It takes a village to build better cities

17 April 2013

As the NSW government white paper proposing how people should be involved in planning cities is released this week, a new exhibition at the University of Sydney looks at how that question has been answered in countries around the world.

Anna Rubbo, an adjunct professor at the University's Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, will be taking the exhibition - titled 'People Building Better Cities: Participation and Inclusive Urbanisation'- to 10 countries around the world. At each stop local events and seminars are planned, with the projects featured in the exhibition being used as a catalyst to help local communities think about their own cities.

In Sydney a free panel discussion this Thursday 18 April at the University, called 'Citizens and city making: who should be involved and how?' will be moderated by University of Sydney planning professor Peter Phibbs. Panelists include John Brockhoff representing the NSW Department of Planning; Chris Johnson from the Urban Taskforce; Paul Pholeros, architect, University of Sydney alumnus and director of Healthhabitat; and Kati Westlake from Parramatta Council. Given this week's release of the white paper A New Planning System for NSW, this promises to be a lively and topical event.

"The week of events also includes an invite-only workshop to be held on Friday 19 April, where academics, practitioners, consultants and community members will workshop the topic 'Public Participation in Planning'," says Professor Phibbs, who has worked with Rubbo to present the Sydney edition of the exhibition.

"This is particularly relevant given that the State Government has released its white paper this week on a new planning system for NSW, which calls for a fresh approach in community participation," he added.

While issues that concern communities around the world might be particular to each place, Rubbo believes "citizen engagement" is a pre-condition for a more inclusive city. The exhibition draws heavily on case studies from Global Studio, a program Rubbo co-founded in 2005 to take urban professionals and students from around the world to some of the world's poorest communities - including in Johannesburg, Istanbul and Bhopal - to come up planning and design solutions to problems local communities themselves have identified.

Some 600 students, academics and professional from 30 countries and 66 universities have taken part in Global Studio, working on issues ranging from roof repairs and home insulation, to remediating floodplains and creating structures and organisations to support local artists.

Rubbo describes Global Studio's work as a "bit like applying academic acupuncture to put a bit of pressure on a point to make things happen." She believes neither a "top down" approach driven by 'experts', nor a "bottom down" approach driven entirely by local communities, can be as successful as an approach that looks for the middle ground.

"We, the professionals, have knowledge and they, the locals, have knowledge, and it is a matter of building a partnership," says Rubbo, who is now based at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University's The Earth Institute. The most important lesson learnt by the often idealistic students and professionals who take part in Global Studios is how to "listen and work with the community to diagnose problems," she says.

Through 23 posters and a wealth of additional resources accessible through a smart phone QR reader, the People Building Better Cities exhibition will exchange knowledge, build networks, and promote dialogue between communities, urban professionals, universities, non-government organisations and policy makers.

The exhibition is a joint project of Global Studio and Columbia University's Center for Sustainable Urban Development, and is supported by a SAPPI Ideas That Matter grant. The Sydney edition of People Building Better Cities includes the following program.

Exhibition details

What: People Building Better Cities: Participation and Inclusive Urbanisation

When: Now until 26 April

Where: Level 2, Hearth, Wilkinson Building, Darlington Campus. Also on display at Customs House, Circular Quay.

Panel discussion details

What: Citizens and city making: who should be involved and how?

When: 6.30 to 8pm, Thursday 18 April

Where: ALT1, Wilkinson Building, Darlington Campus

Moderator: Peter Phibbs (Henry Halloran Trust)

Panelists: John Brockhoff (NSW Department of Planning); Chris Johnson (Urban Taskforce); Paul Pholeros (Healthabitat); Amelia Thorpe (Faculty of Law, UNSW); Geoff Turnbull (RedWatch); Kati Westlake (Parramatta Council).

No RSVP required

Customs House special event details

What: Meet the Exhibitors Pecha Kucha

When: 6.30 to 9pm, Tuesday 23 April

Where: Customs House, Circular Quay, Sydney

RSVP: by 18 April

Moderator: Genevieve Blanchett

Past Global Studio participants will show how they use participatory processes in their professional practice, and how some of the Global Studio projects have supported community-led development. Are there lessons for a more equitable Sydney?

For more information about the travelling exhibition, associated programs, or to join the conversation, visit the PBBC website.

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Media enquiries: Kath Kenny, 0478 303 173, 02 9351 1584,