Alisha Baker Senior Placemaker Village Well  / 
WE ADD A LITTLE BIT OF CHAOS

story / Interview / October 6, 2015

I studied landscape architecture and urban planning at RMIT. After I graduated, I worked at the City of Whittlesea as an Urban Designer. I spent a lot time involved in community engagement. I think that’s where my interest in placemaking started to emerge. The projects I worked on in local government all had an essence of placemaking. They were often instigated by a community need from the bottom up. From there, Village Well was the next logical step and I’m now officially called a ‘Placemaker’.

Village Well refers to the village water well. Gilbert (our Managing Director) is from Mauritius. The village well for him was about a meeting place; the community would meet at the well to get the water. It was part of their daily ritual. It kept the community poetic.

Placemaking is about the function of the place, rather than how it’s structured. The design of how people actually use the space. It’s asking the people; Who will use it? How they will use it? Rather than making an assumption, which people do naturally. We engage with people who are using the place day to day and the people who could potentially use it. Typically, we are guided by the local community, as well as our client (these are often the same people!), as they know their place the best.

We typically work with local government, state redevelopment agencies and a small handful of developers. We call them, the ‘enlightened’ developers. Those who see the benefit in our placemaking approach. If places are talked about as being fantastic and vibrant, it’s really beneficial for them. We don’t come on board as an architect or with a financial incentive. Our interests are about people. We tell them that from the outset, so immediately there’s a degree of trust. From a developer’s point of view, there’s sometimes fear about getting the community involved, so we help them along the journey. Ultimately it is the community who are the users of a place and their involvement will ensure the long term viability of a project.

I have been working on a project at Macquarie Point in Hobart. There’s isn’t an established community there as the site was used for rail and port activity for many years and closed to the public. The challenge comes when you have to create a place where people will come to if they’ve never been there before. You’ve got to leverage off what’s happening around the space and talk to the neighbouring community. There’s a lot of testing. It’s about understanding what’s missing in their community. What do they need? Thankfully, there are plenty of people with creative ideas and great local initiatives popping up just moments from the site so it was exciting to get all of these people involved.

When opinions are strong, I think that’s where you have to take people on the journey. We’ve had a lot of political projects and that occurs when people are passionate about a place. You can’t just put something in front of someone and say ‘This is what’s happening.’ If you can come to an agreement on a vision and principles, then that will guide the project direction. It’s the filter for decisions which are made later on. People also have to be flexible along the way, listen and respect others opinions.

I think placemaking has always existed in many different forms. Bringing people together and engagement is part of the placemaking process. In the US and Australia it’s become quite a trend. As our cities have evolved, they have become more and more similar, losing their playfulness and unique qualities. In Europe, India, Africa, life on the street as it’s always been there, they are a bit less contrived. Placemaking is about adding a lot of layers on top of each other. A large part of planning for the last fifty years was really about single uses like roads. Even with bike culture, it’s really hard now to make it work. Whereas if all those layers were on top of each other already, it’d be a little bit chaotic (and that is a good thing!). I guess we add a little bit of chaos!

Placemaking in the built environment, is that joining of the dots. Of everything coming together. In our team we all come from diverse backgrounds and I think that helps us join those dots. We are completely collaborative. Placemaking is about the people first and foremost. They will be the ones to help shape their environment and make it a better place. We ask locals within each place how they live, work, play, socialise, explore and be part of the wider community. At the end of the day, it’s their place and we need to understand if what we’ve described is the way they want it to be, with adaptability over time. Flexibility is really important.

My mother always tells me that I’m very resourceful. I think that is probably true. I like to make things myself or if I don’t know how to do it, I’ll ask other people for help. I’m very happy to get a team of people together and work to the best of everyone’s skills. I can’t do everything, so it’s nice to come together with people that can.

We met Alisha for a casual conversation one evening at her office overlooking Flinders Street. She strikes you as quiet initially, but in conversing with her, she is extremely thoughtful and enthusiastic in her attitude. She has a great passion for her job. A job that allows her to engage deeply in the community and with people and that takes her around the world (when we met with her she was shortly off to Oman). We wish her luck on her new projects and we hope you learnt something about placemaking!

 

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