In Conversation with Cities Leadership Institute


Celebrating Cities – What shapes a great public place?

1 Introduction

Good evening everyone.

Thank you Dr Katherine O’Regan and Professor Edward Blakely for the introduction and inviting me to speak this evening.

I must admit I’m a little intimidated by such an audience.

In a similar situation, a friend of mine, David Harding a Scots public artist, was asked to speak at a government scientific conference here and he told me that he

felt the same, didn’t know what to say…..So he sang them a song! …. Don’t worry I’m not going to sing…. And got them to join in! An absolutely brilliant demonstration of the power of art.

The mission statement on the Cities Leadership Institute website is Building the capacity of urban leaders to make great places. I’ve been looking for someone to do that for a very long time.

Our mission statement is Communicate Collaborate and Create. Though communicating, collaborating, and creating with communities, we are building their capacity to assist in shaping great public places. It seems Cities Leadership and Environmental Art and Design are doing the same thing with 2 different stakeholder groups.

E A and D have completed about 200 design led public art projects over nearly 40 years, and working for so long in this arena I have seen many changes,

  • The reduction of Government funding,
  • Increased accountability, especially in the area of work health and safety
  • and
  • The large amount of competition for the work available.

And while there have been many changes there is one thing that I believe has remained the same, and is more important now than ever. That is the power of communities to build a sense of place and ownership through their input into public art projects.

Public art that has strong roots in history and local stories, not only empowers its residents, but is also the most successful, and assists in making places great. Community engagement and community knowledge is a very valuable design resource.

So tonight, in my 15 minutes of fame, Id like to give you a greater understanding of the capacity of consultation in this process, I thought I would take you on a journey through one of my projects in detail and then a few in passing.

Public art is a ‘symptom’ of Liveability

Jane Jacobs, the eminent ‘cityologist’, says all Cities are in competition with each other for investment – capital, residents, tourism, and workers, therefore, in theory all you people are in competition with each other!

It has been proven, that successful cities are chosen by investors, for theirLiveability.

I contend that most modern cities look the same and its really only the geography and visible culture i.e. public art that identifies them…’i.e. Some say this is their Branding’.

So….I believe that public art identifies a place, increases its liveability, and therefore assists in making it attractive to investment …

So how do you do public art well? Better than the next city! ….Good Community engagement and research.

I also believe, the infrastructure boom in Australia at the moment, provides an opportunity to also have a cultural boom i.e More public art…. if councils and governments care to legislate for it. There are many very successful examples of Percentage for Art programs across the world.

Art generates a sense of distinctiveness that makes places attractive to people. Artists view place with a different perspective, utilizing senses, emotions and feelings and importantly use empathy and passion to interpret information and stories into the physical forms, which positively shape public places…. Places which nurture people.

‘Stories from the Street’ Hurstville

I want to pose a question – if I came into the area that you live in and placed a piece of public art featuring an acid spitting bunny and graffiti – what do you think the community response would be?

In many areas there would probably be an uproar, it might even make the TV news for how it is inappropriate and what an eyesore it is. We have all seen these headlines before and they are usually as a result of art that has been placed without any consultation or thought to the needs of the local stakeholders. It has just been plonked in place, and that is exactly what it is known as “plonk art”.

Now, I did actually create a work with an acid spitting bunny, and a component of graffiti. And not only did it NOT create an uproar – it is embraced and loved by its community – why? Because the community were consulted and engaged with, as a part of the design process. The target audience said YES to it.

I was commissioned by Hurstville City Council to create a work as part of an anti graffiti program. It was to be located on a wall in a new bus interchange and an essential part of the brief was to engage with the youth in the area, as they were to be the most frequent users of the interchange.

In the initial EOI I suggested a possible collage of painted plywood panels, however the completed work of stainless steel, ceramic tiles, digital glass prints and corten steel, includes an acid spitting bunny, ninja warrior, graffiti, an old

Ferrari and text. So how did we end up with something so different? The answer is simple…through extensive community engagement.

So who did we consult ? We talked to young people from all walks of life, people in a young offenders program, school children at bus stops, kids in a Youth Centre through to a young writers group, the Youth Advisory Council and even young coppers, and it was their collective input that shaped the concept. Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I want to invite Rina our IAP2 accredited community engagement expert to sharewith you a little on the engagement process.



Thank you Rina, So what does all this have to do with you and your cities? The creation of site-specific public art that has been informed by effective community engagement is a win /win situation for everyone. For residents it gives a sense of identity and place, and for governments it celebrates a City, setting it apart from others and makes it attractive to investors.

So if public art is good for a city what does it look like? So here are a few of our projects. KGV, 1 and 2. Great Southern Wall. Australiana and One World Aust Permanent Mission to UN, Aust y Mexico a Juntos, Residence Aust Ambassador to Mexico Basalt Sitee.

All these works were made with community engagement and sometimes participation. I contend that cities can prosper thru making more and better public art! North Bank Parra R. 1 – 4. Promenade Parramatta and AE2 Ermington.

One city that has done this is the City of Parramatta. Over the past ten years I have produced at least 6 Arts plans and created and installed 5 works of public art as a result of the requirements for public art as a condition of development application consent. This is a first step in encouraging developers to see public art as integral to good development and ultimately good citizenship.

I’d like to close with an example of how this policy is viewed by someone external to the arts.


Im referring to a recent article by Elizabeth Farrelly in the SMH of 17 November 2018, Entitled…..The Man who fought the Awfulisers of Parramatta. It’s about a council manager George Mannix written upon his death. The article praises George’s efforts to give Parramatta a visual culture based upon specific research and real community engagement. This is council policy. It was Georges job to ensure developers create high quality relevant public art as a condition of development application consent. He was a quiet, urbane, sophisticated and canny writer and filmmaker who didn’t stand for any vacuous clichéd bullshit in submitted arts plans or works of art.

I’m proud to say that George endorsed 5 of our projects. Parramatta now has a collection of public art, which animates and activates interest in the city and assists in attracting investment. Businesses, medical facilities, universities and new residents are flocking there.

Of course public art isn’t the only attraction in a city but the public art readily proclaimes to others loud and clear, that liveabilty lives here and council is serious about attracting investment and making the city prosper and thrive. And its through Communicating collaborating and creating with all stakeholders that makes cities great!

Thank you.