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Impact

Creating Sustainable Cities and Communities:
In Conversation with Andy Fergus, Part 02
09.05.24

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.

Photograph by Urban Design Forum Australia.

Part 02

HC: Hi Andy, thanks for picking up the conversation again. We wrapped up Part 01 with a few urban design projects that you find yourself returning to in your consultancy work. Which other projects have you picked apart with your clients to feed into their briefs?

AF: An example I often draw upon is Southbank Boulevard by the City of Melbourne with TCL – Taylor Cullity Lethlean. Out of the front of Melbourne Recital Centre, in particular, it’s the first landscape I’ve experienced in Melbourne that brings an incredibly strong sense of our natural landscape, with our informal mosaic of wild planting to a project that is unashamedly urban.

The more opportunities I have to work with first nations people and designers, the more I scrape the surface about the importance of connecting to the country that you’re on. While each engagement gives rise to different opportunities, landscape strategies to heal country and provide space for others species consistently emerges as a priority. I love the Southbank project because it evokes so much possibility. I think that people have tended to think that urban space is hard, structured, and European in character, and big landscapes in Australia are wild, open, and rambling and have this distinctive character. I think this project inspires what the next generation of public space on Country could be.

Southbank Boulevard by the City of Melbourne with Taylor Cullity Lethlean.
Photograph by Dianna Snape.

Southbank Boulevard by the City of Melbourne with Taylor Cullity Lethlean.
Photograph by Dianna Snape.

On a personal note, we took a similar approach in my own street. We spoke with Wurundjeri Aunties about how we had tried to understand this place, its geology and its pre-European history, and sought their guidance and expertise. We ripped up a sad rectangle of lawn and struggling garden beds and replanted it as an indigenous meadow, with a focus on pollinators. The community now arrive to a landscape that’s of this place, and constantly changes across the seasons. I’m among the other hundreds of residents that now feel like the custodians of their environment – and the experiment hasn’t stopped because we are still planting things and ripping things out. It’s a wonderful laboratory to try things out.

Community planting at Nightingale Village.
Photograph by Andy Fergus.

The indigenous meadow at Nightingale Village.
Photograph by Andy Fergus.

Another project I often reference is Habitat in Byron Bay, which is an extraordinary example of a mixed-use environment that blends a good offer of workplace, retail, hospitality and living in a completely newly built environment. People flock to it, despite it being on the edge of the town, because the space and programming is so successful. The urban framework is sophisticated, and landscaping is incorporated in such a way that you absolutely know where you are – a very distinctive subtropical landscape. The most recent stage (Stage 4) also has one of the best raingarden streetscapes I have seen in my life. It’s incredibly inspiring.

Habitat, Byron Bay.
Photograph by Christopher Frederick Jones.

HC: You must see ideas everywhere to feed into your work.

AF: Oh, I do. My partner is also an urban designer, and we have absolutely no ability to go on a holiday without being complete nerds. We would spend probably a good 60 percent of any holiday visiting spaces – but never to look at objects of architecture, rather to visit neighbourhoods and see the generic tissue of the city. That’s much more interesting to us. We aren’t interested in the sublime one-off projects, more the everyday.

HC: That’s a nice distinction because you can’t fully understand the intricacies of those places from afar – it’s through first-hand observation and participation.

AF: Yes, it’s sitting there as the sun goes down and seeing the ecosystem of activity change from day to night. I’m obsessed with microclimate – the difference between a cafe with a North-eastern corner aspect and a broad pedestrian route compared to one that’s South-west facing may be the difference between whether that business will succeed or die. That thinking about retail economy and how it meets microclimate fascinates me.

Urban plaza in Ljubljana, Slovenija.
Photograph by Andy Fergus.

Ljubljana, Slovenija, has pedestrianised over 100,000sqm of its central city since 2012, transforming the small city into a walkable paradise.
Photograph by Andy Fergus.

Misters to cool the body and create cooling air currents, Vienna, Austria.
Photograph by Andy Fergus.

Communal courtyard by Hardel Le Bihan Architectes with Atelier Roberta in Île de Nantes, France.
Photograph by Andy Fergus.

“I’m obsessed with microclimate – the difference between a cafe with a North-eastern corner aspect and a broad pedestrian route compared to one that’s South-west facing may be the difference between whether that business will succeed or die. That thinking about retail economy and how it meets microclimate fascinates me.” – Andy Fergus

HC: Accessibility is another key aspect of creating successful places. How do you incorporate principles of equity, inclusivity, and accessibility into your urban design work to ensure that all members of the community benefit from the projects you undertake?

AF: There are many layers to that. I think as urban designers, urban safety is built into our profession but from its conception in the 60s, it was predominantly white male public safety. Now, from a cultural safety perspective, we think more broadly about users – First Nations people, the LGBTQI+ community, women of various ages, children. It’s about making places that feel open and available to all. When we make suggestions of how a space can be used, we need to consider who might be prioritised and who might be marginalised by that decision. A basketball court, for example, may generally attract competitive, loud young boys who gather and dominate the space, making it less culturally available to other people. The concept of gender mainstreaming ensures that you consider these likely gender impacts in your design from the outset. It’s critical to articulate spaces so that one person’s use doesn’t diminish another’s.

HC: How can designers be more generous in considering the integration of public space?

AF: Beyond government-delivered public space, there is a huge role for private development to add more public space to the city. Some developers are very skilled at designing the spaces in between their buildings to be public, and to invite everyone in. I like the idea that even when you’re building private space, you’re adding new public networks to the city that feel available to everyone. So even in high end apartment developments, how could you create some public generosity that feels available to people who don’t live in that building?

“When we make suggestions of how a space can be used, we need to consider who might be prioritised and who might be marginalised by that decision. It’s critical to articulate spaces so that one person’s use doesn’t diminish another’s.” – Andy Fergus

HC: How about physical accessibility?

AF: Equal access is critical. Such a high proportion of people experience mobility limitations and vision impairment, which influence how they can use public space. Issues of access are becoming more challenging with the effects of climate change on two things – one, flooding events and the effect of flooding events on the levels that you need to establish in an urban development, and two, extreme heat and shading from heat.

I’ve worked on projects recently where the ground floor has had to be raised 2.2-meters above ground level, which would require a 26-metre-long ramp. Stairs make fabulous urban spaces, but stairs are an impediment to many people. The industry is so fearful of the insurance effects of flooding, that our response is incredibly brutal. We need to find better solutions so that we don’t disable our environments by creating elevated developments through our city where the building might be safe, but no one can use the public spaces because they’re elevated so high.

On heat, it’s a difficult one as a high proportion of our population is vitamin D deficient. In one sense, you want to design a city that has sunlight in the cooler months and in the other sense, heat is one of the highest risks to life under climate change. So, if you look at how many 40-plus-degree days there’s going to be in Western Sydney in the near future, we’re talking about a higher risk of mortality for people who are vulnerable, ill, or elderly who don’t have a safe living environment. I predict that in years to come, a big movement is going to be the design of more shaded public space. The Pershing Square Renew design competition in LA is an interesting example of this, where they articulated a brief for a stage space that can be used for performance, but also a shade element within the plaza that adds to that space. Antwerp’s Theaterplein by Studio Bernardo Secchi & Paola Viganò is another extraordinary example of how this can be achieved without ruining a space in the cooler parts of the year.

Domestic market at Theaterplein by Studio Bernardo Secchi & Paola Viganò, Antwerp.
Photograph by Teresa Cos.

“Issues of access are becoming more challenging with the effects of climate change on two things – one, flooding events and the effect of flooding events on the levels that you need to establish in an urban development, and two, extreme heat and shading from heat.” – Andy Fergus

HC: There’s certainly opportunity to grapple with these challenges with ingenuity. But there’s also environmental considerations and economic constraints to contend with. How do you address this in your consulting work?

AF: Because of the type of work I do, I have had to develop a reasonable degree of financial literacy. A big part of my work is navigating how to provide a generous outcome within budget constraints by knowing what is and isn’t possible. I think I thrive in a more constrained environment, because it just happens that my own personal penchant is for looser fit, under-designed spaces that are a bit simpler and Spartan and can evolve over time with the soft landscaping. So, that’s kind of helpful.

With buildings, I don’t particularly care what happens above about four stories, but I care a hell of a lot about what happens on the ground plane. So, I would rather see budgets stripped out at the upper levels and have double the budget spent on the ground floor. Then you can deliver an exquisite human environment by using materials that your body can relate to.

Environmentally, a focus for me of late has been around material selection and embodied carbon. I think the battle for operational carbon neutrality in new projects is close to won, but we have a massive challenge when it comes to upfront embodied carbon. Using existing materials on site is something I’m really interested in. How can you re-use demolished fabric as valued material that you couldn’t afford to buy? Consider a 300-year-old spotted gum roof truss. You couldn’t buy that from a supplier – it doesn’t exist. So how do you value materials on a spiritual level as much as you do economically and environmentally?

I’ve probably already shown my card around my passion for ecology. A big focus for me, is questioning how non-human outcomes can benefit from urban development. Working in collaboration with landscape architects, I’m quite passionate about even small opportunities to bring nature into the city, rather than seeing the city as urban and the periphery as nature. I have loved opportunities to work with first nations designers, because its quickly clear that this is very much a shared passion.

“I think I thrive in a more constrained environment, because it just happens that my own personal penchant is for looser fit, under-designed spaces that are a bit simpler and Spartan and can evolve over time with the soft landscaping.” – Andy Fergus

HC: Your practice must be incredibly collaborative. Is it rewarding to work amongst such a diverse cohort of disciplines?

AF: Yeah, I hate working alone. I would much rather work in collaboration with small groups, to share in other people’s knowledge. It’s something I’m very aware of. I’m 36, so I guess I’m still probably considered ‘emerging’ in my profession, but I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to events, locally and interstate, as an expert on certain topics. I think something unique to our generation, and something that will be absolutely critical to the next generation, is this idea of arriving in a place with open arms and an open mind. It’s not about selling this dogmatic idea that needs to be executed, it’s more about finding a solution that makes sense and can be executed by the people responsible for it. The travelling merchant expert is a deeply outmoded model.

HC: What keeps you going to explore those boundaries?

AF: I like this idea of a self-directed career. When you graduate as a designer, you’re set out this red carpet of what you think you’re going to be, and it’s quite linear. It’s got nothing to do with the career pathways that millennials are experiencing in reality. I think that pluralist mindset of working in collaboration, but also, in learning from lots of different disciplines is so critical. I’m a hybrid practitioner who works in the housing space, as well as urban design, as well as architecture and landscape architecture. It’s not about being an expert in all these fields but having enough knowledge about each that you’re a good collaborator. In the built environment, this hybridity bizarrely still seems to be unusual when professions can otherwise be quite siloed.

“I’m a hybrid practitioner who works in the housing space, as well as urban design, as well as architecture and landscape architecture. It’s not about being an expert in all these fields but having enough knowledge about each that you’re a good collaborator.” – Andy Fergus

HC: It’s certainly valuable to look beyond our core profession – it can otherwise become a bit of an echo chamber.

AF: It can. I’ve probably spent the last three years reading as much as I can about our pre-European history, first nations cultural experiences and connections to landscape, historical and contemporary. I’ve been reading a lot about anthropology, landscape history, systems and geology, and reading a lot about dynamics of power and government over history, learning from different regimes, democratic or otherwise, and their ability to produce intended outcomes in cities or within their population. Perhaps anthropology is a core focus, but that wider range of knowledge has added so much to the way I think about problems, rather than looking at them from within the prism of the profession, which is so limiting.

HC: Andy, this has been an incredibly thought provoking conversation. We appreciate your insights and know our audience will too.

AF: My pleasure. Thanks Hayley.

Read Part 01 of our conversation here.

Andy Fergus with fellow Urban Design Forum committee members at MPavilion.
Photo by Josh Blashki.

“I think something unique to our generation, and something that will be absolutely critical to the next generation, is this idea of arriving in a place with open arms and an open mind. It’s not about selling this dogmatic idea that needs to be executed, it’s more about finding a solution that makes sense and can be executed by the people responsible for it. The travelling merchant expert is a deeply outmoded model.” – Andy Fergus