The ‘public living room’ and its role in contemporary urban transformation
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that human life is diminished without social connections and the experience of face-to-face interactions. Surveys of the impact of COVID-19 on health and well-being have found that one in two Australians report feeling “lonelier” since the pandemic,1 and social isolation has gained ground as a major public health issue in the past decade. Social thinkers have been documenting this trend for some time, with Robert D. Putnam’s book Bowling Alone (2000) reporting the decline of social capital in the United States as far back as 1950.2 The problem is that social isolation and loneliness puts a huge strain on society and the economy, especially against the backdrop of financial crises, and the downward spiral of civic participation has the potential to make us even more vulnerable to the next (inevitable) extreme event. As Richard Sennett asserts, referring to social bonds in cities, “Society is disempowering people in the practice of cooperation”3 – precisely at the time when we seem to need these skills most. But, perversely, through lockdowns, the pandemic has taught us all to practice cooperation in new ways.
Our physical spaces are at the heart of how we come together, whether in high streets, community buildings or parks – and it is often where people organize themselves collectively. During the pandemic, cities like Melbourne and Sydney have all but shut down, shining a light on how our urban spaces look and function, as well as who has access to them. Communities, civil society and the mutual aid sector have stepped up during lockdowns, proving that they are part of the glue that holds society together. But the local government also took the initiative in the crisis, designing new services and spaces for social engagement. Around the world, many local councils have developed innovative ways to promote economic recovery and social connection through temporary reactivation of shopping strips and public spaces. As our neighborhoods reopen, the experiences of the pandemic have sharpened our awareness of what successful public places and services look and feel like, and how they can support long-term civic engagement and local participation. Success lies beyond asking people to be better neighbors; it also requires us to rethink the structural drivers and forms of governance and urban development that can contribute to making our cities feel like private (and lonely) enclaves.
Image: Welsh and Major
In the wake of the pandemic, a series of major new community and civic projects are emerging around Australia. Some were already completed or underway, but others were accelerated by the crisis. In many cases, the driver for these new civic spaces was sharp population growth in suburban areas and regional towns, as well as the need to centralize and consolidate services to reduce costs and increase convenience. The greatest relevance of these projects, post-pandemic, may lie in their exploration of the intersection between people, public services and physical space – often in ways that hybridize more conventional “civic centers” and experiment with new typologies. Traditionally, civic architecture reflected the social forms of its era – with conventional town halls and council offices accommodating functions such as government offices, rooms for hosting official events, and registrations of births, deaths and marriages. This new generation offers a different proposition, with urban design, streetscapes and placemaking as important as the more formal programming of interior spaces and functional rooms. In some cases, assignments integrate much wider uses than council facilities alone, supporting what we now call the “civic economy” – spaces that support the arts and culture sectors and that integrate workplaces, venues and facilities operated by non-profit organizations and actors . And although these new projects are often framed around the “civic”, they also define themselves in looser ways, recognizing a new informality in civic behavior, where various municipal activities collide, but where people can also come together spontaneously.
Image: Simon Wood
Before the pandemic, Chrofi designed what it called a ‘public living room’ for the city of Maitland. In collaboration with the local council and McGregor Coxall, the architect has carefully connected the high street to the river via a new public building that offers a cafe, a restaurant and a covered space that can be converted into an outdoor theatre.4 If a modest piece of urban acupuncture, this public project works primarily as an urban streetscape intervention, but it is also spacious enough in its scope to accommodate both practical and temporary uses. This everyday public space sits at one end of the scale and offers an example of how civic “architecture” can provide an anchor for wider urban renewal in ways that radically expand the town hall typology of the twentieth century.
This “territory” approach is also used as a driving force to transform civic centers at the other end of the scale. The programming – if not the form – of these new centers can sometimes be reminiscent of a golden age when architecture was a player in the distribution of social wealth. And indeed, many of these centers – the Queanbeyan Civic and Cultural Precinct by Cox, Phive by Design Inc with Lacoste and Stevenson, and Manuelle Gautrand Architecture, and the Pyrmont Community Center by Welsh and Major, to name just three – are on public land or involving the adaptive reuse of council property, including technical colleges. After years of “POPS” (privately owned public spaces), the idea of a publicly developed and operated civic realm seems quietly radical. The combination of civic organizations and council facilities is repeated elsewhere, such as with the Victorian Government’s “Govhub” projects in Ballarat (by Wardle) and Bendigo (by Lyons), and in recently completed, award-winning projects including the Dandenong Municipal Building and Civic Square (by Lyons) and Kerstin Thompson Architects’ Broadmeadows Town Hall.5,6
Image: Cox Architecture
Some of the soon-to-be-completed schemes are increasing in scale and ambition. Yarilla Place is a new, $81 million, 13,500 square meter multi-use facility in Coffs Harbour. Designed by BVN, it will enable the combination of community functions such as library, gallery and museum with council offices. A dramatic breakthrough visualization 7 indicates that the area will “combine art, people, technology and culture to create a vibrant community hub”. Fusing multiple uses, it features a large, internal, open-air “street” and ample vertical circulation, including a public event area that doubles as council meeting space. However, it is not without controversy, with the size, cost and centralization of facilities – as well as the fact that 60 per cent of the space is dedicated to council offices – causing concern in the community.
The reality is that some of these large-scale centers balance complex acquisition and development models as part of larger-scale urban redevelopment strategies. In the Greater Western Sydney suburb of Liverpool, the proposed Liverpool Civic Place mixed-use development, designed by FJMT, is a partnership between the council and private developer Built. The publicly funded component includes a city library, community centre, childcare facility and council offices, while the developer component includes a 22-storey commercial and retail tower and a hotel. The project forms part of a major planned development in the city center aided by the council’s 2018 rezoning to mixed use.
It is clear that the characteristics of these new “public living rooms” are dramatically different. The most successful of those completed so far balance civic presence with public convenience. They host loose fitting “lounge” spaces that function as thresholds and connectors to accommodate civic place-making on a human scale, providing ample public furniture to encourage people to hang out. Many have an urban dimension, or at least the ambition to act as a type of urban architecture, incorporating landscape and public space strategies and forming a strategic anchor for wider urban renewal. Many examples experiment with the typology of the street, the square, the courtyard, the garden, the avenue, and the promenade, and explore how a centralized and internalized “civic” realm can more clearly mimic a street or neighborhood. Some of the most interesting involve the adaptive reuse of facilities, as for example in the case of Collingwood Yards. Others risk taking centralization and co-location too far, offering very large facilities on island sites, acquired through partnerships with commercial development that have the potential to dilute their civic ambitions.
Ultimately, the success of centralizing and co-locating amenity in these new civic centers will not only be delivered by architecture; it will rely on local government’s ability to deliver services, build local economies and improve city governance. But the community’s post-pandemic desire for greater participation in shaping the realities of our cities, to co-create collective and purposeful community spaces, will require different spatial typologies. Hopefully, this new generation of civic centers represents a rising tide of alternative forms of placemaking, delivered by public authorities and integrative civic economies. In the United Kingdom, the non-profit Public Practice has championed the role of the “architect-planner” by placing architects upstream in the public sector to advocate for what has been called a “new municipality”. Public Practice sees the public sector and the civil sector as “two ‘cogs’ moving at very different speeds,” and its ambition is to help them work better together.8
The pandemic has heightened our appreciation for “people power” and our understanding of the need to harness civil society through the creation of ample, publicly funded civil infrastructure. But if co-production between citizens and public services is to become the norm, we need to embrace different ways of getting things together, from designing buildings to procuring and operating them. This new wave of civic and community projects will be interesting to document; hopefully, at best, they will offer insights into how the hard infrastructure of architecture and urban design can enable the soft infrastructure of the civic economy to collaborate and thrive.