JM John Armstrong is a cultural strategist, artist, facilitator and curator. He is principal of Harbinger Consultants.
1. What do you think are the most difficult challenges, contradictions and opportunities facing suburbs and their communities, or Aspley/your suburb and its community?
A vast number of challenges that also become/present contradictions and (when feeling positive about it all) are terrific opportunities. The built form in Aspley is conceived in economic terms – build as cheap as possible to return as much as possible – people/communities are seen as current or potential consumers rather than as the activators of spaces and locales that can be much more than places to exchange dollars for goods. The almost impassable (for a pedestrian) barriers of the main roads can mean that local residents drive to neighbouring venues as it is safer and quicker than walking. The crossing points of Gympie Road are few and the traffic lights are programmed for minimum traffic disruption with insufficient time for a pedestrian to cross without scuttling across in a most undignified manner – prams, old folk and wheelchairs are not even in the race! So, the key is the car centric focus – traffic and parking (vast stretches of hot tarred surfaces without any identifiable tracks to allow someone not in a car to cross or negotiate without feeling in peril). The opportunity exists to reverse the focus and concentrate on pleasant and safe pedestrian environments (perhaps folk would then linger and shop rather than dash and dart).
2. How do you think these challenges and contradictions, particularly in relation to cultural and urban sustainability, can be addressed from your perspective or practice as an artist, strategist, designer or activist?
The inclusion of truly representative end users (locals, old folk, wheelchair users etc etc) in the very beginning of the design phases – whether it be new developments or retro-fitted refurbs – could assist in the making of places that are useable to all. Respect for everyone in the area (even those who are not actually spending money but maybe wanting to take a stroll or even have a yarn with someone else) is the key to change – not sure if it’s possible to retro-fit respect but certainly would like to be involved in discussing this.
3. Are you already engaged in addressing those challenges and contradictions in some way? How are you doing that?
The work I’m involved with (not in Aspley yet) is mainly new developments in greenfield sites and the community conversations are vital to establishing a true collaborative way to make places better – folk bring their previous experiences with good and bad places and know what they would like to omit and include. Community is the reason places exist yet very small aspects of the activities of a community are the predominating rationale for urban design – there’s only so much shopping you can do and likewise there’s only so much coffee you can drink – interaction at no cost is the key and integrated arts and design elements can assist in creating spaces that folk inhabit because they are great spaces to be in.
4. What could an ‘enabling suburb’ look and feel like?
A place that has its own unique identity that is a combination of the past, the present and the future and is formed organically by everyone who has been, is or will be there and continually evolves and changes. A network of individuals who are able to care.
5. Aspley, as our case study, is the first Brisbane site to be connected to the National Broadband Network meaning it will be connected to highspeed broadband. How do you think highspeed broadband and online technologies can be used to address challenges or realise opportunities?
The local libraries (not in Aspley but closest one is in Chermside) provide free wireless and this draws a diverse community who interact and experience other opportunities and I imagine a wireless enabled suburb would externalise and expand what is currently an internal (within the library and within the set opening times) and limited way for folk to be here but everywhere else at the same time. Many small businesses don’t require much in office space and NBN should free up some of the physical constraints – hubs and shared spaces mean conversations and opportunities.
6. What is one suggestion you have for harnessing or facilitating the kind of creativity or social innovation required to create ‘enabling suburbs’?
Make it possible for folk to start talking to each other. Make it possible for folk to safely cross the road physically and intellectually.