Planning a suburb: the values of children informing a master planned community

Brooks Reach is a housing development in the City of Dapto, NSW by Stockland. Unremarkable and unidentifiable from other housing developments in the area but for one key point; children were involved in the community consultation process.

Aerial of Emu Park in context of Brooks Reach development

The development is centered around a park, the design of which was bourne from and extensive child-focused community consultation process.

 

Conceptual Design for Emu Park, JMD Design, 2012

The Dapto dreaming project (May-July 2011) provided an opportunity for local primary school children (aged 4-5 and 9-10) to have an input into design design of a new greenfields housing development. The children’s input was gained through a series of research workshops activities based on the Child-Friendly Cities initiative framework. Karen Malone of the University of Western Sydney, conducted the research, in conjunction with the landscape architect and developer [1].

Malone’s documentation of the project touches on some interesting themes. The necessity to conserve the existing habitat and cultural values of the area were and ongoing topic of discussion.

“Because the future is in our hands” – Paul, aged 9

As was the idea of social interaction and safety. The children wanted spaces to play and they wanted to be safe doing so. Perhaps they understood that this was a requirement for their parents to give them the freedom they wanted, perhaps it was an instinctual yearning.

Evidence suggests that the interactions of children playing increases interactions between their parents. Encouraging adults to communicate leads to a greater sense of community and belonging [2].

“My neighbourhood is safe, not many strangers and my neighbours are friends” – Jaida, aged 5

When considering this in the context of Brook’s Reach, the outcomes of Malone’s research suggest that this greenfields housing development has a level of community feeling that is different to surrounding neighbourhoods. While the notion of community was one that was initiated by the children, it was supported by their parents. There was a majority that believed other adults in the community would care for their children when they were playing unsupervised in the neighbourhood.

The concept of “stranger danger” and our perception of harm in the world outside of one’s own back yard are prevailing themes within the Australia psyche. The “micro community” I discussed last week made me feel comfortable to let my child play outside my enclosed garden, however, beyond my immediate neighbours, the perception of safety is diminished. On a personal level the idea that the community belonging I have felt can be extended further afield as my child grows is a compelling one.

The statement by one child participant “I liked that I got to help design it – now it feels like I own it somehow” invokes the idea that due to the consultation process these children are now invested in this neighbourhood and will carry with them a sense of place that may not have otherwise been realised.

At a qualitative level there are arguable benefits to the approach taken by Stockland at Brook’s Reach. Especially in relation to the notion of community and sense of place.

At an architectural level the results are interesting but not ground breaking. The play areas are bespoke timber and metal constructions and there is no generic plastic climbing tower and slide. There is an effort to separate play spaces into different age ranges, coupled with bright and interesting way-finding around the park. Rather than grassing over open spaces, native plants and shrubs provide shade for picnicing and place for parents to observe from the sidelines. Toilets and barbecues are provided so the park can be used as a destination, rather than a stop on the way to somewhere [3][4].

Emu Park, JDM Design, 2012

The built outcome of the park provides interesting juxtaposition. As a designer, what becomes more important; creating a space that is truly innovative, and highly acclaimed from an aesthetic point of view, or creating a space that holds the values of the users at heart and is beloved and utilised by the children who helped create it?

Emu Park, JDM Design, 2012

I believe the community involvement in this case resulted in a feeling of inclusion that could only be gained by the community consultation process. As a member of a community, we hold ourselves and each other accountable. Autonomy in this regard leads to lack of care for our surrounds and one another. If the involvement of children in the planning stages adds to the integration of the community, then regardless of the architectural merit of the housing development or the playground that holds it together, surely that is something worth pursuing.

“I liked that I got to help design it – now it feels like I own it somehow”

[1] Freeman, Claire and Tranter, Paul. Children and Their Urban Environment: Changing Worlds. London: Earthscan, 2011.

[2] Malone, Karen. “The future lies in our hands”:children as researchers and environmental change agents in designing a child-friendly neighbourhood. Local Environment, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2013): 372-395.

[3] Outdoor Design. “Creating a Community.” Accessed September 20, 2017. https://www.outdoordesign.com.au/news-info/exemplary-projects/Creating-a-Community/143.htm.

[4]McIlwain, Kate. “Unveiled:the playground kids really want.” Illawarra Mercury, June 4, 2012. http://www.illawarramercury.com.au/story/113667/unveiled-the-playground-kids-really-want/