Following the re-election of the previous government in the recent NSW state election, we now have a dedicated Minister for Public Spaces — Welcome Minister Stokes!
One of the Minister’s key tasks will be to identify and protect publicly owned land for use as parks or public spaces. Funding has also been made available to turn existing Government owned land into new and upgraded parks.
Public spaces in regional areas
Whilst the Minister’s focus will initially be in Sydney, the appointment of a dedicated Minister for Public Spaces has made us contemplate how we manage public spaces in regional places. We all know the importance of these spaces to our communities and that high-quality public spaces improve the liveability for our villages and towns. They are also good for our health and well being and the economy.
In regional areas, there is typically an abundance of public space for residents and visitors to enjoy. This is often a major draw card for people to leave city life behind. In coastal areas, public space is often on the foreshore, near the beach and is the jewel in the town’s crown.
However, sometimes the quality of these spaces is lack lustre. They may not respond to the needs or desires of the community. There may be poor connectivity with the town centre or sub-standard facilities like toilets. This can mean that the spaces are underutilised and not delivering the benefits to their communities that they could be.
The draft Urban Design Guidelines for Regional NSW recognise the importance of good design in public spaces in regional areas by stating:
The public realm is the most important place to apply urban design. It needs to be designed to facilitate civic pride, social cohesion, a sense of community, and support peoples’ health and well being
Designing great places for regional public spaces
So how is this achieved? Well, our work takes us to lots of regional communities where we hear what people think and feel about the design of their open spaces. These often revolve around three themes:
1. Create spaces for specific places
People want public spaces that reflect the character and feel of their local place. Normally off the shelf products or ideas that have a big city feel will not fit. The design needs to respond to the place and the community.
2. Connectivity is key
People want public spaces that are well connected to their homes, facilities and shops. This means decent shared paths for bikes, walkers, runners and prams which connect to the key points within a town or village – which also gets people out of their cars and walking through town where they might even spend a few dollars and help the local economy.
3. Keep them green
People want public spaces with trees and landscaped areas – and preferably lots of them. This is for aesthetic reasons as well as practical ones like shade. There is also a growing trend towards nature-based play experiences for the younger generation rather than plastic play equipment which offers limited opportunity for creativity and connection to nature.
Importance of community participation
Whilst these are common themes, the best design and use of a public space can only be achieved by speaking and listening to the local community. The importance of community participation in the design of green spaces is recognised in the draft Greener Places guidelines issued by the Government Architect:
Better solutions often appear when a diverse set of people participate. Embracing diversity and collecting knowledge, opinions, and perspectives from a wide range of users such as community, workers, and visitors will provide more balanced, and inclusive solutions for communities.
In our recent project for the upgrade of the riverside park in Woodburn following the bypass of the Pacific Highway, we worked closely with the community to understand their needs and to design facilities which provide local and regional benefits. It is exciting to see this project now coming to fruition.