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Placing people at the heart of our centres

The award-winning Eastern Creek Quarter – designed by i2C Architects for Frasers Property Australia

In retail property development, the importance of ‘community’ needs no explanation; it’s been an accepted fact for decades. But how is it achieved? How does a development attract and even inspire its community? Does the designer/developer have to live there? ‘Lived Experience’, is a relatively new term; here it’s explained…    

This article by Claire Bowles of i2C Architects was first published in SCN Vol. 39 no. 2 CBD Guns issue

When a project team can design with the essence of its community in mind it brings vitality, vibrancy and viability to a shopping centre. Even better when the designer has lived experience of the community he or she is serving. This lived experience has a depth of understanding and authenticity that comes through as a richness in understanding the patterns and flows of that place and what that place is expressing and needs. According to the UX Collective, an independent design publication, “lived experience is a dynamic phenomenon, one in which we fully encounter in our intuitive minds, an aspect that many quantitative research methodologies fail to capture”.

There is the approach of designing ‘for’ community and then there is the depth of designing ‘with’ community. On Eastern Creek Quarter, we had the opportunity to be designing ‘with and for’ community with our architect Dino Delotavo leading the charge on working to bring a retail centre full of life to a diverse community where he had lived for many years.

Community engagement can often be a process seen as a quantitative research-based tick box exercise and usually lacks the time to deeply connect in with the truth of a community and the ability to understand their behaviours, cultures and ways of being. The lived experience of having been part of a local community and observed and participated in the daily rituals and movements enables a depth of seeing that would otherwise go unseen. 

Located in the thriving Western Sydney catchment, the award-winning Eastern Creek Quarter (ECQ) – designed by i2C Architects for Frasers Property Australia – brought the opportunity to design a place of vitality and vibrancy for the local community.

Understanding how the community behaves, purchases, moves and enjoys spaces enables so much more to come to life than merely a space where you can shop, dine and be entertained. Eastern Creek Quarter offered the opportunity to bring the community together to reconnect with nature, each other and the beauty of this place they call home.

This initial stage of the entire development has successfully created a place where the diverse local residents can share their traditions and rituals through cultural events that integrate dining and family fun.

A well-landscaped centralised plaza welcomes you and brings all the three stages of the centre together, symbolising the coming together of its culturally diverse neighbourhood. The plaza is surrounded by restaurants with outdoor dining so local families can enjoy the view of the existing parkland. The centre took advantage of its location by positioning it facing the parkland, bringing a connection to nature to centre visitors. It has deservedly been awarded a 6-star Green Star for its beautiful use of natural light and ventilation and on-site renewable energy generation. What was not captured within this certification, however, is its biophilic design and authentic connection to place – which some may say are the true testament to its success.  

If you visit ECQ, you can feel the vibrancy, bustling energy and sense of connection that exists there. 

I pose to you the hypothesis that designing from lived experience and gaining understanding of the essence of a community is a pathway to real success where the local community feels a deep sense of pride, belonging, ownership and care for this retail centre, and with that comes long-term economic viability for the retail owner. 

While this connection of lived experience directly from the architects may not always be possible, this provides at least the evidence for locally led neighbourhoods and locally led place-making initiatives. What can we as designers learn about building social capital and connection by working ‘with’ our communities rather than ‘for’ them? 

Understanding how the community behaves, purchases, moves and enjoys spaces enables so much more to come to life than merely a space where you can shop

Globally, we have seen considerable growth in place-making initiatives for activation of retail centres and temporarily bringing life back to communities. While this is notable these temporary interventions are unlikely to bring the long-term social benefits for which they were intended and may require costly support or program maintenance by local councils.

What is required is not developer led place-making activation but rather collaborative design with communities to ensure they participate in the design of their future communities and that the essence of their community and place is effectively captured and communicated in the design.

About the author

Claire Bowles

Claire Bowles joined i2C as their Sustainability Lead in 2018 to establish their core sustainability principles and goals. Now as Regenerative Development lead Claire is building capacity across i2C to work with purpose and determination to design for life. Claire works closely with clients on their purposeful objectives for projects to achieve positive outcomes. Her Master’s degree in Strategic Project Management, experience as a construction improvement consultant in the UK gives Claire a broad base from which to bring stakeholders together and drive innovative thinking around regenerative and living systems design. She is passionate about approaching our built environment as an opportunity to create positive buildings and places that act as educational, inspiring acupuncture points for a new way of living, being and working. She is a firm believer that we can all contribute and have a positive impact on our communities, society and wider natural environments.

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