The best new residential developments are those embraced wholeheartedly by the community.
We sometimes take it for granted, but almost every built community across Australia was at one point merely lines on a drawing board.
Of course, communities are much more than physical structures or institutions — they’re a place where you feel you truly belong.
While established suburbs have had years for people to forge connections, for new communities to flourish, they need to get the ingredients right from day one.
The right formula doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a lot of groundwork and community engagement on behalf of the developers.
This effort wasn’t always seen as important, but is now highly valued and part of a bigger revolution in the process of how new communities are made.
Ways of old
For many years, many developers saw their role as simply getting on with the job of building new homes, leaving the rest up to local councils.
People are front and centre in the minds of community designers. Picture: Ed.Square, NSW
Many worked under a mindset to ‘design and defend’. They worried that by engaging with the community, they would only be throwing roadblocks in the approval path and damage commercial viability.
“(Developers) probably didn’t see it as an opportunity or something that was going to add value,” says David Mazzotta, senior community development manager, Frasers Property Australia.
Meanwhile, communities felt like they weren’t being listened to or respected.
“There’s something happening on their doorstep which is going to profoundly impact the way they live their life and they feel entitled to be able to have a say to what’s going on — and I don’t think communities felt that that was the case,” Mazzotta says.
Mazzotta says it became clear that a lack of engagement between developers and local communities served no one’s interests. Now, things have significantly changed.
Sustainability and urban greenery have become overarching design principles of many new communities. Picture: Burwood Brickworks urban farm
Developers started to realise local knowledge was an untapped resource that could have a positive influence on their projects, says Brian Elton, founder of Elton Consulting.
Elton, who has more than 40 years of experience in urban planning, housing and social policy, says that engagement first started to be seen as a way of managing potential issues.
“It was a risk management issue, but (it became) much more than that — it was a way of getting really meaningful and quality input from people who knew their local place,” Elton says.
The smarter developers realised that by embracing the community they could start to understand the DNA of the place and the intricacies of the landscape, Elton explains.
“There was a growing awareness that it wasn’t to be feared, but in fact was a very proactive, useful tool – done well and done meaningfully and authentically – to create better places.”
Knowing the history of a development site can lead to designs that are truly unique to that location, Mazzotta says.
“What is the X-factor for that place? Why do people value that suburb? Why have they chosen to live there and not somewhere else? They’re the things that you really want to understand,” he says.
It’s not just about creating a space, but thinking about how people will use it. Picture: Burwood Brickworks shopping centre
The location’s cultural heritage, such as its First Nations connection or industrial pastime, can inspire the choice of architecture, monuments, open spaces and more.
When this is done right, Elton says it leads to a feeling that the DNA of the surrounding community is already a part of the new development.
“Importantly, if it’s a First Nations community, you can sense the interpretation of that rich social and cultural history in the place,” he says.
Plus, if you can get the local people to co-own what’s going to happen in their backyard, then they become champions of the community and might form a local committee for the development.
“That’s the ultimate outcome — to create social capital so the place is owned by the surrounding community and not imposed on it,” Elton says.
Putting talk into action
Considering the views of the local community has been integral to the work Frasers Property Australia and Irongate Group are doing at the 24-hectare Bradmill cotton factory urban redevelopment in Yarraville, Melbourne.
Bradmill is an iconic landmark of the local area. Picture: Bradmill in Yarraville, Victoria
Mazzotta says it will be “part of Yarraville and not apart from Yarraville” and the community has been keen to have input.
“The community engagement approach we’ve taken has been to understand Yarraville, to understand Bradmill’s place, and to understand people’s connection to Bradmill, to understand that migrant story and the different community’s place in that site.”
He’s hoping people who have not used the site for years will enjoy rediscovering it.
“The Bradmill site since the early fifties has provided employment for generations of people that have lived in that area. A lot of Greek families worked there; a lot of other migrant families worked there,” Mazzotta says.
“It means a lot to young people that live there now, but it also means a lot to people that are older that went to school nearby, whose parents may have worked there, or whose grandparents may have worked there.”
A site can mean many things to different people, so it’s important to consult the entire community. Picture: Bradmill in Yarraville, Victoria
Frasers is taking the essence of those stories into the design, such as with street names that nod to the history, or having edible street trees such as olive trees.
Pictures are courtesy of Frasers Property Australia.