I started studying architecture. After completing my fourth year of study, I realised it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I moved to Melbourne and did a grad dip in Social Theory. The sociology component of that, together with the Architecture, meant that I moved into urban design. I did a Masters of Urban Design and finally, moved into planning. Now I work where urban design meets strategic planning.
I love that there are so many components to planning cities. You can be talking about the sociology of cities one day. The next you can be talking about the ecology of cities, or the aesthetics and design. There are so many different aspects to the problem solving. It all comes back to exploring cities and solving the problem that is the city. There’s never ending layers to the problem.
It’s just myself in my business and I pull in collaborators when needed. I love it. I can’t imagine not being my own boss now. It’s been so liberating. I’m lucky through my practice in Melbourne in the past, I have a good network and good connections. A lot of the work I’ve been doing to date, has been building on projects or relationships with people I’ve been working with in the last five years. I’m really passionate about the central city. I like issues around density and challenges around how you get trickier spots in the city to work.
Most of my clients to date have been government and I particularly focus on that policy space. I’ve done some work with developers, but I don’t actually see governments and developers as necessarily conflicted. Part of what I want to do is bring them closer together. We are stuck in this us and them. I’ve worked for really good developers and not so great developers. I’ve worked with really inspiring people in government and public service and not so inspiring people in public service.
I’ve been working very closely on Melbourne’s recent planning changes. The Central City Built Form Review is one of my projects. It’s been a really fascinating journey. Two years ago I got a Churchill Fellowship, which was looking at density controls in the city. My work was pivotal in triggering the review of inner city Melbourne. It’s about delivering a more liveable city, that suits everybody.
The main findings of the Churchill review, was that Melbourne, at the time, was developing far denser than any of the cities I went to; New York, Hong Kong, Vancouver, Tokyo and Seoul. I wrote the report and sent it to some colleagues on a Friday. Within a couple of days, it was in the newspapers. The impact was amazing. Over the next six months there was a lot of debate, then the Minister for Planning bought in interim controls, informed by what I had written and further work done by the department since then.
Architects haven’t been able to design what they know is good design, because without some basic controls in place, they were being pushed for more and more yield on sites. Deeper floor plates, buildings closer and closer together. I’m not a fan of putting controls in place for control’s sake, but I think you need to lock in the minimum required for a good outcome and leave the rest open for exploration.
This is where it gets a bit confusing. Hong Kong is denser than Melbourne now, but the controls in place in Melbourne allowed a lot of the towers going up to be far, far more dense. When I was travelling, I would have an hour or so to interview people and I would spend the first fifteen minutes convincing them that what was happening in Melbourne was actually happening. People didn’t believe me.
The other subtle thing to the argument is, it’s not about the architecture or the tower, it’s about what is suitable for the context. You can have that tower on a much bigger site and it might be ok. It’s that we were putting very big towers, on very small sites and coming together cumulatively for a poor outcome. Scarily some cities are looking to Melbourne and saying ‘Oh we should have lesser controls, because Melbourne has lesser controls and it’s the most liveable city.’ It’s important that we don’t copy each others bad policies.
Starting my own business has made a massive difference to my work life balance. It’s been much, much better. Life has a different rhythm to it. I work very hard, I often work weekends or public holidays, but I’m in charge of my time. I can say, ‘My sister’s in town, I’m not working Friday ,’ without telling anyone about it. You take on board what you think you can handle.
Be brave. Keep pushing boundaries and find great people to work with and great projects to work on. Also recognise that every single project can be what you bring to it. It doesn’t have to be the most exciting project. You can bring creativity to every project.
I tell my stepdaughter, who is seventeen, to be herself, trust herself and back herself. I took a long time to really trust myself, maybe not until my thirties, did I get the confidence. If they can gain that confidence quickly, they’ll be amazing and shine.
We met Leanne at a cafe in Howley Place for a drink. She has a calm temperament. Quietly spoken, she told us the story around the Churchill fellowship paper and the subsequent media frenzy that exploded once the Age published her findings. It’s not surprising that her passion for strategic planning whilst traveling around the world, has brought her to the space she works in today. Leanne’s contribution shows only too well that we need more people like her taking action to bring about positive change. A great role model to her step daughter, we can only hope that she pursues her passion for many years to come. Thanks again Leanne. It was a pleasure.