Lucinda Hartley Co-Founder CoDesign Studio  / 
Real Identity

story / Interview / July 4, 2016

I am a landscape architect, turned urbanist, turned social entrepreneur. I started out in landscape architecture. Here I found that there was a lot of opportunity, when you are working on public space projects, to actually look at how those projects can build a stronger community. But this isn’t often realised.

I reached the point where I wanted to be able to leverage greater social impact and positive change on the projects I was working on. I really wanted to work at the axis between urban design and community development and to look at combining the benefit of a very well planned, high quality design and bottom-up collaborative decision making processes. There is obviously a really strong, well-developed community development sector and equally there is a really well-developed planning sector, but those two groups don’t understand each other very well, which is a huge missed opportunity.

In my experience of the built environment sector, projects begin when an expert has an idea, this may be followed by some level of community engagement (or not) and then that’s what gets built. Understanding the real identity of creating something together has a much more powerful agenda – it helps build resilience. And that process if done well can help building stronger communities.

Frustrated by the lack of citizen-expert collaboration in my profession, I ended up spending two years working in South East Asia (mostly in Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh) on resettlement and had an experience that exposed me to range of alternative ways on how you can create communities. Here I was working on neighbourhood improvement projects with people that have no land, no money, no resources at all, but who were getting together and creating projects and improvements. There were some key lessons for me from this approach that I think could really help us build more resilient communities in Australia: leveraging local resources, capacity, ideas, and working more collaboratively.

As a starting point, around 30% of the space in Australian cities is just vacant or not being utilised. At the same time we have the challenge of the population growth, increasing density and climate change. I think through a community development process, we can reshape some of these spaces; providing a platform or a canvas to help communities come together and create spaces as we need them to be.

At CoDesign we often focus on low cost improvement in public spaces, but this is not the end-game. Through our collaborative process, these spaces provide opportunities for the people in the neighbourhood, who did not know each other, to  come together and create something that they are proud of. This has long-term impact. Collaborative development can help us expand the amount of public space and the number of community facilities available, in a way that might not be possible if the space was developed through a more traditional development process.

The Play Streets Australia is a program where we are transforming side street into play spaces in the weekends. It is a very very simple idea. Most Australians grew up playing cricket in streets and now there is a whole program to bring it back. What I love about this project is its simplicity – no physical changes are needed to the street, its simply about reprogramming its use.

The methodology that underpins most of our work is tactical urbanism. This is defined as an approach to neighbourhood; building low cost, short term projects that allow long term change. It is a very organic movement of city-making that supports traditional planning by testing ideas, building community support and quickly implementing projects that might otherwise be part of a plan sitting on a shelf. Using tactical urbanism there are lots of ways that you can bring about neighbourhood renewal that is very low cost and quick to deliver.

At CoDesign we have expanded on the idea of ‘tactical’ projects to build a Collaborative City-Making framework. This is a very strategic process. It is the framing of the conversation: How can you use these experiments in order to drive long term change? Can you do a tactical experiment to test an idea for a new public space that gets long term funding? Or can you build new community relationships in a way that you couldn’t have by activating the laneway? So there is always the long term strategic intention which perhaps differentiates itself from the ‘Pop-Up Store’ fad.

We worked with Street Plans Collaborative in New York on the guide: Tactical Urbanism Guide (Vol 4): Australia and NZ. What we wanted to do was capture the conversation and review how tactical urbanism was being applied in Australia and New Zealand.  Often people think tactical urbanism is about being urban chic (which it sometimes is) but what we found in preparing the guide was that there were people in rural towns, in large cities and in suburban retail strips, all applying these kind of principles to undertake neighbourhood renewal projects.

I am always interested in people who are proactive and don’t sit back and wait for opportunities to come to them. Sometimes even when doors look closed, when you knock, you find they aren’t closed. There are some people who are bold enough to knock and others who wait. In the current employment market there isn’t so much work for people who wait. Be bold, ask and put yourself out there.

Whether it is TEDx or public speaking conference, I think that there it is very important to talk about different ways of doing things. The day to day focus on delivery is obviously part of the everyone’s job, but we are living in a very interesting time where cities are changing faster than they ever have.  We need to stop and question if the way we are doing things is the right way. Talking about these issues will help us think differently and solve problems; not just accept the way we have always done things, for the future.

My current challenge in operating a social enterprise that is trying to push boundaries in a lot of different directions. There are no rule books for guidelines for what we are trying to do. That can be stressful as much as it is exciting. We are a not-for profit consultancy, so we have a different governance structure and business model to traditional built environment practices. And at the same time we are selling products and services that didn’t exist even just 5 years ago. And then there is the challenge to continue to innovate, continue to find better ways to achieve more collaboration, better social outcomes, more public spaces. And we are a very small team in the scheme of things.  I feel constantly exhausted, but somewhere find the energy to pick up and keep going.

My mother always told me whatever I pack, I have to carry. I have got this thing in my mind that if I have got a lot of bags or if I have over packed and someone offers to help, I say, ‘No, I have to carry it.’ I packed it. My mum is a climate scientist and has been a strong advocate for professional women in science. I think watching her, rather than her specifically say things, encouraged me to aim high and to never accept second best. Those kinds of things have been a guiding force for me.


Lucinda is one busy lady. As the co-founder of CoDesign Studio, she is a brilliant example of someone who has a real social passion for change and has been able to turn that into a successful practice, which actively makes a positive difference to the lives of the people that live in our cities. CoDesign Studio’s offices in Collingwood are the stuff of dreams (for two girls who live on site). Nestled in an airy, light warehouse in Collingwood, where we popped in to visit Lucinda (and her two gorgeous kids) to snap some photos. It’s so important that the industry continues to foster leaders in innovation and social enterprise, like Lucinda. People that are there to ask the important questions and work with communities for a better outcome. Lucinda herself is such a passionate woman, who seems extremely attuned to her self-mandate for positive contribution. We are very lucky to have interviewed and photographed her (through her maternity leave!) and wish her and CoDesign all the best for the future.

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