Episode 110      26 min 35 sec
Empowering Communities to Preserve Character of Place

Landscape Architect Assoc Prof Ray Green discusses his ground-breaking approach in which a community is able to define the character of its neighbourhood. This methodology seeks to restore the balance of power between communities and external bodies such as planners and developers. With host Jennifer Cook.

"Typically these so called character studies are done by town planners, landscape architects, urban designers based on their professional judgements. My research is based quite differently where I assume that the local residents of these towns are the true experts." -- Associate Professor Ray Green




           



Assoc Prof Raymond Green
Assoc Prof Raymond Green

Associate Professor Raymond Green began his academic career in the visual fine arts before switching to landscape architecture and obtaining a Bachelor of Science, Master of Landscape Architecture and later a multidisciplinary Ph.D. in which he explored community based landscape planning in coastal areas using environmental psychology methods.

Ray's career has spanned both professional practice and academic teaching and research. He joined the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning in 1999. Before that he was with the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) in their Queensland office. His professional practice experience involved him in a range of master planning and landscape design projects in various countries – Untied States, Mexico, Australia, Indonesia (particularly Bali), Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore - where he has been responsible for over 40 major built projects, primarily involving tourism, urban open space and housing developments, many of which  are located in coastal sites.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

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Empowering Communities to Preserve Character of Place

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

JENNIFER COOK
I'm Jennifer Cook.  Thanks for joining us.  How do we define the character of a place, and not just any place, but our home, our community?  We can use words, we can take photos, we can walk others through the landscape and point out its beauty, its hidden treasures.  But harnessing these emotions and presenting them in cold hard numbers, well that until now, has been like catching water in a net.  This has been a huge problem for those people trying to protect their local communities from over development or environmental destruction.  As today's guest tells us, placard waving and sentiment don't translate well into the world of town planners, city by-laws and courts of appeal.  This is where the groundbreaking research methods developed by Melbourne University's Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, Ray Green, can help.  His model enables him to capture the character of a community and present it as quantifiable data.  He has made the emotional concrete.  
In his 2010 book, Coastal Towns in Transition, Ray takes us on a fascinating journey into seaside communities, where residents feel the threat of inappropriate development.  Yet they are finding ways to channel their feelings into solid, evidence based calls for conservation and sensible planning.  Ray, thank you for joining us on Up Close.

RAY GREEN
You're welcome, happy to be here.  

JENNIFER COOK
More than 60 per cent of the world's population, or 3.5 billion people now live within 150km of the coastline, crowded in to just 10 per cent of the earth's land surface.  You point out in your book that it's predicted by 2020 approximately 75 per cent of the world's population will be living on or near the coast.  That's an estimated 6.4 billion, approximately the world's current population.  Can you outline some of the ramifications of this?

RAY GREEN
Well there's environmental destruction caused just from the sheer numbers of people moving to the coastal communities.  These tend to be semi rural coastal communities that are located near major metropolitan areas. In Australia, that would be Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth.  The sheer numbers of people moving to the coast have caused degradation in the landscape, in the ecology.  Most significantly the development of these places to cater to the influx of greater population, along with tourism which is by many accounts the world's largest economic activity.

JENNIFER COOK
So you could say that these coastal towns and communities have become victims of their own beauty haven't they?

RAY GREEN
Exactly.

JENNIFER COOK
People flock to them because they're untouched and then they touch them.

RAY GREEN
Then what's happened globally is that once the character of these places, which is often the major attraction, the tourist attraction and also the attraction for this, what's been called a amenity migration to the coast.  Once that's destroyed, people move on to the next undiscovered place and often proceed to destroy that as well.  So my research is based on how do you maintain that character and preserve the resource, the attraction of these places.  And that's done through good planning, development controls.  In order to do that you have to understand, I believe, how the local community perceives that character, and the changes that are resulting and the degradation of that character.

JENNIFER COOK
Tell us now about your research.  This environmental psychological approach, it's quite different isn't it?

RAY GREEN
It is.  It's different in the fact that typically these so called character studies that are used to identify what creates the character or conveys the character of a place are expert based, that are done by town planners, landscape architects, urban designers based on their professional judgements, their expert judgement about what features of the landscape convey that character and also what features are detracting from it, which are typically new additions to the landscape.  So my research is based quite differently where I assume that the local residents of these towns are the true experts.  Because they're the ones that experience this character.  It's an experiential phenomena, the character of a place.  It's something that's conveyed by the features, the physical features of a place, but it's an experiential perceptual phenomenon.  As such, the local residents are the ones that are most familiar with that, because they've lived there, they've seen the changes, they were experiencing it day to day in their local surroundings.

JENNIFER COOK
How frustrating for them when they see these typical linear style developments, where you get buildings built as close as we can to the beach, all in a line.  You also talk about the MacMansion, the over sized out of place development.  This does create great rage within communities.

RAY GREEN
It does, it's interesting because the people that are coming and building these so called MacMansions are being attracted for the same reasons that people that live there cherish their local environments.  Yet, their very presence by building what the local residents often term to be inappropriate development, so called MacMansions, is the major cause of the degradation or the transformation, the negative transformation in the town's character.  So my approach is, you go to the residents and you try to understand how they experience that character.  And then identify the features that can be potentially controlled or managed through town planning, urban design, landscape architecture, architectural design.  So that your new additions to the town are going to be compatible with that local resident's perceptions and experiences.

JENNIFER COOK
I'm Jennifer Cook and I'm talking with Ray Green about the plight of coastal towns and his ground breaking research methods into capturing character and place.  Let's get into your techniques that you use.  You interview, you show photos, talk us through some of those.

RAY GREEN
Okay, it inherently has to be quite a complex technique and I've developed a methodology that borrows a lot from methods that have been developed in environmental psychology.

JENNIFER COOK
I might just stop you there and get you to explain to us what environmental psychology is.  

RAY GREEN
It's a branch of psychology that deals with people's interaction with the landscape with the environment.  Their behaviours, their perceptions, the way they evaluate the environment.  In my case I'm using these methods to help inform town planning, environmental planning, landscape architecture, architectural design actions and decision making.  So I'm using the methods borrowed from environmental psychology but for application to inform design and planning decision making.  It's a multi method sequential methodology where I start off with sending everybody in these towns that I'm studying, projective maps.  Maps where they're asked to pretend that they were taking sets of photographs of those features they considered most important to the character of their town and I also asked them to look at their neighbourhoods.  So it's a finer grain, smaller scale part of the environment, and one that they're potentially more familiar with.  
I asked them to imagine they are taking photographs of those features and write brief descriptions of how they would take those photos and what would be included in those photos.  I also asked them to take photographs of those features they feel are detracting from their character.  So this allows me to identify in psychology we call, stimuli elements that we then use in other methods to have them evaluate the compatibility of these features with their conceptions of the character of the town and neighbourhood.

JENNIFER COOK
That would just be fascinating to see just what people love about their town.  What's so important and what they hate.  But you're taking it so much further.  

RAY GREEN
Well I do.  We content analyse all of those responses and there are literally thousands of elements to identify.  We look for recurring patterns, so content analysis looks for the frequency of elements mentioned and then develop lists of those features and go out and take photographs to try to approximate the way the people suggested in their projective maps, how you would take photographs of those.  So in each town sets of photographs, stimuli photographs of these features, both positive and negative, are taken.  Then those are used in photo rating workshops with the community where each member of the community that participates in these workshops rates the features on the degree of character compatibility.  How much they feel - these are seven point rating scales, how much they feel that feature contributes to the character or detracts from the character of the town or their neighbourhood.  There are other scales that are used that in previous research I found are correlated with this notion of character, town character, neighbourhood character.  So I look at perceived naturalness, perceived distinctiveness, perceived beauty and other scales.

JENNIFER COOK
What is the reaction of the people in the community to what you're doing?

RAY GREEN
They love it.

JENNIFER COOK
Do they?

RAY GREEN
They love it because it gives substance to their voice and their feelings.  Politicians, good politicians in towns that are aware of the value of this approach love it as well.  Because it gives them some evidence as you said in the beginning, it gives them evidence to base their planning decisions on that hopefully will resonate with the community's expectations and be compatible with their perceptions and desires.  So in every town I've worked in and I've worked in coastal towns mostly in Australia, in South East Asia. And in every place, it's very well received by the communities.  

JENNIFER COOK
How then is it applied to planning schemes and regulations?  Take us to that next step.

RAY GREEN
There's more to talk about the methodology because you have to get it down to what are the attributes of design that people consider are important to those features that they consider to be compatible with town character or neighbourhood character, and what are those attributes they consider to be incompatible, or detract from that character.  Because town planning looks at mostly assessment of new changes to the environment.  So new development for instance.  In order to assess that character, and in the state of Victoria, we're here in South East Australia in Victoria, the state planning code or regulations has something called RES code, which requires local governments to assess any new residential development in terms of its impact on neighbourhood character.  They use the word 'neighbourhood character'.  So you have to bring it down to the neighbourhood and you have to identify characteristics of development, in this case residential development that they can use to assess proposals for new development. And that's where you bring this methodology even further, identifying the attributes.  For instance the scale, the height, the amount of vegetation that's used in the landscape.  The type of vegetation, the surface articulation of the architecture, the materials.  These are development controls which good developers will pay attention to.  
I have actually had developers in various towns contact me and say, can you tell me what attributes your research are showing, have identified, that I can incorporate into proposals for new development, so that we will be more compatible with the community's conception of town character.  These are developers I consider to be responsible citizens.

JENNIFER COOK
I'm Jennifer Cook and I'm talking with Melbourne University's Ray Green about the plight of coastal towns and what his ground breaking research is doing to help them.  That would be very satisfying, so you're getting that link now between the community, your research, planners and architects.  Now you have had some resistance within the profession from experts haven't you to your research?

RAY GREEN
Well there's a general uneasiness amongst a lot of design and planning professionals.  That it's based on public perceptions and that in itself I think is a bit threatening because experts, professional planners, designers go through a lot of schooling in order to develop what they feel are superior aesthetic judgements.  I disagree with that.  I think that in this case the landscape belongs to the public, it's used by the public, it's where people live, it's their habitat.  And therefore they should be the ones that have the say on what's compatible, what fits in with that.  Of course, there are instances where you need expert advice, where it will be beyond the expertise of the public to assess.  For instance, changes that might affect ecological situations or public health issues.  But we're talking about aesthetics here mostly.  

JENNIFER COOK
Aesthetics and character and the heart of a community.

RAY GREEN
Exactly.   It also relates to - in environmental psychology there's a term called 'place attachment'.

JENNIFER COOK
Yes, talk to us about that.

RAY GREEN
Well where people, through familiarity with a place and place features, become emotionally attached to these features.  So they may not in themselves have high aesthetic value to an outside expert.  To those local residents they're emotionally attached to these place features and if you disturb those features in anyway, or remove them or threaten them, it elicits a response from people, a negative response.  Because there's a concept in environmental psychology termed 'place identity' and it really has to do with that aspect of self identity that is related to the environment.  So how we identify ourself has to do with how we identify with the environment we live in.

JENNIFER COOK
It's interesting you say that.  In our little suburb there's, just as the kids walk home from school, there's a tin shed.  It used to be used in World War II to hand out supplies and then a local guy, Charlie, now owns it.  It used to be a bottle depot for a while.  And to anyone who moved into the suburb, it's just an old run down tin shed.  But to the locals who have lived there for 20, 30, 40 years it's an integral part of that little town's community and identity.

RAY GREEN
I found that in all of the towns there were similar features and some of the features that come out as important to local character have the social connotations, the social associations the general store, the little café, the post office.  Which these are features that in themselves are not of high aesthetic value, visual aesthetic value, yet they have this meaning to the local residents.  One of the things I looked at was how does length of residency, which is kind of a rough measure of environmental familiarity, how does that affect people's perception.  Because obviously the longer you live somewhere the more likely you are to develop these place attachments.

JENNIFER COOK
The more change you've seen so the more you want to hold on to what remains.  

RAY GREEN
Well the other way that I use this technique and I'm currently looking at it in relation to adapting coastal towns to climate change, because coastal town will be at the forefront of that change, and also in the past I've used it in towns that were devastated by bush fires.  As you know in Australia, bush fires are a very dangerous and devastating event that happens on a periodic basis.  I've used it to re-establish a framework of cognitively familiar place features that will help people readjust to the restored environment.

JENNIFER COOK
You've also done this overseas haven’t you in a community that was devastated by a volcano and as a town's been moved.

RAY GREEN
Well that's work I'm doing with my students, where we're working on re-designing a new town to replace this town of Chaiten in Patagonia in Chile.   In May 2008 it was destroyed by a volcano.  People really can't move back there, it's a population of about five and a half thousand (5500) people.  So the government has identified a site about 8km north where a new town will be built.  I brought my students over last year, these are Masters of Urban Design, Landscape Architecture, Architecture, brought those students over and worked with students at a university in Santiago, PUC the Catholic university there, to come up with plans for this new town and as part of that work we're looking into why - what was it about the old town that people were attached to?  What was the character of that town that they identified with, and how can we recreate that in the new town?  So this is ongoing research, but there were about 70 people that moved back to the town, despite government warnings, despite the government cutting off all utilities to the town, and they just refused to leave.  Despite the fact that it's dangerous, the volcano could blow again.  

JENNIFER COOK
That's the power the memory of that town and how much it meant to them.

RAY GREEN
So we're trying to develop new features in the new town that will near or to some extent replace those features that were lost.  For instance, Catholic church, because most of the people are Catholic.  The ecology of the area.

JENNIFER COOK
I'm Jennifer Cook and I'm talking with Ray Green about the plight of coastal towns and his groundbreaking research methods into capturing character and place.  Now in the last chapter of your book, you talk about a different kind of change, climate change and the challenges, the very real challenges on coastal communities.  Now those communities face very tough and real choices, what are they?

RAY GREEN
It's a hard question to answer briefly, but I'm looking at research right now with a colleague at the University of Exeter in the UK on this idea of place attachment of people in coastal communities and how we can adapt those town to climate change. There's basically three things that you can do.  One is, you can protect these towns from, say the two major impacts will be rising sea levels and also more intense and frequent storms and associated flooding.  So you can protect the towns with walls and things like that.  You can modify development, for example, bring buildings higher up on stilts or whatever.  Or you can retreat, what we call managed retreat.  That's the one where you really have to consider the place attachments that people have formed with that landscape and how its modified.  In all of these instances, and in the case of Chaiten and Patagonia and after the bush fires.  It also opens up an opportunity to take advantage of these, what are actually devastating events and make some good out of them.  So readapt these towns, the new developed towns can be better, can be improved.  One of the things that we're looking at for instance in the Chaiten project in coastal towns in Australia is trying to mitigate the causes of climate change which are greenhouse gasses put into the atmosphere.  So in Chile we're proposing a geothermal plant to generate energy for the new town.  Now this wouldn't have been done unless a new town was being built most likely.  
So there is an opportunity to integrate some innovative technologies and useful additions to the town.  For instance, generating carbon free energy through alternative sources.  Wind farms, tidal, solar in appropriate places, geothermal.

JENNIFER COOK
Now Ray, all of this careful research and this methodology has led to some fascinating results.  Can you talk us through them?

RAY GREEN
Yes, one of the things that is really interesting and it gives validity to the results, is that in every one of these towns, the same pattern of results is emerging.  What that is, is that when you look at the mean scores and the standard deviation values that are associated with each of the features, and in this study its reported on in this Coastal Towns in Transition book. In each town. We start off with the natural features of the environment, the vegetation, obviously the sea, freshwater features, dramatic coastal geologic features, they're all rated extremely highly.  They're iconic of the character, they're very important.  Then if you go down a little bit there's still features that are considered very important by the residents.  Their historic heritage features, old buildings.  Then features that are still considered or rated quite in character, or moderately in character.  New development, but it has certain characteristics.  Small in scale, vegetation is very important, articulation of the surface, materials and colours that make them feel or be perceived as blending into the landscape.  Then as you progress further, or you get into features that were rated and identified as particularly out of character, the vegetation disappears, the buildings get bigger, the surface articulation goes away so you get those big monolithic blank boxes.  Very visually prominent from roads and other public open space areas.  This pattern has occurred in every town.
Also when you go back to the residents and ask them to interpret the results, they can clearly identify the types of design features, and I have to say that the more the built features become incongruent with the natural landscape, the more they're rated as out of character.  So what is the moral of this story?  It's that you have to be attuned to the natural environment, the topography, the vegetation, the features of the landscape and development has to fit in with those and reflect those characteristics.  For instance, development that was higher than the tree canopy was consistently picked out as being incompatible or inappropriate development.  All of the features that were identified as incompatible with town character or detracting from that, were all built features, new built features, practically in every town, so this says something about the need to study the landscape, look at the forms, the textures, the colours, the design attributes of the landscape and mirror that in the architectural proposals that you're making for that.  So that you get a unified picture of that landscape.

JENNIFER COOK
You've been listening to Up Close and our guest today has been Melbourne University's Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, Ray Green.  Ray thank you so much for joining us.

RAY GREEN
You're welcome, it's been a pleasure.  

JENNIFER COOK
Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is brought to you by Marketing and Communications of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  This episode was recorded on August 19, 2010 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering has been by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I'm  Jennifer Cook, until next time, goodbye.  

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2010, the University of Melbourne.


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