the right place

The power of place

lifestyle Article #26

The places we love most can be found almost anywhere. Beside the ocean or a babbling creek, in a forest or beneath a single shady tree. They can offer quiet and solitude or the noise and bustling energy of a busy city square.


In the most intense urban environments, our cities and towns, they seldom happen by accident; they come about through considered planning and an understanding that place creation should not be an afterthought or left to chance.

Place creation is not new. UNESCO identifies Catalhoyuk in Turkey as the first known city in the world, founded 9,000 years ago. It is highly valued as an archaeological site for what it reveals about settlement patterns, yet nine millennia later, we are still learning how to plan our urban spaces in a way that is good for people and good for the environment. 

Sacha Coles, the Global Design Director of ASPECT Studios, believes that place is once again on the ascendant and the turnaround has him excited about what that means for creating greener, more pleasant cities to live in.

“There has been a complete transformation of the work we do in designing urban environments in the past 10 years,” says Mr Coles. “It has gone from a cost to something our clients see as an investment. That is a radical shift.

“The landscape architects were once seen as primarily aesthetic and decorative; we were just costing money. But the reality is the landscape architects, urbanists and ecologists are doing the things that make people want to stay in a place and giving people a reason to come back.”

What happened to make the creation of attractive cities and places so difficult? Mr Coles, recognised as one of the top 30 landscape architects in the world, whose broad portfolio of work spans placemaking, infrastructure, civic institutions and green infrastructure, puts it down to the industrial revolution which led to the separation of work and home. 

“That separation is the big problem,” says Mr Coles. “We have created these things called CBDs, as if we want just business in our cities. What we really want is relationships, social districts. Where we went sideways was making industry and business separate to our lives.”

Far from predicting the death of the CBD, Mr Coles is advocating a rebirth of CBDs, edging closer to a European model that has somehow resisted moves to disconnect work from living.

“The spaces we love share a few things; a consistent density for a great street life with restaurants and cafes down the bottom and families living in apartments you walk up to,” says Mr Coles. 

“They provide spaces and urban environments with old and young people. There are schools in them and people live and work and play without separation. The best spaces are those with layers and a range of different uses. They have authenticity and generosity.” 


“The best spaces are those with layers and a range of different uses. They have authenticity and generosity.”


Global Design Director, ASPECT Studios


This layering of purpose is finding its way back to many of the major urban regeneration projects that Mirvac is involved in, most notably the renewal of Harbourside in Sydney’s Darling Harbour precinct.

For nearly 40 years Darling Harbour has been the go-to place for Sydney’s big celebratory moments. Harbourside at Darling Harbour was the catalyst for renewal on the western shore and Mirvac’s transformation plans for the former shopping centre are gathering momentum. 

Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta and Australian architecture studio Hassell partnered with Indigenous Design Advisers, Djinjama, in their competition winning design for Harbourside, having an integrated approach to architecture, landscape, public domain and cultural connection that magnifies the public benefit.

The layering of different uses, reversing an era of separation and disconnection, will result in over 10,200sqm of public domain including a new waterfront promenade, approximately 265 luxury apartments, 27,000sqm of office space and 7,000sqm of retail. Perhaps the most remarkable element of the project is the regreening of a precinct where nature has previously taken a backseat. 

A proposed 3,500sqm Waterfront Garden will offer a new public park, connecting the neighbourhood to the waterfront. A variety of green spaces is a result of deep engagement with Mirvac’s partner, Placemaking NSW and the local community, making a significant contribution to cooling the environment and a mirror to the green space proposed for Cockle Bay on the opposite shore.

Hassell Principal and Managing Director Liz Westgarth believes place begins to have deeper meaning when an emotional attachment is formed. While the elements critical to achieving that bond are simple to articulate they are infinitely more complex to deliver.

“A successful place is one that creates a better future and by that, I mean it is more socially engaging, it is active, inclusive and also environmentally responsible. And it is comfortable,” says Ms Westgarth.


“Place is the intersection of physical form, activity and meaning. What we can do as designers and developers is provide the conditions for others to make place and that requires public participation.”


NSW Government Architect


“When you get all these elements then it is going to be a place that has meaning and character and pulls people back. It will appeal to a different group of people for different things at different times.”

Memories play an important role in the perception of place and the past threads itself deeply into the fabric of Harbourside’s future design.

“When I was growing up, Darling Harbour was a fun place,” says Ms Westgarth. “It had become tired and lacked a bit of soul but there are positive attributes to draw on; its proximity to the harbour and beyond its recent use and context, the Indigenous story. 

“Celebrating Indigenous heritage and culture is important for Harbourside and gives another layer of meaning to Tumbalong, as it was originally known. It was a place of shared country for the Gadigal and Wangal people and this idea of it being shared is integral to the design response.

“The building reads more as a landscape with references back to sandstone and water; it is when you are in nature that you most powerfully feel like you are in a shared space. How much more comfortable and pleasant will it be to have that harbour view from beneath the shade of a tree.”

Another important element in creating an inclusive shared place is getting the right mix of spaces that will encourage locals and visitors to come at different times of the day. 

“Harbourside is unique in that it is a truly mixed use development, with commercial, residential, retail and a diversity of public open spaces,” says Ms Westgarth.

“As we move forward there will be less and less single use. There is now such a blurred boundary between the home and work and recreation. One of the really positive things about mixed use at Tumbalong is that when the office workers are gone, residents will be home and people visiting the restaurants. It creates an interesting, energetic city.”

The imperative of creating a shared and inclusive city is a view shared by the NSW Government Architect Abbie Galvin, who stepped into the role in 2019 after more than 30 years in private practice. She views integration as one of the greatest challenges for cities as they grow and change to accommodate new ways of work and living.

Artist’s impression. Indicative only and subject to change. Landscaping and other aspects of the project may differ from this image.

Artist’s impression. Indicative only and subject to change. Landscaping and other aspects of the project may differ from this image.

Green Square Library

“There is not just one group that makes the city; there are many and we need to be thinking about how these groups work together,” says Ms Galvin. “Economic and transport considerations can tend to lead some of our decisions when it comes to cities. They are of course important, but they can’t be the only drivers. Think about how many of our great places have been devastated by dominating road systems; if they hadn’t been given prime position, how different could our environments be?”

Ms Galvin concedes that reimagining the future of cities is difficult but not impossible. “I don’t think anything is impossible. Just think about Sydney’s new Metro (train) system. Who would have thought we’d be able to integrate such major new infrastructure into our city, yet we have entire city blocks being redeveloped to enable new stations. It goes back to how we prioritise public transport over the private car.”

Like many Australians who have reacquainted themselves with the delights of European cities, Ms Galvin’s recent travels reminded her that creating great places is not a new and mysterious art. “There are so many precedents, examples of great cities, yet we struggle so hard to replicate some of their incredible qualities,” says Ms Galvin. “We talk about place and place activation and there is now an industry of ‘place-makers’. I think that is because we are failing at enabling great places. I don’t think place is something we create. “Place is the intersection of physical form, activity and meaning. What we can do as designers and developers is provide the conditions for others to make place and that requires public participation. If you impose design on communities rather than involving them, you don’t get support or connection. 

“We often over-engineer our streets and fail to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists. When we are creating new spaces, we try to make them so perfect and complete. But we need to leave room for agency, where the community can take over a space that’s not too precious, perfect or expensive. “On a recent trip through European cities I was obsessively photographing parks because of their simplicity and their abundant tree canopy; they don’t need to be over-complicated.”

“I believe we’ve moved well past thinking that apartment living is a compromise but the quality of life is dependent on making a meaningful investment in the public domain.”


CEO Development - Residential, Commercial and Mixed Use


While Ms Galvin was entranced by the way public spaces, no matter how small or unsophisticated, would come alive in European cities she is a passionate advocate for a uniquely local expression of place.

“We can learn so much from other places, but we are not Paris or Barcelona or London. What makes those places special is their connection to their context. In Australia we need places that acknowledge our unique climate and culture. We need to be increasing greenery, green surfaces, green parks and making them our own, not a carbon copy of what we see overseas. 

“We are quite scared of multiuse in Australia and like to make our spaces discrete from each other; residential sits separate to commercial or to retail. If we want vital cities we have to move on from this fear. We do need to protect the privacy and amenity of the way people live but we also need to allow people to live.”

In tandem with a renewed focus on bringing together the many facets of urban life is a move towards Connecting to Country, an acknowledgement that Australia is not a place whose history began with Colonial settlement, rather has been occupied by Aboriginal people for more than 60,000 years. The Connecting with Country Framework, the work of Dillon Kombumerri from the NSW Government Architect, has been a leading force in articulating this opportunity and responsibility.

Mirvac CEO, Development – Residential, Commercial and Mixed Use, Stuart Penklis, enthuses about the opportunities afforded by delving beyond the physical into a deeper more spiritual connection to place.

“We have such a lot to learn about how we approach design in a more authentic way, paying respect to the natural elements and Aboriginal history and culture,” says Mr Penklis. “It entails a different approach to design and place creation. That is something we are embracing across all of our projects, having deeper more meaningful engagement with local Elders and Aboriginal communities.”

Mr Coles also sees Designing for Country as a step in the right direction towards reconciling our past with the present. 

“The conversation we are all having at the moment is around Country and our deeper understanding of the fabric of place,” says Mr Coles. “Designing with and for country is a completely different system of thought and belonging. It is about accepting that instead of a model with humans at the top of the pyramid we are inseparable from trees, animals and soil. 

“We talk about placemaking but place is already there; it is more about revealing or honouring that place, listening to the natural systems that occur on that place.

“We see opportunity with companies like Mirvac who are designing such comprehensive projects that include public and private space and mixed use. The work that we are doing is producing much more nature-based solutions for our cities. This is about urban resilience and that is where the real smarts are coming in.”

Cities once divided into distinct residential and commercial precincts are slowly being reintegrated in many of Mirvac’s large scale urban renewal projects, laying the foundations for future generations to lead a more balanced lifestyle.

“We are at a pivotal moment where we have to balance several critical challenges – a shortage of housing and the social and environmental impact of development,” says Mr Penklis. “It makes sense to build more homes close to existing infrastructure, where people want to live, and that implies that many more people will be living in apartments.


“What we are seeking to achieve is a social return in which residents feel an increased sense of attachment and safety, they feel they belong to a community and experience improved health and wellbeing.”


Mirvac Design Director


“I believe we’ve moved well past thinking that apartment living is a compromise but the quality of life is dependent on making a meaningful investment in the public domain. That’s something that has occupied our Mirvac Design teams for a number of years and we are seeing many of our projects mature into fantastic places to live, work and visit.

“It’s already happening at Green Square where public amenity was delivered ahead of people moving in. There are shops, restaurants and cafes on the high street, well patronised by residents and visitors, with many more to come as we expand our development footprint towards the public plaza.

“At Yarra’s Edge in Melbourne where we have been transforming the former wharves for around 20 years there is an incredibly strong community, not just amongst residents but also the restaurant and café owners who are equally invested in this place. There are parks as well so it’s not all about the waterfront but celebrating nature and the urban attractions of living within minutes of the CBD. 

“Our place planning at Harbourside will set a new standard for how we experience life on Sydney harbour. What was once a place for locals and tourists to visit on a day out will become a place where people also work and live. For the first time in two centuries people will be able to appreciate the beauty of the harbour, sitting on a grassy lawn beneath the cool shade of a tree.”

From the perspective of those building new homes in growth areas, CBDs can appear overendowed with great places to live and visit, occupying prime real estate on rivers and harbours, with generous parklands for all to share.

In greenfield development and middle ring urban renewal where the majority of new housing is concentrated, amenity often has to be created from scratch. Mirvac Design architect and urban planner Paromvong Sinbandhit has been creating masterplans for Mirvac projects for more than 30 years and applies a simple test for whether a place works or not. If it’s used and people come back again and again, it’s a winner. 

The tried and tested rules for achieving success change with each project but the fundamentals remain essentially the same.

“Place can mean different things to different people in different contexts,” says Mr Sinbandhit. “What we are seeking to achieve is a social return in which residents feel an increased sense of attachment and safety, they feel they belong to a community and experience improved health and wellbeing.

“To achieve these aims we start in the masterplanning by creating a centre, a space in the public domain that people will be attracted to. It can be a park, a plaza, shops, cafes or community facilities; something that people can use and relate to. It has to be attractive, with a relatable theme that builds on special features of the site, its past uses or social and cultural history, with the landscape providing the urban design quality. And it must be accessible, ideally no more than five minutes’ walk, or 400 metres from any home.

“It also has to have interconnected streets and block sizes that encourage people to walk. But just creating the space doesn’t necessarily direct people to go there; it needs some sort of activity, play things for children, barbecues, seating, an open exercise space.

“The one non-negotiable element when we do a development is that there is a sense of community from day one.” 

To achieve this end, community facilities are delivered early in combination with a range of social activities curated by Mirvac, providing new residents with an opportunity to get to know each other until the community is ready to stand on its own feet. 

Says Mr Sinbandhit: “It is not until people develop meaningful relationships to these spaces and start to mould and shape them to their needs that they become places and an authentic sense of belonging and attachment can develop.”

Discover more about Harbourside here.


Heritage Boulevarde Playground, Tullamore, VIC

Point Park, Yarra’s Edge, VIC

Joynton Park, Green Square


The power of place