Sarah Jane Borg Urban Designer Moreland City Council  / 
Above The Line

story / Interview / June 1, 2015

Originally when I left school I studied a Diploma in Fashion at Box Hill Tafe. I really liked the idea of being in fashion, but once I got into the field, I was put off pretty much straight away. I had a friend who was a Town Planner. Talking to her about what she did and the kind of social and political considerations she had, interested me. I ended up applying for Urban Design at RMIT and then ended up transferring to the double degree with Landscape Architecture.

I always thought it would be good to work for a Council as I like the idea of working with the community. I’ve been at Moreland [City Council] for a couple of years now. It was a hard transition at first. Council operates a lot differently to  private consultancy. There are lots of stakeholders internally and externally. At Council you get a larger range of work; it goes from small scale to large scale to medium scale. You speak with lots of different people. There’s opportunity for training, though at the end of the day you always have to make your own opportunities too. You can be at an organisation and not have any of that, if you don’t put your hand up for it.

I think the beauty of urban design is that it’s a mixture of the two disciplines. I still feel like I am involved in quite a bit of landscape architecture but I have the added bonus of completing some large scale strategic projects as well. That’s the beauty of urban design, you can really zoom in and also zoom out to see the large scale. Urban design is a collaborative approach to the design of public space. Urban designers work with engineers, transport engineers and planners, to deliver a design or strategic plan.

The beauty of working at a council is that you tend to follow projects all the way through.  In the inception stage we could be writing a business case. If the project gets funding and approval then you’re potentially writing briefs for contractors or engineering consultants. In procurement, you’re tendering, moving through the design phase and the construction phase. This time last year I was mid construction on a project in Fawkner and I was out on site two days a week, responding to questions from the contractor. At the moment, I’m predominantly working on a strategic planning project. Amidst these major projects, we regularly advise on medium to high density developments that are lodged with our statutory planners, we respond to community concerns on particular issues and provide comment on other projects happening within the organisation. It’s quite varied.

The biggest difference I’ve found working in a private company as opposed to the public sector, is ultimately the Client. The Client when working for Council, is the community. At Council it is our job to make the best outcome for the community. In private consultancy, the majority of the work that we did was with developers. Developers are trying to create a good product that sells within the current climate of customers wants, but is not always in the best interests of the community.

My most successful project would be one that we completed last year; the Anderson Road upgrade to the shopping strip in Fawkner.  I worked on this project right through from inception to construction, so the ownership and sense of achievement was strong.  As the project was partly funded by Melbourne Water, we were able to incorporate some WSUD (Water Sensitive Urban Design) elements into the project, which were a great success. There were three main rain gardens in the upgrade which treat stormwater runoff from the road. We tried out a few things with the rain gardens that were a bit off standard, which I think were to their benefit. I also learnt a lot about construction management. To top it off I organised a launch for the actual space, which was quite successful. We had a one man marching band, all these activities for the kids. I did some community engagement with the two neighbouring schools. We had two artwork pieces commissioned by two local artists, who went to the schools and did some workshops with the kids. I thought that was a great way to get them involved.

I’m all for the move to medium to high density housing, but I realise it is not for everyone. With this comes updating and improving existing infrastructure, rather than creating new infrastructure. To me, the solution is to reinvest in public transport, which will allow us to densify  along our transport corridors. Australians typically have this mentality that they want a backyard and a front yard and they want to be detached from their neighbours, which is all well and good. You can still have that lifestyle, but maybe not around main metropolitan Melbourne. I’m all for medium density housing, but it’s a lifestyle that Australians just aren’t used to.

I’m a Moreland resident myself and I’m probably contributing to the gentrification of Moreland. I think in the ’60s and ’70s there was a large influx of southern European immigrants who moved into Brunswick, Coburg, and Fawkner. Brunswick is quite an attractive place for young people to live, but the more attractive it becomes, the more unaffordable it is to buy in Brunswick. Hence, more people are moving onto the fringes of Coburg. We have a high percentage of elderly people in Moreland and so it’s only natural that slowly a new demographic will come in. I’m very careful not to produce design based on people’s culture or age, because the minute you single out one culture or demographic, then you’re not representing everybody else. When we are designing we tend to be more driven by accessibility, basic amenity and existing context. I get my influence and my inspiration more from architecture, shapes and existing environment.

As a young professional the biggest challenges I regularly encounter is office politics. It is important to understand that everyone has an agenda. It’s that analogy of the iceberg, you can only see a little bit on top, but you look under the water and there’s a lot going on. You need to understand why people have the opinions and attitudes that they have. It’s sometimes hard to accept the way they approach things. If you can try and keep conversation ‘above the line’, with questions that start with ‘what’, and ‘how’, questions which are about the future and how we’re going to deal with the situation, you’re going to come up with a more positive, proactive outcome. If you’re asking questions about ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, they are basically questions that are going to be blaming or focused on the past and are not proactive at all. If you can keep conversations ‘above the line’ then ultimately you’ll feel better off and it has move vision for the next step and moving forward.

ABOVETHELINE

I come from a Maltese background, so things my parents say to me, do not translate very well. My mother always says to me, ‘When you’re in a learning environment, pretend that you don’t know anything. If they think you don’t know everything, they are more likely to take the time to explain everything to you. On the other hand, if they think you know everything, they’re not going to tell you anything.’

Our chat with Sarah, at Gerald’s Bar, was everything that Gazella is about. Sarah is gorgeous, and bubbly. Far too full of wisdom for a woman so young. You can see that everything about her attitude, her engagement with the world around her and the way she seems so comfortable with herself and her own panache, has lead her to where she is. As the golden summer light streamed through the vintage look gauze curtains and funk music pumped in the background (thanks Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars), we had the pleasure of engaging in a dialogue both intriguing and heartwarming. It doesn’t take long to realise that Sarah is a gem. We hope you enjoyed her interview as much as we did.

 

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