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Buy Social: CoDesign Studio, the 90-day community builders

October 20, 2015

Developers love to build gorgeous architects’ models depicting connected public spaces full of smiling, engaged people in overflowing gardens. But for some communities, these visualisations are a far cry from where they live. With the inherent challenges of developing a sense of community before the infrastructure is in place, CoDesign Studio wants to change that from the ground-up. Working with development giants including Lendlease and Mirvac, this social enterprise is working to make those 3D visions a reality.

CoDesign is a creative consulting business that operates as a social enterprise. This non-commercial design consultancy enables people who care about their neighbourhood to get involved in improving it.

In doing this they unite the widest possible range of stakeholders – local and state government, developers, and local communities – to equip them with the tools and tactics needed to transform shared places into spaces that people love and use. As CoDesign’s solutions are so fast, their tactical approach creates an immediate impact for communities.

Their low-cost, inventive, and engaging responses to common development problems can often be completed in less than 90 days, and enable organisations to test ideas before structures and communal places are built.

“We want to kickstart communities with an identity that comes from the people who live there,” says CoDesign CEO and co-founder Lucinda Hartley. “Our ‘Place Activation’ services bring new life into places that are either not working or brand new and not moving fast enough.

“We then look at a whole range of activities, whether it’s helping communities to run events, building a community garden, or upgrading, which then starts to bring in new identity and bring life to the street. For clients like Mirvac and Lendlease, this is a valuable proposition because local activities and stories help them build a new story and identity for that place – that encourages other residents to move sooner and tell their friends.”

Building relationships with government and private enterprise

CoDesign expertly adapts their place activation services to the needs of clients of all sizes. While local governments primarily seek good decision making and transparent budget spending, and developers often want to support their brand with great word-of-mouth from residents, CoDesign works to achieve the same goal for all their clients: to create connected communities and dynamic and engaged public spaces.

For over three years CoDesign has worked hard to build up relationships with bigger private developers such as Mirvac. After meeting CoDesign through conferences, coffee meetings, and presentations, developers understand that CoDesign can assist with issues such as why a local retail strip is flagging, what might make a public space more active, and how to connect with residents in a creative way to find out what they really need and want.

“We also work in masterplanned communities” says Lucinda. We can build better social inclusion early on by building temporary facilities and programs to help people get to know their neighbours faster.”

CoDesign has discovered that their low-cost and nimble approach is highly attractive to developers, who are expressing keen interest in start-ups and are willing to experiment with solutions. “Our approach is very collaborative, very visual, and very hands on,” says Lucinda. “We test whether things will work first, using an approach called tactical urbanism, which gives them a greater degree of certainty in their decision-making around city developments.”

Spreading their wings with social procurement

After three years, CoDesign’s collective knowledge built over 50 projects has enabled them to use their skills to advise– a direction they are keen to move towards. As part of an open tendering process for the Victorian State Government, CoDesign was selected from hundreds of applications to advise Planning Minister Richard Wynne on the redevelopment of Fisherman’s Bend, alongside a panel of eight advisors, five experts, and three community members.

Using profits from their corporate and government partnerships, CoDesign is also able to breathe life into a number of other initiatives.

A pilot neighbourhood grants program called Make Your City will fund and mentor residents from of all walks of life to completely create their own original community project. “We feel we could get deeper social impact through those projects, and deliver higher levels of community participation than perhaps a regular process would,” says Lucinda.

How engagement impacts on communities

Their innovative, collaborative methodology allows CoDesign to empower local communities to shape their neighbourhood. Through building useful data and social capital to inform long-term change, and with robust and tested design outcomes, their results build better places and happier people.

In their involvement with public projects Lucinda feels they are able to leave a legacy behind, “whether it’s neighbours getting to know each other, health and environmental benefits from cycling and walking, or projects catalysed from the initial intervention, which is one of our key impact metrics. At the moment, about 25 per cent of our projects have created further initiatives that kickstarted on their own.”

In improving a project within a neighbourhood, whether it’s a park, activity centre, street or masterplanned community, CoDesign has discovered that the flow-on effects are various. “It’s about building community resilience by increasing the social capital of the communities working on these projects. Over the years, and in many ways, we believe have involved over 5,000 direct beneficiaries, and thousands more have benefited from the improved spaces and community processes.”

See www.codesignstudio.com.au for more information on their projects or to download a copy of their methodology, Tactical Urbanism.

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