Weaving stories of place and connection in Awataha – Northcote

“Well, what does the community think?” Isthmus’ Damian Powley talks Design & Placemaking

7 months ago by

This article was written by Damian Powley.


As designers within the public space or ‘Placemakers’, “What does the community think?” is a question that we get asked all the time—almost to justify the validity of a project. Engaging with the community is part of public process, but all the myriad of places and communities out there require their own nuance, flavour, and approach. As designers we would do well to consider that we are all ‘makers of places’—our communities included.

Communities are smart, connected, and resilient. The following is a collection of images (from different places and different communities), each tasked themselves with connecting communities to make Place – or Placemaking. It seems at odds considering that ‘places’ are already made –people have associations and connections with a place–that’s generally the definition of a human community– a group of people with connections or identity to place. For the most part, we live in these places–towns, cities, villages, or regions—areas that we associate or identify with—places that we call home. Our associations run deep through time and memory of the past—dreams and aspirations for the future. It therefore makes sense that we are all Placemakers. Perhaps the role of the designer is to bring the technical qualities of design to the fore, and along with communities, shape and re-make places together. 

But how? There are many methods, techniques, and tools—and there are certainly many amazing case studies big and small, up and down Aotearoa, and the world. Perhaps put another way, there are too many examples of not what to do.

For designers, acknowledging the mana within our communities is crucial. We should see the work that we do as a privilege, and that as designers, we can offer a different way to see their place. Openly inviting conversation of stories, ideas, and dreams, and openly sharing with them the design tools to create together.

Upholding shared values – Ngā Motu New Plymouth place animations.
Illustrated map of Clevedon
Connecting stories of place in Clevedon

There is always a role for the designer in this process. Finding those nuggets of gold within communities and their connections, physical and non-physical, drawing on and curating all of our experiences and training to support our communities to craft those nuggets of gold. Re-Making Places needs to be done together.

Parade of people on bikes wearing masks on footpath towing mobile karaoke container.
Taking mobile karaoke on bikes to the people of Ōtara.
Illustrated map of Waipawa
Creating people spaces in Waipawa.

About the author:

Damian Powley | Principal Landscape ArchitectIsthmus

Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua.
As we (people) disappear from sight, the land remains.

‘I always remind myself of this whakatauki when conceptualising our role as designers of the land. As designers to me it’s about recognising where we ‘fit’ into that continuum.

‘We’re not the be all and end all,’ says Principal Landscape Architect Damian, ‘and our role is to dig deeper, develop and build layers recognising our moment in time.

‘A lot of what I do is around connecting and involving the people for whom the project is for, into our design process’ says the designer with 18 years of experience. Honouring community throughout a project is important because they are the ones that live there.

‘The skill of a good designer is being able to spot the diamonds in the rough garnered from active participation in the design process. One cool example was a skate park; typically a place for skateboarders. But what came through from the locals is that they wanted families to feel safe there too — a place for everyone whether you skate or not. This challenged our assumptions about the use of space. How do we make it more inclusive? Connecting the space as part of the wider park, with viewing areas and visual cues to allow people to move through space. It needed to be self-managing too. Therefore we planted Aloe Vera for cuts and scratches and lemon trees to go with a feed from the nearby fish and chips shop. As non-locals, there are often the little things that can get missed if our end users are not involved. But they can make a huge difference to the way a space feels. These places need to thrive long after the design team has gone.‘And you know, for each and every project we do, it constantly fascinates me — how we can uncover our inherent connections between people and place. It wasn’t until I started to learn a bit more about my taha Māori side, that I found there’s not just synergies between Te Ao Māori and design approaches to the land — good design is one and the same. And we do have an inherently unique story to tell here in Aotearoa.’

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