M-Town Spatial

Kirsten Browne
16 min readAug 27, 2021

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Can us hilljacks and bush gypsies* design for public good?

Kirsten Browne MDes proposal, Massey University CoCA, Toi Āria Design for Public Good

*‘hilljacks and bush gypsies’ are my brother’s terms (he’s a Wellington lawyer). He uses them to refer to my whānau, and anyone else who lives ‘over the hill’, in Masterton or thereabouts.

“Somewhere in the line of history, civilisation had made a wrong turn, a detour that had led into a cul de sac. The only way, they felt, was to drop out and go all the way back to the beginning, to the primal source of consciousness, the true basis of culture: the land.”

—Robert Houriet, excerpted in How To Do Nothing

My kind of design

We all make combination-decisions every day. What items to wear together, what route to take at this time of day, arranging our spending & savings accounts, using Times, Arial & Comic Sans on one page… Design is how to reconcile many into one. It’s an art with a spectrum of answers. Design process can inform how well we reconcile.

Consciously or not, we live with our collective design decisions. Ordinary people living and working in ordinary places can have degrees of influence over what happens where they live and work, then the path gets less clear for how or how well it happens. Left to hang, this will probably default to the norms of the dominant culture. Questions asked by design give voice to critical tacit and implicit considerations; context, constraints, quality, and who or what should be included. It’s like Minecraft—if you want to get the diamonds you’ve got to go wide and deep.

I graduated from Wellington Design School (now Massey University CoCA) in Visual Communication Design in 1992. I’ve practised continuously since, and my work has evolved—visual communication is just one medium of many in a broader toolkit, and where I used to see design ‘problems’ I now see (and love) ‘constraints’. This puts everything in a new light—constraints present opportunities! I now employ design principles to think up and (hopefully) make a better world.

When I talk about design like this I become “other” to most people. Even amongst the profession, design is assumed to be: The application of shape, style and story to a thing in order to trigger a desired feeling or behaviour.

Although I’m an aesthete, I’m a critic of artifice (thin-skinned aesthetics). I’m inclined to practice design more like solving a mystery: Within constraints and through time, the thing meets or exceeds its purpose.

“Throughout its history, the design industry has predominantly been concerned with two things; Promoting industry through the design of products and services, and solving problems encountered by people in the consumption of products and services…In hindsight, one can see how this could become problematic.” What is planet-centric design? — We Create Futures

Kātoitoi— a NZ design archive emphasising design for good kaupapa (purpose) Little by Little We Go Big—Mark Easterbrook; Design Assembly

Toi Āria — Design for Public Good

Toi Āria is a research centre within Massey University Wellington’s College of Creative Arts (CoCA). They state “We understand that people’s lives are culturally, socially, physically and financially shaped by the groups they belong to. Our commitment to people and improving lives through design extends beyond individuals and clients to communities, because that’s where we can make an even bigger impact.”

In 2016 Toi Āria was commissioned by Masterton District Council (MDC) to deliver a community participatory planning project, “Our Future Masterton”. Its vision was: “Enabling a collective, community-led design strategy for the Masterton CBD and its connections to wider Masterton”. The deliverables were achieved, but Toi Āria saw the subsequent actions containing “traces of success” — not integrating the heart of the community’s feedback.

Toi Āria is interested in revisiting Masterton via a “sequel” to this project, working with the same context and constraints. What happens after the participatory planning stage is completed? Is there a better way to do this work?

Toi Āria is also interested in the design of public services in a climate change setting — arguably the world’s most acute design problem! This coincides with an opportunity to observe a fresh participatory design process within MDC led by Natasha Tomic, the council’s recently appointed Senior Policy Advisor for Climate Change. The project’s constraints will undoubtedly be common to local governments across the motu, and even globally.

M-Town

I have lived on the Kapiti Coast, Wellington City, Albuquerque New Mexico, Berlin Germany, and now Masterton — a rural service town — for 15 years. Practical and contained enough to survive without looking outside, old-school as a rule but with enough diversity for a complexity of political views, growing and getting on with it, no special identity. It’s easy to get locally famous or infamous in Masterton — outliers stand out. This place has gotten into my DNA. I’ve come to see M-town’s gleaming opportunities. It feels on the move, but where to? Can we make awesome what we genuinely are?

To get to the river path along the Waipoua our dog Rue pulls me on my bike past villas and bungalows, past the railway station, past Equippers Church and the busy seed processing plant. Off the leash she darts to the rivers’ edge while I brake to take in the new graffito.

We experience this journey in our own ways. Here’s what I see in the river…

  • Intention — native planting along a previously ignored bio-corridor. Both climate change and the pandemic’s “Build Back Better” give us mandates and opportunities to prioritise nature;
  • Reclaiming — te tikanga me whanonga pono (the behaviours and values) of te ao Māori and Pacific perspectives. It feels like this light has suddenly switched on;
  • Undertow — the defiant intelligence of the spray-artists who treat our bridge footings as their gallery walls.

On this day it looks like the Waipoua could undermine the footings of the bridges above and spill into the township and my phone is buzzing with Council’s Instagrams — “fresh pours” for the PGF-funded Masterton Skatepark up-grade. Perhaps counter culture will come out from under the bridges? Audacity, questioning norms, rebellion and disruption pulls us through thresholds. Where could a punk attitude pull this place?

“The birth of the [TMD graffiti] crew was the outcome of The New Lynn Wall of Fame project that was funded by Waitakere City Council during the mid 90’s…The intention was to steer these youth away from illegal work and potentially into a commercial art career but instead it inspired and equipped a generation to paint harder than any generation before.” TMD CREW

“[XR] is a global environmental movement with the stated aim of using nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse.” Extinction Rebellion; Wikimedia

“Punk is not mohawks and safety pins. It’s an attitude and a spirit, with a lineage and tradition.” Don Letts; film director, DJ and musician

“Our future is being sacrificed for the profit of a few and the protection of business as usual…We need climate justice and that’s why we’re demanding it.” School Strike for Climate NZ

Waipoua bridge footing graffiti, Masterton
Extinction Rebellion images of activism

Thinking spatially

Today, the communication of potential environments has to go beyond traditional elevations and perspectives with a sprinkle of materiality. There’s too much at stake. Building “digital twins” of existing spaces is beginning to be seen by governments as a way to simulate potential futures in the built environment. All kinds of data can be input and tested (eg climate, population, infrastructure). Like Google Maps, it is envisaged that joined up twins will form a virtual ecosystem.

Digital simulation allows us to experience designs, to sense mocked-up space through time as if it was real. Yet the constraints or features introduced by the software and operator can have a strong influence over the design. The resource and commitment it takes to compose this imagery probably causes a bias toward it. It can feel like a fait accompli (or an unattainable dream)—very resolved and/or very seductive.

Recently I came across We Build Drawings by architect Mikkel Frost, a catalog of his work with Danish architectural office CEBRA. The book champions “thinking by hand” — using quick drawings to explore concepts. “The idea is if you cannot explain an architectural concept on a single sheet of A4 paper, you are either saying too much or it is too complicated.”

“If you think about technical building plans you might say that they are the musical score of architecture…I literally see the three-dimensional spaces before my inner eyes. But…a lot of people outside the building industry don’t fully read these drawings. It’s like the musical notes — it takes practice and training.”

He maintains this universal human language — sketching while talking — throughout his design development phase, un-compromised by the constraints (and trickery) of technical rendering. “[Digital] computer renderings definitely serve a purpose. They show people what their building will look like, but they don’t say anything about why it should look a certain way.”

I feel great affinity with Frost’s approach. It’s less of a full stop (fait accomplis), and allows for quick re-jigs as more considerations or constraints are inevitably uncovered. Also, anyone can use ordinary materials to make these renders.

As community ideas came in for “Our Future Masterton” the Toi Āria team pinned posters around the walls of Te Pātukituki. This friendly CBD space became a kind of drop-in town hall. I observed people’s visceral responses — seeing their suggestions visualised in architectural collages! We all could recognise the spots, feel ourselves in the eye-level streetscapes, understand the modifications, and rather than feeling a solution imposed on us, we were still inside the design process via this check-in. Could we still be there now?

Te Pātukituki open community space
Toi Āria: community consultation process, which included seeking feedback on how the community’s ideas had been interpreted
Toi Āria: snapshots of recognisable Masterton streetscapes with community ideas incorporated
Toi Āria: school student consultation
Toi Āria: speculative visualisations of Masterton CBD in 50 years time
“Traces of success”—Boffa Miskell plans delivered to MDC after community consultation

“I don’t really see much difference to what it is now” — Ethan

“Council is going to do what they want anyway” — the guy over the fence

Approach:

I would like to focus on how our people’s wellbeing and behaviour could be inspired and influenced via shared spaces (moving between, encountering, noticing) and shared stories (history, journalism, gossip). A potential Masterton ethnography. Can we design collective processes and environments that enable mana for all? What might this look like where I live?

I want to explore the potential of this through interviews, observation, theory and case studies. This input will come as a bricolage from across this country and the world. All will be considered in relation to Masterton’s culture and constraints. I imagine the product of this will be a package of speculative design concepts for our town.

Interviews

I’m looking for a cross-pollination of wisdom through conversational interviews with thought leaders. These luminaries might seem incongruous, working in vastly different contexts, but all are pushing the boundaries of convention. I intend to ask the same questions of each (cultural, spatial, human behaviour, constraints and opportunities) and use short notes with sketches to interpret their responses.

Prospective interviewees:

  • Designco (design as process, not product)
  • Isthmus (spatial design)
  • Deirdre Brown, University of Auckland (Māori spatial design)
  • Chris Jackson, We Create Futures (speculative design)
  • Chris Cooper, Purpose.com (participatory design)
  • Katherine Errington, Helen Clark Foundation (local government)
  • Vice TV (storytelling, punk attitude)
  • Jason Kerehi, Rangitāne o Wairarapa & Ngāti Kahungungu (storytelling, mana whenua perspective)
  • Extinction Rebellion (punk attitude)
  • Sam Laing, Nomad8 Agile Coach (participatory design)
  • Ari Sargent, Octopus Energy (startup disruptor, punk attitude)
  • Paula Eskett, Waimakariri District Libraries (spatial design)
  • TMD, The Most Dedicated urban artist collective (punk attitude)
  • The guy I talk to over the fence
  • Ethan, a young man making the best of the home town that ignores him

Observation

I am alert to the daily behaviour patterns of people out and about in this town. Our people’s paths and chatter, what catches our attention (and what we don’t notice) are our truth. I’ll correlate this to inform the connection between on-the-ground reality and theory.

Situational awareness and the wisdom of crowds Strategy, situational awareness and the OODA loop — We Create Futures

Phenomenologists assert that persons should be explored. This is because persons can be understood through the unique ways they reflect the society they live in. Phenomenology (philosophy)—Wikipedia

from Thesaurus.plus

Theory

I’ll focus this around the relationship of the spatial environment to human wellbeing. I’d like to stay open to both traditional theory and new media sources of shared wisdom (eg TED talks, referenced blogs).

The Conversation Article: Psychogeography — how psychology and geography intersect Psychogeography: a way to delve into the soul of a city

How spaces shape the human experience The Power Of Spaces — TED Radio Hour

Public spaces — how they run, who they serve, and how to make them better The Public Commons — TED Radio Hour

Over time, a huge waste mound became the Beckton Alps

Case studies

MDC’s Climate Action project will be a central case study. I’ll also look at related council-supported projects in the Wairarapa for context and idea mining.

Central case study:

MDC’s current Climate Change participatory planning project. See below for how I propose my observation of this to be conducted.

Supporting case studies:

  1. “Our Future Masterton” 2016 Massey-led participatory planning (review)
  2. MDC Urban Revamp (QE Park, CBD, river ways, skatepark, ongoing)
  3. Carterton District Council Town Centre Redevelopment
  4. Masterton Town Hall/Civic Facility (ongoing)

Modelling the impact of climate change on infrastructure Time to failure: Building to withstand climate change—RNZ Nine to Noon

Opotiki town centre revitalisation report and recommendations Opotiki Town Centre Structure Plan—Planalytics (Greytown)

South Wairarapa draft spatial plan Stuff article April 2021

Local Govt NZ spatial planning advice LGNZ Resource Management

Wairarapa Pukaha to Kawakawa Alliance: a network of groups whose common purpose is to increase the health of Wairarapa ecosystems, biodiversity, water and the resilience of its communities and to respond to climate change. including conservation and environmental groups, farmers, mana whenua, DOC, Greater Wellington Regional Council and the three Wairarapa District Councils WaiP2K Stories

Other information sources:

Following is a list of various references and inputs already collated…

Jane Jacobs; new urbanist, “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” Jane Jacobs — The Center for the Living City

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs

Ludo Campbell-Reid, emeritus Auckland Design Office General Manager, “There is an international movement that is centred on cities that are transforming themselves through great urban design. We need to make sure that people understand the impact that design can have. Great design is good for the environment, good for business and good for social cohesiveness. Well-designed schools reduce truancy, well designed hospitals are better for your health, and well-designed cities are better for health and happiness. Design in the 21st century, with the rise and rise of technology and interactive and open-source consumer platforms, is being harnessed more frequently, for a wider set of purposes and with increasing impact,” The Value of Design to New Zealand — DesignCo

“It feels like the design has lost a battle with the planning unit, with its voice pushed further down the ladder,” a source who didn’t want to be named for fear of losing future contracts with the council said. “There are more filters now between the designers and leaders of the city.” — Auckland Council’s planning committee chair, Councillor Chris Darby Auckland Council weakens design influence — Architecture Now

Book/audiobook: “Constraints are assumed to be a bad thing, but in reality they can often be the grist that creates the pearl. Rather than being a restrictor, they lead to bolder, more innovative solutions.” A Beautiful Constraint by Morgan & Marden — Ignition Blog summary

A Beautiful Constraint

“Māori construction is everywhere, all we need to do is open our eyes and our minds to include it in our city’s ever-evolving story” Open your eyes to the future of Māori architecture—Dierdre Brown; Newsroom-Ideasroom

What role does Māoridom play in New Zealand’s design identity?
More Than a Koru Archives — Idealog

Idealog: What role does Māoridom play in New Zealand’s design identity?

Geography’s effect on young people’s mental health The good, the bad, and the environment: developing an area-based measure of access to health-promoting and health-constraining environments in New Zealand — International Journal of Health Geographics

Why city designers are increasingly thinking about the female perspective Your City Has a Gender and It’s Male — Issue 56: Perspective — Nautilus

A dark public square where women were afraid to wait for buses after dark has been lit up with a large neon sign borrowing a phrase from the movie Dirty Dancing

“In Santa Fe [New Mexico], what started out as a vernacular grown out of traditional techniques and the use of materials on hand had evolved into an aesthetic of the elites, something carefully replicated for show.” Stuccoed in Time—99% Invisible

Main case study:

Observing a participatory planning process for local climate change action, facilitated by local government.

For national elections and referenda, voter turnout in Aotearoa New Zealand is high. Not so for local elections. Yet for isolated projects conducted by local government, political activism is alive and kicking. Can we connect the decisions of local government to its community more meaningfully than voting day and formal submissions?

This is a very interesting live project because it is an initiative of semi-rural local government. District Councils are generally representative of the political centre, yet the outputs of this process could challenge community assumptions and kick off new norms, possibly mixing traditional solutions with sanctioned civil disruption. I wonder whether local government ownership of this project either tempers the output or lends a mainstream legitimacy to challenging ideas in a way Extinction Rebellion doesn’t.

I see this initiative as a fresh product of Masterton District Council’s evolving modus operandi. This Council appears to be intentionally updating itself — culturally, structurally, and profoundly. I am interested in the process, its outputs, and the outcomes that could come of it.

Report to Council to approve Climate Change Action community focus group (p214–223) Council Agenda 17 Feb 2021

How community-led development can increase civic participation Engaged communities — Helen Clark Foundation

“If the rest of the world did what we were doing, we’d be well over 3 degrees warmer… There’s nothing stopping the government… Now we need to commit to a realistic target and then we need some big action… But we also need a Covid-like response. I think now we could really do with a popular public servant like Bloomfield to lead it…where we are having regular reports”…“The best technologies for avoiding the impact of climate change were still reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by switching to renewable energy and planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide” IPCC report: What it means for New Zealand’s climate response

How I envisage intersecting with the MDC Climate Action participatory planning process:

  • I have already had korero with Natasha Tomic to establish whether/how my Masters study might intersect with her goals. At her convenience I would like to continue this, possibly once per month over the next 10 months (during and after the participatory planning process).
  • I’d like to schedule time as soon as possible with a couple of elected Councillors, the CE &/or Natasha’s supervisor, to get their initial thoughts on what they hope and expect this process will result in.
  • I know the Climate Action group has gathered informally already. I am not seeking direct involvement in these meet & greets. My intention is not to influence, but to observe and document.
  • I would like to sit in on some of the main group and sub-group hui at critical moments as a “fly on the wall”. The best moments for this will be determined by Natasha.
  • I’d like to take periodic early, middle and end temperature tests by interviewing a few from the community group who are happy to share how it’s going. Appropriate questions and timing for these will be guided by Natasha.

How will this be documented?

  • I will not specify names of individuals in my documentation, referring to them by role instead.
  • I will be treating this case study as one component of several that feed into my Masters of Design study. I will collate data from this project in a private Google Drive, and private Mural.com document. Some of what I learn from this case study may contribute to some blog writing on Medium.com
  • Without pre-determining the outputs of this investigation, as a concluding piece of work I may produce a range of visual responses with an accompanying verbal presentation.
  • Massey requires me to submit a supporting “exegesis”.

Ends

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