Instagram for students

In my casual surveys of architecture students from first year to final, I’ve been surprised to discover how few engage professionally with social media. While Facebook is ubiquitous and many have Instagram accounts jammed full of selfies, there is little interest to extend this activity into the professional sphere.

This is the 3rd of eight articles exploring the major social media outlets, how I engage with them, and how they might be of interest to students. An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Social media

Instagram
Mihaly Slocombe
Following: 38
Followers: 76
Joined: December 2015[1]
Total users: 400 million[2]

Purpose: Instagram is the visual equivalent of Twitter, in that my networks on the two platforms overlap a great deal. However, it is less news-driven and more portfolio-like. If an architect uses only two social media networks, it is most likely these two.

Community: Up until very recently, my professional and personal Instagram activities were rolled up into one account. With a substantial business rebrand underway however, we’ve split off the professional content into its own account. Like Twitter, my professional feed is restricted to local architects posting interesting work. My personal feed is more diverse. I follow friends, artists and furniture makers.

Posting: The output of any architecture studio spends a lot of time being incomplete, making it challenging to capture beautifully on Instagram. With our new account, I intend to intersperse ongoing and complete projects. This will hopefully achieve a healthy balance between glossy images and insight into our process. Architectural pilgrimages and travel in general are also very Instagram-friendly.

Likes: Since there is no searchable record of the photos I’ve liked, I can’t use this function as I do on Twitter. I use it therefore as it was intended: to tell people I like something they’ve done.

Procrastination: Instagram is the ultimate time-waster. The contents of either my feed or smart search function are easily accessible, immediately consumable and endlessly interesting. I occasionally find myself, late at night and bleary-eyed with fatigue, scrolling deeper and deeper into Instagram’s beautiful content. Use with caution!

For students: Use Instagram to develop your portfolio. It can be as powerful as a strong traditional portfolio, if not more so. In this regard, I’m intrigued by the exploitation of Instagram’s three-column thumbnail layout I’ve seen around the place: from all black and white, to the colours of the Pantone rainbow, to repetitive triptychs. Instagram is also emerging as a way for architects to advertise job openings, so follow studios where you might like to work. Instagram is a wonderful source of inspiration, particularly if you look beyond architecture to other fields.

Good examples:

  • Vasilii Zhelezniakov. A graduate architect and artist based in Melbourne.
  • Ben Schmideg. A graduate architect at MA Architects (also a past student of mine).
  • Sheng Yi Lee. A graduate architect and artist based in Melbourne.
  • Ab Yamani. A graduate architect and photographer.

Importance
10 / 10


Footnotes:

  1. Note: despite the date, I’m not a total Instagram rookie. My personal account has been going for four years.
  2. Leading social networks worldwide as of January 2016Statista; January 2016

Image:

  1. Instagram, logo copyright Instagram. Composition by author.
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Twitter for students

In my casual surveys of architecture students from first year to final, I’ve been surprised to discover how few engage professionally with social media. While Facebook is ubiquitous and many have Instagram accounts jammed full of selfies, there is little interest to extend this activity into the professional sphere.

This is the 2nd of eight articles exploring the major social media outlets, how I engage with them, and how they might be of interest to students. An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Social media

Twitter
Mihaly Slocombe
Following: 157
Followers: 769
Joined: October 2011
Total users: 320 million[1]

Purpose: Together with Instagram, Twitter is my primary social media site. It’s my main outlet for architecture news and the virtual expression of my professional network.

Community: I keep the number of people I follow low, as I want my feed to be manageable and conversation threads visible. I mostly follow other local architects who are interested in the same things as me. I don’t follow major news outlets, as I access their content in other ways. I’d also rather read the articles already filtered by my network than the ones rolled out by Archdaily et. al.

Posting: My posts are almost always professional, I never tweet what I’ve just had for breakfast. I regularly tweet links to my blog articles, together with links to interesting things I’ve read or seen.

Retweets and likes: I retweet liberally, but use the like function sparingly. Retweeting lets me share other people’s content with my followers, but my list of likes is more personal. I use it to record important articles in a sort of ad hoc library.

Procrastination: I dip in and out of Twitter. I’ll spend a month religiously devouring the content of my feed, particularly when I’m contributing to the discussion, and then not touch it for weeks. Twitter is great on public transport and during solo lunches. It’s also my favourite way to attend a lecture – listening while simultaneously holding down a Twitter conversation with other people in the audience.

This is actually one of the important ways that the architecture profession can collaborate on collective improvement.

For students: Twitter is a great opportunity to give yourself a voice in the architecture community before you officially enter it. Start by following architects in your own city, architects whose work you like, your studio leaders. Then don’t be afraid to speak up on the issues that interest you.

Good examples

  • Estelle Rose Rehayem. Architecture student at UTS, creative director of Agency 2017, the Australian Student Architecture Congress
  • Anthony Richardson. Architecture student at Deakin
  • Keely Malady, graduate architect who publishes interviews of creative entrepreneurs (also a past student of mine)
  • Graham Bennett, graduate architect at Morton Dunn Architects

Importance
10 / 10. Get on board.


Footnote:

  1. Leading social networks worldwide as of January 2016; Statista; January 2016

Image:

  1. Twitter, logo copyright Twitter. Composition by author.
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Social media for students

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Houzz, WordPress

In my casual surveys of architecture students from first year to final, I’ve been surprised to discover how few engage professionally with social media. While Facebook is ubiquitous and many have Instagram accounts jammed full of selfies, there is little interest to extend this activity into the professional sphere.

Architects, however, love social media. We’re suckers for it.

Most practitioners I know are active Twitter and Instagram users at the very least. My own professional network is smeared liberally across both the physical and digital realms. We enrich existing connections and make new ones. We share news, discuss current issues, and report on work in progress. Instagram is even gaining traction as a place to advertise job openings.

Given the prevalence of social media activity amongst professionals, why aren’t students better engaged? Sensis data reveals that Australians aged between 18 and 29 use social media sites than any other age bracket.[1] They are also the country’s most active users of Facebook (97%), Instagram (54%) and Snapchat (38%).[2] So more pertinently, why aren’t architecture students leading the way?

My suspicion is there are two main reasons keeping students offline professionally.

First is disinterest in the world beyond university, or perhaps a wilful dissociation from it. Tertiary studies demand an extraordinary focus, for which the messiness of practice can be an unwanted distraction.

Second is skepticism about the value of social media for architecture. Twitter, for example, is only good for telling the world what you had for breakfast. Instagram is the playground of Taylor Swift and Victoria’s Secret models. And blogs are those self-indulgent rants of conspiracy theorists and Star Wars geeks. Certainly, my casual surveys confirmed both, with many students just shrugging off social media as outside their field of interest.

Well, all this is a missed opportunity. Consider the numbers for a moment: 68% of Australians use social media, and 49% do so everyday.[3] It’s a surging wave of technology use against which we can either fight (and lose), or from which we can gain strength. Besides, I consider social media to be a great development for architecture. It has extended the reach of our work to a broader audience, and enhanced the communication channels within the profession. Students can and should be a part of it – the earlier the uptake of any new technology, the more likely our profession is to carve benefits from it.

Over coming days, I will publish a series of eight articles providing insight into the characteristics of the major social media outlets. I’ll discuss how I engage with them, and how they might be of interest to students of architecture.

An archive of the series can be accessed here.


Footnotes:

  1. Sensis Social Media Report; Sensis; Melbourne; May 2015; p. 14
  2. Ibid., p. 19
  3. Up from 62% total and 30% everyday in 2011. Ibid., p. 13

Image:

  1. Social media, logos copyright Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Houzz, WordPress. Composition by author
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When the beast gets hungry

Continued from Feeding the beast

Our financial forecasting has proved to be a great tool to keep the Mihaly Slocombe beast satiated year-round. By starting with the money, we can prioritise projects and tasks to help us reach our earnings target each month. We can work out who’s going to work on what, how long it should take and when it needs to be finished.

At least, that’s the theory.

Mapping our monthly earnings against our forecasts back to August last year reveals two key insights. The first is positive: over time, our forecasting is (remarkably) constant, while our earnings are trending upwards. The second is less so: despite the general health of this financial picture, there’s enormous variation in both our forecasts and earnings from month to month. Generalised order, but localised chaos.

Line graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

Each black dot represents a monthly forecast, ranging upwards from $0 along the bottom. The solid black line is the trend line.

Line graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

Here, each black dot represents our monthly earnings, again ranging upwards from $0 along the bottom. The dashed black line is the forecast trend line from the last graph, and the solid black line is the earnings trend line.

Why is our income so chaotic?

Achieving a predictable and consistent flow of income requires a consistent flow of project work getting done. Unfortunately (and here’s the hitch), this is easier said than done. There are a number of causes that lead to scarce billable work hours, but in my experience there are only two really significant ones:

  • We spend too much time on a project. This stretches our fee thinly across more hours, as well as consumes time that could be spent on other (paying) projects.
  • A project goes into hibernation.

I’ve discovered that the efficiency issue is one that naturally improves over time, mostly I think because people get better at the things they do repeatedly. As our studio has gotten older, we’ve become more confident in our detailing, more familiar with our documentation systems, and better able to access shortcuts from past projects. Over the life of the project, there are lots of little ways that we can be more productive. Enough small time savings add up.

The hibernation issue is unfortunately not one that naturally improves over time. When our projects pause, which they all eventually do, the beast gets hungry.

There are many, many reasons a project pauses: town planning periods drag on; clients take longer than expected to approve a design proposal; a consultant from whom we need drawings is busy on other projects; the tendering period draws out beyond its schedule. A hibernating project might kick off again after months or days, but either way the downtime needs to be managed.

When I used to work at other practices and this happened to one of my projects, it was never a problem. My boss would replace the hibernating project with other work and I’d get back to it. Simple, right? Well, the most important thing no-one told me when we started our architecture practice is that when we’re the boss, replacing the hibernating projects is our responsibility.

It turns out that doing this is really hard. Transitioning momentum away from one project onto another means slow periods on both as the first slows down and the other speeds up. Managing workflow means stopping what I’m doing so I can coordinate the new activities of others. And while it would be nice to maintain a long pipeline of work to fill these gaps, in practice this just pisses off the waiting clients. So client expectations need to be managed too.

While poor productivity is the main cause of income dilation (that is, when we charge a bit less on a project in a month than we forecast), hibernating projects are the main factor in introducing localised chaos to our financial management process. The evidence of this is revealed when I analyse the earnings at a micro level on any given project.

Digging back through our timesheets and invoicing, I tracked the evolving finances of one our projects currently under construction.

Bubble graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

The black outline dots represent the fee invoiced in a month. The grey dots represent the number of hours worked in a month. The larger the dot, the larger the invoice / number of hours.

There are some fascinating insights here:

We began work very slowly on this project. It took us a good 8 months before we even started invoicing regularly.

The clustering of intense work periods is fairly typical for our workflow. We gather speed during each project stage, with an inevitable crescendo prior to delivery. You can see the big chunks of work at the ends of key project phases, with the biggest during documentation.

Also typical are the steadier hours during construction. You can see this in the second half of this year, once the project got on site.

Hours worked and invoicing are linked. Lots of hours are associated with more substantial invoicing. Likewise, fewer hours means sparser invoicing.

This project experienced two major periods of hibernation, from May – August 2013 and from March – September 2014. It is rare for us to experience such lengthy pauses and actually have the project restart. I’m pleased we’ve managed to proceed so far down the path with this one.

What can I learn?

Prior to taking on our current short-range forecasting approach, we did have a rudimentary form of time programming in place. The programming wasn’t linked to invoicing, and it was an annual exercise: two qualities that with the wisdom of hindsight I now see made it a tremendous waste of energy. In a consulting business like ours, time and money are two halves of the same coin. There’s no point looking at one without the other. And it’s simply impossible to know for certain what we’ll be working on a year from now.

Our forecasting now stretches only two months into the future, with the second month much sketchier than the first. Also, we never count on a project to continue predictably past any major milestone. The worst offenders are budget reviews: at these, we assume a project will die until told otherwise.

But despite our best efforts, at least once a year all of our projects go into hibernation simultaneously. This year, it happened in February and lasted a couple of weeks. By chance, we saw it coming, but even then it was tricky to stay busy. We used the time to sort out a backlog of administration work, and update our samples library. Previously, we’ve entered design competitions. Regardless, the things we find to fill our time are not project-related, so we have nothing to invoice.

Small or large, I reckon every architecture practice has to deal with this issue from time to time.

We try and minimise the trouble by keeping our forecasting tight, staggering our projects, and assuming we’ll have soft months. The tight forecasts improve our chances of being accurate with our predictions (though as the top two graphs show, this is far from a guarantee). The staggered projects reduce the likelihood that two projects will go into hibernation at the same time for the same reason. And by assuming we’ll have soft months, hopefully we can build up enough of a cash buffer to keep the beast fed.


Images

  1. Forecasts; author’s own image
  2. Earnings; author’s own image
  3. Project fees; author’s own image
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Feeding the beast

Albert Mo of Architects EAT has observed that all businesses are beasts. A small architecture practice needs very little sustenance to get by, while a medium-sized practice, with around 20 employees on board, can easily have a hundred thousand dollars in salaries to cover each month, plus overheads and profit. A constant parade of new projects is required to keep such a beast fed.

The Mihaly Slocombe beast is tiny, but even it still needs to eat. I would love for us to have the luxury to pick and choose our clients, but in five years we’ve only declined 4 project leads. Perhaps one day we’ll be sufficiently established to be more choosy.

The analogy of the pet crocodile

Crocodile, Feeding, Feeding time, Feed the beast

The king of all beasts is indisputably the crocodile. Anyone foolish enough to own one lives a precarious life. His pet is not a fussy eater – chicken and fish scraps will do – but forgetting to feed it might land him on the menu. Fortunately, a crocodile only needs to eat once every week or so, and much less regularly during colder months. A crocodile is also a lazy predator, preferring to lie in ambush for its prey than actively hunt.

Thus the crocodile and the crocodile owner exist in an uneasy truce: as long as the weak-bodied owner keeps the chicken scraps coming, the lazy crocodile won’t use the strongest jaws in the business to convert him into dinner.

Running an architecture practice is much like owning a crocodile. It’s a touch less dangerous, but much more demanding. In place of chicken scraps, it feeds on expensive building projects commissioned by a very limited pool of clients. It needs to eat regularly and consistently, all year round. And when the incoming flow of money is interrupted, it turns nasty in the blink of an eye.

So the architecture practice needs a reliable supply of both commissions and work to do on them. In my experience, managing this supply is especially important for small businesses. Our margins are tight and we have very little buffer. We need to be constantly vigilant to ensure two things:

  1. That the money coming in each month covers the money going out
  2. And that the money coming in each year covers the money going out

In other words, we need to send out enough invoices to cover our known costs each month, as well as the unknown costs that will present themselves in the future.

In this endeavour, I am greatly influenced by Jeremy Wolveridge of Wolveridge Architects, who offered an unusual answer to the question, why get into practice? He dismissed authorship and autonomy (the most commonly cited reasons) as prosaic: “Of course authorship and autonomy are important, but they don’t justify all the headaches that come with running a business. I got into practice so I can go on a long holiday with my family every year.”

This is the essence of the crocodile analogy:

  1. My crocodile needs to eat a chicken every week
  2. However, I want to go on a holiday every December
  3. While I’m on holiday, I can’t catch any chickens
  4. How can I catch those extra chickens in the other 11 months?

A simple idea for crocodiles that turns out to be not so simple for architecture practices.

During the first few years of Mihaly Slocombe, we had no conception of long term goals or the future financial state of our business. We would arrive at the end of each month and work out how much we would be able to invoice. It was a bit like a lottery, and not often successful. In our first year of operation, our highest monthly income was 227% of our average. And our lowest monthly income was zero. In fact, we weren’t able to invoice a cent for three separate months.

Line graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

Wolveridge’s insight gave us an alternative approach. The method he uses to achieve his financial goals is now our method:

  1. At the start of each month, we calculate our staff costs and overheads
  2. We add enough extra to pay ourselves
  3. We add even more to cover future costs e.g. income tax, GST, registration, holidays
  4. We arrive at a number that keeps Mihaly Slocombe afloat for another month and builds our buffer by 1/11th of our annual goal
  5. We work out how much work we need to complete, on which projects, to achieve this number

The months following the implementation of our new approach were still a bit rocky. We had a bad month followed by a couple of good ones followed by another bad one. But by the end of the year, we had boosted our average monthly income by a huge amount and had also flattened out our takings. Our highest income was just 148% of our average and our lowest was a healthier 47%.

Line graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

This graph looks much better to me. Remember, the average is much higher than our first year of work, and there is also less unpredictability. We went from 6 months of well below average income to only 3. Our peaks aren’t as exciting to look at, but they no longer need to offset really deep troughs. All great developments for the health of our business.

There are likely a number of factors contributing to this shift, but our approach to money is an essential one. Before, we did the work then calculated how much it was worth. Now we put the money first, and our project productivity second. We’ve been at it for 18 months and have found we’re far better equipped to keep our little beast happy year-round.

There is, however, a hitch. A big one.

To be continued soon in When the beast gets hungry.


Images

  1. Crocodile feeding; sourced from Crocodile Feeding Time; Youtube; September 2013
  2. Finances before; author’s own image
  3. Finances after; author’s own image
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Happy 5th birthday

Panfilocastaldi, Happy birthday, Anniversary, Blogging

Today, Panfilocastaldi turns 5. I have survived another full year of blogging. Over the years, my focus has gradually shifted and sharpened, away from art, photography and the environment, and towards the culture, practice and business of architecture. I’m proud of the content I produce, and the way it has struck a chord amongst the Australian architecture profession.

This year, I published on average one post every nine days, helped along somewhat by my August series of daily lessons for design students. I’ve had articles co-published in Parlour, Architecture & Design and Interns Australia. My favourites of the past 12 months:

Once again, I’ve synthesised this year’s key statistics into a series of infographics:

Blogging, Statistics, Blogging categories, Architecture, Architecture Practice, Lessons

Blogging, Statistics, Months

Blogging, Statistics, Australia, United States of America, United Kingdom

Blogging, Statistics, Months

And some highlights in plain English:

  • 41 new posts, with a maximum of 17 in August of this year.
  • 20 post categories, 7 of which received new articles. My most prolific category this year, Lessons, received 22.
  • 106 new tags, bringing the total to 1,346 and ranging from Stratosphere (1 post) to Australian Institute of Architects (33 posts).
  • 86 new comments, bringing the total to 533.
  • 4,320 new spam comments, bringing the total to 29,616.
  • 39,730 new page views, bringing the total to 180,649.
  • An average of 109 page views per day. Our busiest month this year was August with 6,942 page views or an average of 224 per day.
  • Visitors from 153 different countries, ranging from Belize (1 page view) to Australia (14,333 page views).
  • 12,347 referrals from search engines, comprising thousands of unique terms. Lots of Some great practice-related long tail search terms this year included disadvantages of negotiated tendering process and design brief for construction a house.
  • 5,861 referrals from 128 other websites, with a maximum of 3,112 from Facebook. This smashed Twitter for social media referrals, which only provided 479.
  • 175 blog followers, increasing our count by 40 over this time last year, with a further 22 comment followers and 739 Twitter followers.

Thank you for your support this year. Who knows what 2016 will bring, or how Panfilocastaldi will evolve? For now, it continues to be a labour of love, self-sustaining because it is enjoyable for its own sake. If you promise to keep reading, I’ll promise to keep typing.

Yours sincerely,
Warwick Mihaly

Posted in Anniversaries | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Liveable Yarra

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

The City of Yarra recently undertook an engagement programme to canvass community opinion on future planning. The programme, Liveable Yarra, gathered local residents together for four half-day sessions to discuss and analyse the built environment, transport, housing and business. It asked participants to consider the shape of Yarra 20 years from now, by which time the local population is expected to grow from 85,000 to 115,000.

The programme, or people’s panel, covered a broad range of topics including urban density, streets, car parking, active ageing, job opportunities, heritage and housing affordability. It marked the early stages of a lengthy process that will eventually result in a new municipal strategic statement for Yarra.[1]

My involvement with Liveable Yarra began after a random mail drop to 10,000 Yarra households and an open invitation distributed via council newsletter. I was among 150 people who volunteered to take part, and the 60 selected to represent the diverse demography of Yarra.

Being an architect likely had no influence on my selection, but it is why I volunteered in the first place. I was eager to offer my expertise, and have a meaningful impact on planning policy within my neighbourhood. Like most architects, my primary contact with local council is at the statutory end of the planning spectrum – seeking approvals for projects on which I work. This is often an adversarial form of engagement, and one I’m happy to do without. Liveable Yarra was a chance to get involved at the strategic end, to help shape the broad principles that will govern Yarra’s future urban fabric.

I was fascinated to learn that I wasn’t alone in my eagerness: I met two other architects taking part for similar reasons to my own. Statistically, this is an enormous anomaly: there is only 1 architect for every 1,500 Victorians, yet here were 3 in 60.[2] For a profession that is most comfortable talking to itself, it was heartening to discover two fellow practitioners volunteering to step into planners’  territory.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

Liveable Yarra was impressively coordinated by the City of Yarra and community engagement specialists, Capire. I felt they executed a well-conceived and well-funded event: this was clearly no publicity stunt, but a serious commitment to the local community and our diverse opinions.

Indeed, by describing the people’s panel as merely four half-day sessions, I really do it an injustice. Liz Mackevicius, part of the City Strategy team at Yarra, explained that council began work on it almost a year ago. Staff from multiple departments prepared comprehensive briefing documents on the main discussion themes, then worked collaboratively with Capire to design the panel format. Handling the call for interest and subsequent applications would themselves have been a huge logistical challenge.

The sessions were spread across August and September at two-weekly intervals, throughout which both the Yarra and Capire teams worked to keep participants informed, craft panel activities, and synthesise results. Council staff led a crash course in Planning 101, were on hand to answer technical questions, and provided ongoing feedback between sessions.

Effort was even directed towards filling in blindspots: community groups poorly represented amongst panel participants (the very young and the very old for example, or migrants from non-English speaking countries) and special-interest advisory groups (cyclists, business owners, visual artists) were co-opted to provide insight into their specific needs by way of detailed reports and summarised recommendations.

The data gathered each session was dutifully and thoroughly analysed. Hundreds of ideas, arguments and comments were distilled into thematic groups that were then distributed to participants and used to structure the subsequent session’s activities. While I sensed that the trajectory of Liveable Yarra was carefully designed, the content for each session was driven by the participants, so could only be locked down after the preceding one yielded its results. I imagine that Yarra and Capire were extremely busy throughout the panel period, absorbing and directing this flow of information.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

The issues covered by Liveable Yarra were complex and without clearly right or wrong answers. This was emphasised repeatedly by Yarra and Capire, who wanted the greyness of the issues to provide a challenge to think creatively, as well as a crutch to fall back on when ideas weren’t easily forthcoming.

Yarra and Capire employed a number of different methods to help us tackle this complexity. The result was that no two sessions were alike, each approaching the panel themes from different directions. A common thread perhaps was an urging to think big but consider the real-world consequences of our proposals. This reinforced the idea that nothing in planning comes free of cost. If we vote for more parks, we’ll end up with fewer houses. If we want more pedestrian-friendly streets, we’ll have less car-parking.

During session #2 for example, the panel was divided into small tables and asked to identify the biggest planning challenges facing Yarra. We were also asked to consider the ways council could address these. By placing each challenge on an xy matrix, we were able to prioritise those that we felt were both most important and most difficult to address. Support for the stickiest ideas was then tested using the Poll Everywhere app, allowing us to vote for ideas via our mobile phones, and see the results in realtime on a projector screen at the front of the room.

During session #3, discussions at each table were provoked by leading questions like: “What is the most important transport change you would like to see in Yarra by 2035?”, “How can council actively plan for this change?” and “What would the positive and negative implications of this change be?” This spawned dozens and dozens of ideas and counter-ideas, which were later distilled into a limited number of action statements like: “Allow modernisation of some heritage areas to enable continued viable use of the property” or “Close local residential streets to through traffic to create living streets”.

During the final session, we were asked to consider this collection of planning proposals. We showed our support, neutrality or opposition to each statement by way of green, yellow and red stickers. Pinning these to the wall resulted in a visually rich colour field of ideas. Popular ideas, of which there were surprisingly many, were mostly green. Unpopular ideas, of which there were surprisingly few, were mostly red.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

As Liveable Yarra progressed, I grew curious about its endgame. In particular, I was worried that somehow we would be expected to reach consensus. As the rabbinical proverb goes, when you ask two people for their advice about something, you inevitably receive three opinions.

This was made awkwardly apparent to me during one of the sessions when I sat next to a particular gentleman with very car-centric, and dare I say outdated, ideas about the city. His solution for poor accessibility to amenities was for council to purchase large tracts of land and convert them into multi-storey carparks. His even more radical solution for congestion was to submerge all the radial train lines across Melbourne and build freeways over them.

With minds like this contributing to a discussion otherwise populated by a wonderfully forward-focussed group of people, how could we ever agree on anything?

Luckily, Yarra and Capire had this issue covered. The aim of Liveable Yarra turned out not  to be consensus, but provocation. They didn’t want us to reduce our ideas to a couple of sparse recommendations to council, they wanted us to proliferate them. Our job was to provide insight into the diverse needs of a community, it will be council’s job to decide which ideas to throw away and which to champion.

That said, I was struck by the resounding agreement revealed by the colour field experiment in the final session. Of the thirty or so action statements presented, barely a handful featured any red, and almost all were dominated by green. The ideas came from us and were thoroughly explored during our discussions, so perhaps it’s only natural that they be met with support. I think this success was also testament to Yarra and Capire’s proficiency, as well as the panel’s enthusiasm for the issues covered.

The panel participants need to be recognised here. Of the 60 who started, only 11 dropped out. This meant that 49 remained committed to lively conversation and visionary speculation across four precious Saturday mornings. It felt like there was a great deal of goodwill in the room: we could all sense that Yarra and Capire had invested heavily in us, so we responded by wanting to make a positive contribution.

If there were any shortcomings at all, it was the scarcity of time. I acknowledge that there are only so many hours you can ask of people, but we always seemed to run out of time just when we got to the juicy part of a discussion. During the final session, I asked acting Yarra Mayor Geoff Barbour whether in an ideal world he would have liked more time for the panel, six sessions maybe or even eight. His rather sage answer was that no matter how generously you plan an event like this, you always want more time.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

If I sound overly enthusiastic about the panel, it’s nothing more than is deserved. Yarra CEO, Vijaya Vaidyanath, claimed Liveable Yarra was among a select group of engagement events pioneering new modes of community consultation, and among the first people’s panels convened by local government in Australia. For my part, I felt that the panel was open, ambitious, well-executed and sincere.

As a community engagement initiative, I think it was a resounding success. It extracted unexpected consensus on a complex series of issues. It educated a motivated group of people about the nuanced balancing act of planning. And I imagine it created a few citizen advocates for more planning vision from council.

Of course, the real test comes over the coming years, as Yarra absorbs our input and formulates its new strategic statement. I hope to be part of a small group of panel participants who will remain involved beyond the initial engagement phase, and present our ideas to council. With luck, I’ll even get to see the ideas find their way into policy and then action.


Footnotes

  1. The current City of Yarra Municipal Strategy Statement was instituted back in 2009 and outlines a soon-to-expire vision for 2020. It comprises sections 21.01 – 21.11 of the Local Planning Policy Framework, an aspirational and detailed series of documents that covers a similarly broad range of topics.
  2. Warwick Mihaly; Why I’m a member of the AIA; Panfilocastaldi; May 2015

Image sources

  1. Liveable Yarra, copyright City of Yarra. Modified from the original by author
  2. Liveable Yarra conversation, author’s own image
  3. Liveable Yarra learning, author’s own image
  4. Liveable Yarra feedback, author’s own image
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