Reshaping our cities through human-centred design.

29 June 2021

How are architects and planners creating cities that we actually want to spend time in? Urban design expert Michelle Cramer reflects on projects that are taking a human approach.


Reshaping our cities through human-centred design.

29 June 2021

How are architects and planners creating cities that we actually want to spend time in? Urban design expert Michelle Cramer reflects on projects that are taking a human approach.

The EQA by Mercedes-EQ in Sydney

Human-centred design is crucial in creating cities for the people who live in them. Image: Sue Stubbs.

There are many stakeholders involved in city planning: developers, councils, state governments, engineers, urban planners, landscape designers, and architects among them. While these parties offer valuable expertise in the development of infrastructure, environmental systems and financing, they are rarely the end user. It is people and communities who will ultimately determine a city’s success. 

Human-centred design is a modern approach to city planning (and other areas of design) that recognises the often-overlooked requirements of this crucial group, instead placing their needs at the forefront. 

Michelle Cramer is an architect and urban strategist who specialises in these city-shaping initiatives designed with deep empathy for end users.

She notes that while the Industrial Revolution fostered mass production, the 1960s focused on suburban expansion, the 2010s on sustainability, and so forth, the zeitgeist of the current decade is health and wellbeing, which has given rise to human-centred design.

How design is bringing life back to Sydney streets.
How design is bringing life back to Sydney streets.
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We take a tour of Sydney in the all-electric EQA with urban design expert Michelle Cramer to see how human-centred design is bringing life back to the city streets.

A new direction for city planning

In response, city planning is transforming from what’s traditionally been a ‘problem-solving’ approach to one that is driven by ‘creating for people’. 

Questions of feasibility (Will the building stand up? Are the engineering systems in place? Have we got the money to actually do it?) are increasingly being replaced with those around liveability and fostering joy for residents. 

“We're asking, ‘what do people desire? Why will they come to this place? What would encourage them to come early, to a park or to a precinct? What would make them dwell, and then stay a little bit longer than they need to be there?’” Cramer says. 

A successful human-centred project is therefore not a place visited out of necessity, but out of genuine interest and desire. 

Urban design expert Michelle Cramer

Michelle Cramer is an architect and urban strategist who specialises in city-shaping initiatives designed with deep empathy for end users. Image credit/photographer: Sue Stubbs

“Whether people just come and go and they're using it as a functional space, or whether they're actually enjoying being there and they'll find reasons to stay in a space longer – that's a measure of success,” Cramer says.

In contrast, the antithesis of human-centred design is a place actively avoided, leading to urbanisation issues such as increased crime, and reputational damage not easily reversed.

“Everyone has in their mind a place where they don't want to go, whether it's a huge, unguarded car park, or a dark tunnel, or a train station after dark,” says Cramer. “You don't want to be there, you're going to avoid it, and you don't feel safe.”

So, how are urban designers and planners creating places we actually want to spend time in? There are many different approaches to creating a human-centred city, each of them focusing less on what’s being created, and more on why.

Biophilic design welcomes in nature

Biophilic design is the introduction of natural and living systems into the designs of our cities.

The approach has a long history, stemming from the garden city movement pioneered by English urban planner Ebenezer Howard. Around the same time was the influential work of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the grounds of New York City’s Central Park, and described parks as the ‘lungs’ of a city to combat the pollution of industrialisation.

“It’s about generating oxygen, as well as nice places for people to be,” says Cramer.

Biophilic design today is concerned with improving the wellbeing of a city’s residents. 

One Central Park in Sydney

One Central Park comprises two mixed-use buildings covered with individual planter boxes. Image credit/photographer: Sue Stubbs

Advancements in technology facilitating easier management of plants in small and unorthodox spaces have furthered the trend. This has been particularly important in establishing biophilic design in Australia, where the ‘great Australian dream’ of a large suburban backyard remains a persistent goal.

“In apartments, we can actually have residents now get the benefit of green biophilic design, because we've got the technology that enables us to grow plants up buildings and have the watering systems and the infrastructure sitting behind it that makes it possible,” Cramer says.

Showcasing this is Sydney’s One Central Park – a major mixed-use project designed by acclaimed French architect Jean Nouvel. It comprises two mixed-use buildings covered with individual planter boxes. Each planter has its own irrigation system managed by a central building system, resulting in a thriving 130-metre-tall vertical garden.

Similar are the vertical gardens found across Singapore’s high-rise building exteriors – part of the government’s ongoing strategy since the 1960s to become a ‘garden city’. The city’s consistently humid climate sees plants thrive easily, but One Central Park proves vertical gardens are compatible with Australian conditions too. 

“We've just worked out that actually Sydney's climate works for it – we've been a bit slow – and Brisbane's even better,” says Cramer. “You’ve just got to find the right plants that will flourish.”

Highline Park in New York City.

Most successful about New York’s Highline Park is its ability to draw visitors across the city, many of whom deliberately seek out the elevated path over the city footpaths below. Image: iStock.

Another global example of biophilic design is The High Line: the disused Manhattan railroad turned 2.3-kilometre trail featuring more than 500 species of seasonal plants and trees. Most successful about the project is its ability to draw visitors across the city, many of whom deliberately seek out the elevated path over the city footpaths below.

“It's that idea that you would choose to walk a longer path to get somewhere because it's more enjoyable and more pleasant than the short path,” Cramer says.

Water is also a fundamental element of biophilic design integrated into projects such as Waitangi Park in Wellington, New Zealand. This waterfront park features a mix of recreational spaces with an environmentally sustainable and water-sensitive urban design strategy that contributes to water quality and the area’s visual appeal.

Water park in Darling Quarter, Sydney

At Sydney’s Darling Quarter, the focus of a city commercial precinct is a water play park for kids, designed by landscape architecture firm Aspect Studios. Image: Florian Groehn.

Cramer notes the park’s additional focus on natural systems to “create play and educate on cultural and heritage understandings of the site.” This is also happening at Sydney’s Darling Quarter where the focus of a city commercial precinct is a regional water play park for kids, designed by landscape architecture firm ASPECT Studios. In the midst of the working city, children play with water pumps and dams, learning in the process about the environment and good water practices.

Boosting the evening economy

The evening economy, or night-time design as it's sometimes referred to, is the idea of cities and places functioning beyond the nine-to-five workday.

“It’s about how we can actually bring life and meaning and purpose to our cities for the full 24 hours,” says Cramer.

Making cities pleasant places to live as well as work requires additional services such as supermarkets, medical facilities and transport. One element that’s less focused on, however, and that night-time design is primarily concerned with, is fun.

“It's about sustaining the economy beyond just the workdays ... enticing people to the city after dark through restaurants and bars, theatre performances, and cultural activities,” Cramer says.

Vital to a night-time economy’s success is developing infrastructure to support these activities. “That's making sure that you've got the kitchens, the water, the electricity, and all the things needed to make these events actually workable,” Cramer explains.

Former night-time festival White Night Melbourne, for example, was successful in drawing large crowds to the CBD after dark, but suffered long transport delays, crowd management issues and overcrowding.

More successful are projects focused on improving the night-time economy over longer periods, and improving city safety, such as the annual lights and music festival, Vivid Sydney.

The Ballerina light installation illuminating Campbells Cove in The Rocks precinct during Vivid Sydney 2019.

The annual light and music festival, Vivid Sydney, has been successful in improving the city’s night-time economy. Image: Destination NSW.

“We've seen a resurgence of lighting as a whole industry for city-making,” says Cramer. “We're actually being really playful with light – changing the nature of the spaces so they feel safe and welcoming, and places that people want to be, even though it's after dark.”

Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter is another project taking a long-term approach to improving an area’s evening economy and overall human-centred design.

Previously a purely industrial port, the waterfront area has been undergoing one of the largest urban regenerations in New Zealand history since opening to the public in 2011. It’s now a treasured place where people live, eat, play, do business, and are entertained, and will be home to 3,000 residents and 25,000 workers by its estimated completion in 2030.

In Melbourne, a Night-Time Economy Advisory Committee was recently established to encourage visitors to the CBD at night. The committee aims for the night-time economy to not only recover from a 60 to 70 per cent drop in pedestrian activity over 2020’s COVID-19 lockdowns, but see a positive growth trajectory.

Sunlight design

Access to natural light is a key human desire, yet this fundamental element is often lacking in urban spaces dominated by high-rise buildings.

It was only in 2017, for example, that minimum standards were introduced in Melbourne banning new apartments without bedroom windows.

Sunlight or daylight design ensures that natural light appropriately infiltrates urban spaces, without detracting from the goal of housing large populations close to amenities.

“There’s this question of, ‘How do we make our cities more compact, and therefore more environmental?’ which means that we're tending to move towards higher-density living,” Cramer says. “But we have to be careful not to diminish people's access to basic environmental needs, like sunlight.”

This thinking again underpinned development of Sydney’s One Central Park, given its location across the road from the equally tall, brutalist UTS Tower.

Cramer explains, “There was a real fear that if they were going to put these higher-density apartments next to a higher-density university, that the public spaces and the retail wouldn't get enough sunlight.”

These concerns ultimately led to the creation of a ‘heliostat’, a monumental architectural design element, and a well-conceived way of reflecting light into an otherwise overshadowed corridor.

One Central Park in Sydney

One Central Park’s heliostat bounces light across the precinct. Image credit/photographer: Sue Stubbs

The system has 40 motorised mirrors installed on the project’s shorter building, which track daylight and reflect light up onto the adjacent tower’s hovering cantilever. An impressive 320 mirrors are then positioned across this platform’s underbelly, bouncing light back down across the precinct.

“When it was put on the table, everyone was worried it might be a bit gimmicky. It does seem like a lot of effort to go to, but sunlight is becoming more and more of an issue,” Cramer says.

One Central Park’s cantilever is also active at night, when the mirrored platform transforms into an LED light display by French lighting artist Yann Kersalé.

In 2019, the project was named one of the 50 Most Influential Tall Buildings of the Last 50 Years by the international Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Building smarter cities

A challenge of human-centred design is determining the specific needs of a city and its residents.

‘Smart cities’ reduce this conundrum, using electronic methods and sensors to collect data, and improve operations in return.

“It's a term that refers to the digital and data overlay that's contributing to the betterment of our use of cities, people's use of cities, and how it gets designed,” Cramer says.

This data collection is typically focused on two key areas, one being the overall effectiveness of an area’s urban planning and design. For example, commercial buildings can now track their sunlight and oxygen with sensors.

The second area is more concerned with tracking how areas are performing on a human-centred design level.

Cramer was involved in one of these exercises, using Opal’s public transport data to determine which Sydney centres people appeared to stay in the longest, and why.

“Places that are seen to be less successful are where people just get in and out. Those that are successful have that ‘dwell’ idea with people lingering ... that's a measure of success,” says Cramer.

Other digital measures aren’t related to data tracking, but simply putting technology in the hands of the people. This includes digital maps in shopping centres, through to larger, more interactive measures.

A commercial precinct at its core, Darling Quarter features a large water playground and a 150-metre light installation to attract families outside of the working week. Two interactive consoles are exclusively available on weekends, allowing visitors to play games and take full command of the digital light display.

“You're not just in a place and it didn't have any resonance with you – you've actually participated in being in that location,” says Cramer.

A prominent digital concept internationally is Crown Fountain. Located in Chicago’s Millennium Park, this work of public art and video sculpture shows 15-metre-tall faces of real Chicago residents, who appear to spout water on visitors.

Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park

Located in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Crown Fountain shows 15-metre-tall faces of real Chicago residents, who appear to spout water on visitors. Image: Serge Melki.

“It's tying the people of the city to the artwork directly, and then it's actually being playful and engaging with the people visiting the place,” Cramer says.

Australia and New Zealand face several pressing issues over the coming decades, many tied to housing affordability, population growth and environmental sustainability.

Faced with this uphill challenge, implementing human-centred design approaches is an intriguing starting point towards achieving high functioning, responsible cities that people love to inhabit.

By Amelia Barnes