and partnerships than they are from keeping all of your cards close to your chest.
By their very nature, development sites do not exist in a vacuum but contribute to a much broader urban ecosystem that is brimming with opportunity for those who take the time to gather information and insights and are willing to cultivate useful partnerships in order to take advantage of certain market opportunities.
I believe there is a distinct commercial advantage to be gained by including local government in the core team, identifying key community and industry groups for consultation, and engaging with future residents as these steps can create a range of benefits. This level of engagement makes it possible to reduce risk; explore potential socially and commercially lucrative ‘what if’s’; create advocates for your project to assist with the planning approvals process; secure tenants and project partners early; and to develop a strong vision and value proposition for your project.
The core team usually consists of just the developer and one or two lead consultants. Alternatively, I am advocating that this core team should be expanded to include ‘place focused’ representatives from the local council. I realise that this is a controversial view as the relationship between developers and local councils is so often adversarial, however the council representatives could provide valuable insights into the local social and economic context, assist to identify service, housing and infrastructure gaps which could be potential market opportunities.
During my recent experience, working on Warralily Village, a new town centre in the growth suburb of Armstrong Creek, Victoria, the early visioning workshops included council officers from key departments such as Economic Development, Strategic Planning and Social Services. This allowed for productive discussion and debate on the most appropriate targets and outcomes for the new community.
The entire core team, including the council representatives, attended site visits to existing village centres to learn from what worked well and what could be improved. This was a valuable process as it allowed the design team to capture new ideas, provided council with a forum to table their concerns and desires from the outset, and provided the developer the opportunity to outline their commercial imperatives while gauging council support in the early design stages.
Involving the council to this degree from the early stages also enables discussion of potential council funded facilities, provides the opportunity to explore more creative and unique site specific design solutions and also ensures there are strong advocates for your project during the development approvals process.
In addition to this suggested change to the core team, it is also important to identify a network of potential tenants/operators/service providers from a mix of sectors. This may include potential stakeholders such as a supermarket operator, major medical group, medium density housing developer, office hub operators, council facilities representatives; through to site specific groups such as the local indigenous representatives or organisations like the local water or energy authority.
They will all be able to provide a different perspective and further inform the core team in the formation of the project vision. While liaison with these stakeholders may involve a mix of individual discussions and potentially larger workshops once a reference group is formed, seeking input from such diverse contributors enables an early understanding of their requirements, allows the feasibility of their inclusion to be explored and, where appropriate, secures their future involvement.
Finally, if we are aiming to create a place that people are proud of, where they can socialise and connect, walk or ride, or start a small business, then it is crucial that we involve those people in the process of creating a new place. By consulting with the community we have the opportunity to hear first-hand what is most important to them, and allow opportunities to capture some unique stories and historical references about the particular site which could be integrated into a broader place making approach.
The difficulty with this form of community consultation in growth areas is that in the very early stages of a development, there may be no residents to consult with. However, there are very often situations where adjacent existing neighbourhoods could be consulted, especially given the statistics that show up to 50 per cent of new residents will originate within a 5–10km radius of the new development.
Also, the delivery of the town centre is often occurring several years after the first housing subdivisions have been established, so there will in fact be an existing community in place that can act as representatives for the future residents that are still to come.
Going one step further, there is potentially a largely untapped opportunity for developers to integrate and thereby simultaneously enhance their marketing, sales and planning activities, by inviting potential residents to participate in consultation sessions in return for genuine pre-sales opportunities, building a network of potential buyers who are actively involved in the process of creating their new neighbourhood.
I am in the privileged position to drive many of these forms of engagement and collaboration in my work as an architect; however, I am keen to hear from others in the industry who are already broadening the traditional stakeholder engagement process to enable a more collaborative approach and whether this is generating positive results?
Dean Landy is a registered architect, urban designer, speaker and author for the recently published book, Creating Vibrant Communities. With 19 years experience in community development projects within Australia and overseas and as a partner at Melbourne based architecture firm ClarkeHopkinsClarke, he is actively involved in the design of many town centres across Australia.
Landy is also the founder and director of One Heart Foundation, a unique 'for purpose' organisation breaking the poverty cycle in Africa by establishing schools and homes to care for orphaned and abandoned children.