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SIX placemaking lessons learned from working across different cultures.

There is something beautiful about stepping outside your day-to-day context, and looking back. No matter where you are, and where you are looking back to, it makes you ask why things are the way they are.

Over the past four months I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in Apia, Samoa. A Pacific Island nation grappling with what customary land, place, neighbourhood and social structures look like when 70% of settlements are threatened by sea level rise and climate change impacts. It’s serious, and urgent.

One question I ask in this context is whether our ‘best practice’ placemaking guides will work in this context? The answer is: probably not. Because the context, social structures, values and aesthetics are so specific. But that begs a bigger question: why do we expect them to work elsewhere? Why do we not consider the identity, local leadership and place characteristics of every neighbourhood something that we need to better understand, before making decisions?

I grew up living in many countries and cultures around the world. This taught me, from a young age, an important lesson: that there is more than one way to solve a problem. It has also fundamentally challenged the way that I think about urban design and placemaking in my own ‘backyard’, in Australia. 

From my experience working in urban development in a number of countries, I would make  this observation: when professionals are working in a context that is cross-cultural, they are mindful of their communication, engagement and decision making processes. They listen. They collaborate. And rightly so. But when working in an apparently familiar cultural context, we fail to adopt this same approach. We instead make assumptions that we know the context and, therefore, we know what’s best.

I’ve always been troubled by this. In a country as diverse and multicultural as Australia, a neighbourhood a few kilometres away could be just as different, and hold different values and understanding, as a city thousands of kilometres away. Imagine the types of decisions and outcomes that we might generate if we worked collaboratively instead?

Our cities are rapidly growing, and changing. Building communities and neighbourhoods in this context relies on a thorough understanding of place. Without this, we could end up with homogenous living environments that perpetuate the social isolation and inequality that we trying to avoid in the first place.

Building communities and neighbourhoods in this context relies on a thorough understanding of place. Without this, we could end up with homogenous living environments that perpetuate the social isolation and inequality that we trying to avoid in the first place.

Here are six lessons I have learned from working overseas.

1. Understand what cultural lens you are looking through

A mantra that I have come to adopt is a phrase I learned from Prof Nabeel Hamdi, “I see what I see clearly, but what am I looking at?” This question asks us to examine our own cultural lens. To understand a context that we are working in, we need to first examine what bias and assumptions underpin what we see.

2. Don’t assume that you know what locals know.

When we are working in a cross-cultural context, we don’t make assumptions that we know what the community knows. This makes us more likely to adopt a participatory approach, to ask lots of questions, to treat local communities as experts in their own experience. Conversely, when we’re working in a familiar context, we have a tendency to assume we know the needs, preferences and aspirations of that place, based on our inherent cultural knowledge. This means we’re less likely to take time to understand the community. As a result we fail to achieve the local cultural variation required for thriving neighbourhoods and local sustainability.

3. Listen!

Listening isn’t about gaining feedback. In a cross-cultural context we’re conscious that a range of voices, the right voices, are heard. We are also very conscious of the way we communicate to overcome language barriers and differences in cultural understanding. We can adopt similar participatory methods when working in a familiar context, and gain a completely different story about the context in which we’re working.

4. Local user-satisfaction trumps design awards

Too often we judge a place’s success by how it is judged by other designers. The main criteria for a good design should be how well the local community uses and rates a place, not design awards.

5. Allow communities to live with their decisions.

“If only the community understood what’s best!”. Heard that before? There are often conflicts between expert knowledge and local knowledge, between development and status-quo. We need both sides. Expertise is critical and, sometimes, we do need to ask people to understand or embrace change. We also need to make better effort to understand, and come to a win-win solution.

6. Search globally for inspiration.

Placemaking in Copenhagen (or Melbourne, or New York) can teach us many great lessons. But they are not universal. When it comes to urban development we are fast to borrow ideas from Europe, North America and the global north, but quick to overlook the poignant innovation coming from Nairobi, Kinshasa, Mumbai and many other places, when there is much we can learn.

Let’s not limit our thinking.

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