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Impact

Creating Sustainable Cities and Communities:
In Conversation with Andy Fergus, Part 01
03.04.24

Andy Fergus is an urban designer and design advocate, passionate about helping government, ethical developers and communities create successful places. With a background across planning, urban design and architecture, Andy operates at all scales of the city from the urban plan to the individual building, often acting as a translator between disciplines and scales.

Here, Hayley Curnow, Writer & Producer at NHO, sat down with Andy to discuss his philosophy on creating sustainable cities and communities – particularly, his focus on the relationship between urban economics, planning frameworks and spatial design.

With so many rich insights to share, we deliver this conversation in two parts.

Portrait by Fraser McNally.

Part 01

HC: Thanks for joining us, Andy. I thought we might kick off by asking you what defines a ‘successful place.’

AF: Good question. For me, a successful environment is a place where people thrive – an environment that supports and nurtures human interaction. It’s less about the environment’s physical aspects, and more about the activities it frames and the interactions it supports.

HC: That’s an important distinction when you think about design briefs, and the visual medium of design practice.

AF: Yeah, I often think about this. I like to bring it back to a specific scenario, like ‘how could we facilitate environments that could host spontaneous long table dinners for 50 people at the drop of a hat?’ If the environment is well designed but it’s policed and people can’t have this spontaneous activity, then it’s not successful. And equally, if it’s an underdeveloped space with limited design investment, but it allows spontaneous activity and encourages people to take ownership, then it could be a successful environment.

I’m really interested in this idea of the ‘scaffold’. I also like the concept of designing frayed ends into an environment. Let’s say you’ve got a landscape budget of $100,000 to spend on an area. What if you simply delivered residents bare soil and gave them the money and six months to work out how best to use it? How could you use the space as an opportunity to allow people to have more agency? Successful environments always have evidence of their users in them – that’s what makes places great, more than whether they’re beautifully designed.

“For me, a successful environment is a place where people thrive – an environment that supports and nurtures human interaction. It’s less about the environment’s physical aspects, and more about the activities it frames and the interactions it supports.”
– Andy Fergus

HC: For sure. I imagine inviting user groups to help shape these environments can connect them to that space in a more emotive way.

AF: It’s classic Place Attachment theory. It considers how people form a connection and attachment to a place through participation and how it becomes lodged in their cognitive map of their city. It’s as much about process as it is about outcome.

HC: I love the idea of participatory place-making.

AF: Yeah, it’s interesting to delve into. The basic theory of Place Attachment is organised around ‘person, place and process’. The physical space is really only a third of the factors that determine place attachment. If you’ve experienced trauma in a particular type of space that will influence your approach to that space, which is different to mine, which is different to someone else’s. Your cultural upbringing is going to determine how you respond to different types of places too. In many cultures it is a learned tradition for the community to step in and modify the environment to suit their needs. In Australia, we can be quick to critique government for neglect but slow to step in and shape the environment ourselves. So, I am really interested in how we can both leave space for this opportunity, but also actively design the process that gives the community agency.

HC: Given these tendencies, how do you think architects and designers can participate in shaping their cities and communities, and what obstacles do they come up against in doing so?

AF: The number one thing for me and how I’ve tried to shape my practice is that when the brief is written by the client and you’re responding to it, you’ve generally already lost. Of course, you can always advocate for more expansive thinking, but if you’re not in the room, shaping the brief and determining what success looks like, then you’re missing the biggest opportunity in the whole project.

“If you’re not in the room, shaping the brief and determining what success looks like, then you’re missing the biggest opportunity in the whole project.” – Andy Fergus

HC: So that early engagement is critical to push the boundaries before the project has progressed too far?

AF: Exactly. Since I left my role in the City of Melbourne in 2020, I found myself becoming much more involved in projects upfront and I often work closely with the client before the designer is engaged. In fact, quite often I work with the developers to select the right design team for their needs, because I think the way designers are selected can be incredibly arbitrary – based on prior connections and who has done what before. Having a more robust methodology around the designer you want to deliver what you need is important. There is a huge role for design thinkers to inform the procurement both of the project overall and the design team.

HC: So, it’s more like strategic counsel. How does that relationship work?

AF: The fact that I’m a sole practitioner and I can’t design a cultural building, or I can’t deliver an apartment block by myself, and I have no intention to, means that I’m not threatening to other designers who I collaborate with. There’s a range of practices that I have this almost bolt-on relationship with, where I come in, support the project, and help establish what the preconditions will be. In reaction to attending an awful government funded business development seminar, I remember writing in fat marker on my business plan that I aim to collaborate rather than compete.

If you look at Nightingale Village, which I worked on and live in, I’m not an author of any of the buildings or spaces in that precinct but the framework Mark Jacques from Openwork and I set for the ground level and building guidelines helped shape the ambition which the collective of architects then responded to with each of their designs. That’s an important distinction in my work. I’m interested in helping people step back and look at what they’re trying to achieve in the city rather than having to be the author.

Nightingale Leftfield by Kennedy Nolan, part of Nightingale Village.
Photograph by Tom Ross.

Nightingale Evergreen by Clare Cousins Architects, part of Nightingale Village.
Photograph by Tom Ross.

HC: I imagine in some of these conversations, people can’t see the forest from the trees.

AF: Some people in the development community, depending on their degree of seniority and agency, might see development success solely in terms of profit on cost, but there is so much more to any project than this. What’s your specific angle as a company and how are you making that attractive to stakeholders and your target community? In Australia, we seem to have a particularly poor culture of defining success in a brief. We write all the things that we want and the list of stuff that we need, but we don’t step back and ask: ‘What’s the vision? What would success look like? What are your performance indicators? And how can you evaluate them?’ I think it’s a discipline that’s becoming increasingly common in corporate governance – it’s a really core strategy to doing good business that is frustratingly not applied to the making of cities.

HC: Is that the main challenge you see when advocating for different working methodologies in the industry?

AF: Designers need to learn the discipline of when to design and when to advise. And clients need to see the value in bringing designers on board early in defining the brief. Strategic Design consultancies are trained to ask questions and tease out what the core properties are, but in urban development, that’s not so common. Designers should be involved in the early phases of a project, but they should be willing to do so not just for the commission. They should be willing to be in for the impact, even if they don’t continue to be the lead designer in the project.

“Designers should be involved in the early phases of a project, but they should be willing to do so not just for the commission. They should be willing to be in for the impact, even if they don’t continue to be the lead designer in the project.” – Andy Fergus

HC: What strategies do you employ to have these conversations with government and development organisations?

AF: The two have very different cultures. I think the biggest challenge with government is the chain of command, because generally the person you’re working with is not empowered to make the final decision. The bigger the organisation, whether private or public, the more difficult it is to navigate the chain of command, so I think studying the organisational chart and finding out who has the ability to make decisions is really crucial. When it comes to big organisations, I think we have a lot to learn from Mariana Mazzucato’s notion of a ‘mission-oriented’ approach to governance, in both the public and private sector in bringing the clarity of purpose to the fore in day-to-day decisions.

Another important strategy is to be agenda-led. I always think of one objective I want to achieve for the project and for the city, which might be fostering a fantastic public connection through a neighbourhood that feels safe and vibrant and adds another layer to the city, or an ecological outcome that promotes habitat corridors so species can move through the neighbourhood. It’s about finding the agenda you’re trying to prosecute, and then being reflexive, so that you can explore your agenda through the agenda of your client. The other part is getting to know the client and understand their motivations.

“I always think of one objective I want to achieve for the project and for the city, which might be fostering a fantastic public connection through a neighbourhood that feels safe and vibrant and adds another layer to the city, or an ecological outcome that promotes habitat corridors so species can move through the neighbourhood. It’s about finding the agenda you’re trying to prosecute, and then being reflexive, so that you can explore your agenda through the agenda of your client.” – Andy Fergus

HC: How do you tease that out?

AF: It’s about working with the client to understand them and assist them in learning from past projects. What have they done before? Where are they succeeded? And where have they perhaps not achieved things that they’ve wanted to? Can you take them on a field trip or site visit and share in the learning process together?

HC: And how do you help them feed that into a new project?

AF: I honestly feel to be an urban designer is to be a sampler, right? It’s not about creating new stuff all the time, it’s about applying trained observation, and converting experience into design strategies. The ability to use case studies to help people understand what they are doing is crucial. Part of that is articulating and learning from failure, which, culturally, is something we struggle to do in Australia because it is so litigious. In Australia, to admit failure, is to open yourself to a claim of negligence. Whereas in the Netherlands the discussion of failure is at the forefront of design practice – it’s a cultural norm to critique your work, to learn quickly and move on. And that’s not the case here in Australia. Having an encyclopaedic knowledge of past examples of success or failure is one critical skill in helping coach people through the pros and cons of their ideas. Then we can bake those learnings into the brief.

HC: Are there any projects you find yourself returning to across your consultancy work?

AF: Two that I have been really drawn to in recent times are Collingwood Yards by Fieldwork, and the Willam Ngarrang Retrofit project on King William Street Fitzroy by Finding Infinity and Kennedy Nolan. Both projects demonstrate this idea of doing ‘just enough.’ They consider what the minimum framework is to make a space feel exceptional, that’s frugal with materials, frugal with investments and allows it to evolve.

Collingwood Yards by Fieldwork.
Photograph by Tom Ross.

Collingwood Yards by Fieldwork.
Photograph by Tom Ross.

HC: That’s interesting, the idea of giving a place breathing space to change.

AF: It’s incredibly important. What I love about Collingwood Yards is the final landscape was never executed. They left the big trees in a beautifully proportioned crunchy gravel courtyard and it’s fabulous for it because it feels under-designed in the best way. It’s a loose framework and it shows how incredibly successful a car-free, pedestrian space that’s left relatively open and flexible can be. You don’t have to over-cook everything and design out flexibility.

“What I love about Collingwood Yards is the final landscape was never executed. They left the big trees in a beautifully proportioned crunchy gravel courtyard and it’s fabulous for it because it feels under-designed in the best way.” – Andy Fergus

Willam Ngarrang Retrofit by Finding Infinity and Kennedy Nolan.
Photograph by Eve Wilson.

Willam Ngarrang Retrofit by Finding Infinity and Kennedy Nolan.
Photograph by Eve Wilson.

Willam Ngarrang Retrofit by Finding Infinity and Kennedy Nolan.
Photograph by Eve Wilson.

Willam Ngarrang Retrofit by Finding Infinity and Kennedy Nolan.
Photograph by Eve Wilson.

The Willam Ngarrang Retrofit project is a great example of letting materials speak. It addresses what an existing building can do and how you can improve its sustainability foremost, which leads you to a fairly light-touch renovation that still feels exceptional. They’ve done just enough to make it delightful while achieving their objective of delivering a significant upgrade of the building’s environmental performance. This is a critical design strategy in the context of the climate crises.

HC: Thanks Andy, we’ll pick up a few more of your favourite case studies in Part 02.

“The Willam Ngarrang Retrofit project is a great example of letting materials speak. It addresses what an existing building can do and how you can improve its sustainability foremost, which leads you to a fairly light-touch renovation that still feels exceptional.” – Andy Fergus