Reflections on University of Davis’ Design as Activism Series

Over the past month I have been making my way through the University of Davis’ online lecture series Design as Activism (available through ITunes U). In each lecture, a practioner from the field of landscape architecture provides an overview of their career within an activism framework. They focus on how community consultation and engagement with different stakeholder groups can influence or drive a project.

As a heritage consultant in New South Wales, I have been involved in facilitating varying levels of consultation with Aboriginal stakeholders. This lecture series highlighted for me limitations of some of my past methods and practices. It also gave me a broader understanding of what it can take for an individual or organisation to influence a development and achieve a design goal. In brief…

1. Community consultation is expensive. Effective consultation is even more expensive.
2. To do a good job and incorporate real community values into a design plan it will almost always require moving beyond the prescribed level of community consultation (eg. Regulated or mandated levels of consultation).
3. Whether it’s urban planning or cultural heritage management, the system is not geared for paying beyond the prescribed level of community consultation.
3. Anybody wishing to influence or drive a design project must be able to put forward an alternative vision. An alternative vision is more persuasive if backed by professional skillsets- planners, designers, researchers etc. It also requires people who are persuasive, persistant and willing to sacrifice time and money.
4. If you and your community want to change something and push an alternative vision you have to be in for the long haul. The long haul means developing skillsets and creating business models that allow you to maintain your vision over time.

The case studies in Design as Activism were particularly interesting. Predominately from the San Francisco Bay area, the case studies often focused on designing public spaces, meeting affordable housing needs and incorporating minority voices into planning decisions. Non profit organisations and collectives of grass root organisations took a major role in steering development. The practioners giving the lectures noted where these organisations failed and succeeded.

The scale of community involvement required to achieve design goals or compromises as demonstrated through the lecture series is large and beyond the scale of what I have experienced in my work.

It would be interesting to see a series like Design as Activism looking at how community consultation has driven cultural heritage management projects in New South Wales and the rest of Australia. What models of community consultation and community activism have been employed in designing and or protecting cultural heritage spaces? How effective were they? How well do these models fit with the prescribed or regulated levels of consultation, current cultural heritage consultancy practice and project design and funding? Which organisations or players are in the position to be strong advocates and activisits in designing cultural heritage spaces that reflect and protect real community values


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