“A great urban design outcome will not just offer a check box of green streets and cycle networks, it will strategically re-think what is the best feasible outcome for all parties,” says Nicola Balch, internationally recognized urban designer, architecture journalist and lecturer from Australia, whose specialization is urban environment development strategy. Her background includes completed degrees in Architecture and Media, Communications simultaneously at the University of Technology where she now teaches. Nicola will be a guest speaker at the Baltic Real Estate Leaders Forum 2016 on October 20.
Please tell about your work experience - how did you become an award winner on urban strategies?
I'm a multidisciplinary designer & strategist, which makes me a perfect fit at McGregorCoxall as a company we work across Landscape Architecture, Urbanism and Environment disciplines. I began in architecture but had also studied journalism so had already written for variety of publications before I established my name in the Urban Design and Placemaking field. I began working at McGregor Coxall essentially, because they provided a delicate balance between both award winning quality built work and rigorous urban design methodology. That passion for a variety of different approaches is what pulled me to Urban Design. In order to understand what issues a place holds you have to have the capability to take in a range of different inputs, from property economists, traffic consultants to policy review and rigorous community opinion to really understand what is stalling a place, what the key underlining issues are. It’s like investigative journalism only you have to design a physical outcome at the end of it all. At McGregor Coxall our approach to Urban Design is highly sustainability focused, that edge drives out focus but this pursuit also leads to innovative outcomes. McGregor Coxall have been around since 2000. I’ve been on the team for around 5 years. Outside the company I am constantly involved in smaller placemaking initiatives and more recently I won the Urban Land Institute Asia Pacific Design Competition for Young Leaders for a proposal that utilized live data analytics to continually plan, adapt and re-program public spaces.
What are the main challenges in the real estate market in Australia right now?
Given I'm not in property per-se, I might take a different angle to this question. Australia and Sydney in particular is going through a boom period at the moment. For example, labour force data for the last quarter found that jobs in Architectural Services as a leading national diver for new employment. We dodged the recession relatively unscathed, especially compared to the rest of the world. Four key states are all witnessing a growth in large scale urban regeneration and infrastructure projects. In Sydney our western city Parramatta is growing at an alarming rate, in the inner city, huge swaths of post-industrial land are being developed into large mixed-use precincts. A focus on infrastructure is seeing $9 Billion motorway connection, which joins the loops between these two places. I would say currently the main challenges for all these projects is getting the right balance between governance and development required to truly achieve quality liveable outcomes. This is where Urban Design comes in to play. A great urban design outcome will not just offer a check box of green streets and cycle networks, it will strategically re-think what is the best feasible outcome for all parties on inception. But that means having the right people around the table to begin with, which is incredibly difficult, particularly when dealing with Bureaucracy. There is an underlying governmental fear of clashing interests and community backlash, unfortunately this can lead to unfounded assumptions driving key decisions.
For example, one of the major challenges we are facing Australia is housing affordability, housing prices in Sydney & Melbourne increase by 13%- 14% last year alone while rent increase was up by 0.4 in Sydney and 1.7% in Melbourne. We are seeing a shift away from ownership to renting and a reconsideration of the “Australian Dream” aka suburban housing ownership. This is driven by re-centralization desires for greater access to common good and affordability. Despite this trend, backlash against density projects, particularly in the cities is rife. The result is a need for greater community consultation and the delivery of density projects that deliver back to their neighbourhoods. This is one of the reasons placemaking is becoming such a key term globally, it fills these shoes.
Could there be similar tendencies in Europe too?
Europe is an entirely different ball game. Firstly, because the economic hangover of the recession and new uncertainties like Brexit. Global growth is at 3%-4% a year and EMU counties are forecast for only 1.6% in 2017. So it’s highly unlikely. In comparison Australia is looking at around 3% growth in GDP. But also because each location is a completely different context. If you look at best practice Urban Regeneration projects outside the city centre in say Sweden or Copenhagen compared to the Baltics, you are looking at an entirely different urban conditions. I mean difference in affordability, income and living standard but also in typology and outcome. Compare the outer urban fabric of Riga, to that of Copenhagen. However, on a higher level, the value of and focus on liveability and as such placemaking is increasing rapidly.
How do you see Baltic capitals in the future - will they become more/less competitive among other European cities?
These cities have a huge amount of potential. When I lived in Riga in 2007, right before the GFC hit, most activities were concentrated only around the very city centre and satellite shopping centres was part of the underground art scene at the time. The guys who used to work at bars, and launched magazines, rock bands and ran festivals, some of them still do, others have moved overseas. I suspect however, that my perspective on opportunity is a bit different, my specialty (placemaking) while as a movement has been around since the 60's, hit its boom period in the financial crisis. This is primarily because it’s a means of low cost testing, trial and error to lead to place development rather than a fixed permanent solution. The makeshift movement became so successful following that now those with finances adopt its aesthetics. So places that are more up-and coming in a way have more opportunity for some of these initiate authentic approaches. We used to go out in the Old town and its edges, only. Now those areas are primarily reserved for tourists and the city centre has expanded far further. Andrejsala used to just be a pile of graffiti laden rooms where we could hold parties and art exhibitions. The challenge is keeping the young talent local and not losing it permanently to migration.
Can you give a short introduction on your presentation in the BREL Forum?
My focus will be to de-mystify placemaking and discuss how it is a rigorous and analytically justifiable approach to revitalizing spaces and cities. I'm going to do this through focusing on key case studies from Australia that have changed how we think about city development, then open it up to a general discussion of how these types of strategies could be deployed in the Baltics.