INSIDE THE MIND OF A MASTER COMMUNITY PLANNER
"Every single thing we do has a real impact on how people are going to live in that community, and it's a responsibility not to be taken lightly." - Tod O’Dwyer, General Manager Development Western Australia
Hand me a piece of paper and a pencil and I reckon I’d be able to map out my entire childhood. When I was a kid, I lived in Brisbane. It was a dead-end street that had bushland all around. I’d ride my bike through it to get to my best mate’s house and from there we’d race up to the top of Mt Cootha to wag school sometimes. At our local corner shop was the newsagency and the bus stop where I’d catch the first of four buses to get to school and back -- on the days I went, of course. Pride of place was the local sports oval, where I played cricket in my Dad’s team. And I can still vividly remember my first girlfriend’s house and how much time was spent there.
These childhood memories are underpinned by a really strong sense of community that I was lucky enough to live in. And these days, in my role as the General Manager Development and Design at Frasers Property, it’s something I can have a hand in designing for people all across the country.
I’ve learnt a few things in my thirty years in this industry, but they can mostly be distilled down into three key things that I keep coming back to. Funnily enough, they are also three rules for life;
1. You must care about what you do
Whenever I first look at a development site, there is an appreciation that it’s a rare opportunity to shape how a small portion of the next generation of Australians are going to live their lives. That may sound like a grand sweeping statement, but any masterplan that we, at Frasers Property, have produced is genuinely motivated by creating the best life possible for the people who will live within the community we are creating.
This fundamental idea of ‘how will the next generation live their lives?’ sounds like a nice marketing tagline, but it’s actually something our CEO Rod Fehring shared with me more than 20 years ago. To be honest, at the time I probably brushed it off, but these days I think about it often. Design that embraces and serves the customer is the overarching aim of what we do in our communities; these are real places for real people, all of who have diverse needs and wants. Every single thing we do has a real impact on how people are going to live in that community, and it’s a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
15 years ago, I was chatting to a landscape architect friend of mine who had just started working with a developer. We were standing in a sales office carpark, overlooking a new park that we had just built. As we stood there, we watched a car pull up next to us. Mum got the pram out of the boot and popped the baby into it. Dad grabbed the hand of the four-year-old and went and played kick-to- kick for the next hour, while Mum and bub walked around the lake. I turned to my mate and said, “we have the best job in the world because what we do really impacts people’s lives”.
2. Biggest isn’t always best
Surprisingly, if we want to push the envelope or do something that really cares for the people that live in our communities, it doesn’t have to be huge and cutting edge. As an urban designer, I know that I’m never going to design the next Central Park in New York. But instead, over my lifetime, I’m going to be part of a team that design places where 50,000+ families are going to call home. Personally, I get more satisfaction out of that than designing huge, new iconic landmarks.
Recently, one of our best decisions was made when thinking about the future residents who would be living at Fairwater in Blacktown. For many Australians, there’s a deep affinity with water - there’s something about the way it calms the mind, and captures our imaginations. Problem is, ‘Blacktown’ and ‘water’ aren’t normally mentioned in the same breath. So, we decided to change that. We moved the design for the Fairwater lake up to the doorstep of the project and used it to frame the entry. When the development industry talks about Fairwater, it’s often in terms of the project’s energy efficiency and its environmental credentials, but I bet if you went and knocked on a resident’s door and asked them what they enjoyed most about living there, one of the top things they’d say is “living near the water”.
3. It must work just as well on the bad days as the good
A well-designed community can’t just be there for the good days, like when you take the kids to the park or the dog takes you for a jog around the lake. It has to be there for you on those days that none of us want to have, but invariably do. Rarely when looking for somewhere to live our dreams, do we consider whether we’re close to a hospital or an aged care facility. Is there a doctor and a pharmacy nearby that’s open late? Are the streets well-lit and safe? Can I comfortably knock on my neighbour’s door and ask for a hand in times of need? I simply wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t consider these factors when planning one of our communities.
We all strive to deliver great places that have a really strong sense of community – places of consequence. By that, I don’t just mean somewhere with lots of community barbecues and free movie nights (though we help deliver those, too). What I really mean is when you arrive somewhere and instantly feel at ease. You’re surrounded by like-minded people, who want to enjoy and care for the area as much as you do. Urban design is often the tool that delivers these very human spaces. I may not be the best urban designer around, but I am fairly useful at creating spaces that make our residents feel special. This is driven by caring deeply about the way people live in our projects.
Finally, I believe that the special places we love and think of most often are generally places that make us proud to belong. Great spaces uplift you and they make you realise that you’re part of something greater. You may have your own beautiful home on a great street, but great communities are equally proud of their schools, their local shops, where they play, and all of the people who share these spaces with them.
I like to think that the existence of these kinds of places is what makes growing up in Australia so rewarding. It certainly helped this ratbag kid discover a career where I’d get to design the communities of the future. It’s something I’m grateful for every day when I come to work and pick up that pencil.