A key theme of our research is thinking about public spaces as 'infrastructures of care'. This panel discussion brought together experts in planning and community engagement to consider how we can ensure public spaces care for all of us, and how we might create more caring public spaces.

Presented in August 2023, this event began with a warm Welcome to Country from Gadigal Elder Uncle Alan Madden, then Macquarie University's Dr. Miriam Williams introduced the diverse expert panel featuring:

  • Elle Davidson from Zion Engagement and Sydney University
  • Estelle Grech from the Committee for Sydney
  • Olivia Hyde from NSW Government Architect
  • Professor Xiaoqi Feng from University of NSW  

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Video: Mountain High Media

Dr Williams started the discussion by thinking back to the 2020 - 2021 lockdowns, when local public spaces emerged as important sites that supported connection and wellbeing. This period also exposed the inequalities of public space provisioning, highlighting the need to consider how public spaces across NSW might become more care-full. Each of the panellists was asked to consider understandings of care and public space, how we can create more caring public spaces and how we can transforming public space for and with care.

 Professor Xiaoqi Feng speaking into microphone, sitting with Elle Davidson and Estelle Grech
Care Panel Discusssion - (L to R) Prof Xiaoqi Feng, Elle Davidson and Estelle Grech. Photo:Jamie Humphris

How much green space is enough?

Professor Xiaoqi Feng spoke about the research carried out through PowerLab Population Wellbeing and Environment Research Lab​​ aimed at advancing policy-relevant knowledge on the relationships between green space and health.

The Lab's research team looks at the minimum threshold of local green space required to elicit favourable health and societal outcomes. Access to quality green space and restoring tree canopy cover to at least 30% supports individual and community health and wellbeing. Access to quality green space, for instance, can:

  • reduce the risk of Type 2 Diabetes by 30% or more
  • reduce the incidence of postpartum depression by 16% and,
  • have significant long term mental and physical health benefits for children.

The quality of a public space depends on individual needs, but there are some elements, such as how easy the space is to access and whether there are lights or toilets that are significant factors shaping how communities make use of green space.

Professor Feng also discussed lonelygenic environments and the research being done into the link between loneliness and environmental influence.

"Publicly available green space could really play a role to reduce loneliness and help us to be more connected. We found that if a person has access to high quality green space, they are four times more likely to visit the green spaces in their neighbourhood, and are five times more likely to feel more socially connected with others."

Professor Xiaoqi Feng

Treading lightly and thinking generationally

Elle Davidson is a Balanggarra woman from the East Kimberley, living and working on Gumbaynggirr country in northern NSW. She thinks about caring for place from a cultural framework of treading lightly and thinking generationally. Elle Davidson asked: how were First Nations people able to care and be connected to Country seven generations ago and what will seven generations ahead look like? It's essential to think about the decisions we make now and how they will have an impact in the future. She highlighted the profound effect public space use and management can have on Aboriginal custodians, encouraging everyone to slow down, open our senses and decolonise our thinking around place. A really big part of that is actually starting with Country and involving traditional custodians from the start of a project to help people to understand what that place was, is, should be.

"We are always on Country and everybody has the opportunity to connect with and think about that place differently if we come from a place of care and cultural safety from a First Nations perspective...Starting with place, starting with story, starting with what existed here and working to empower the voices of First Nations people from the start will create much more caring spaces for people."

Elle Davidson

How to build better cities for women and girls

Estelle Grech is at the tail end of a period of intensive research as part of a Churchill Fellowship, which included spending time in the Department of Gender and Time in Barcelona/Catalonia where a cross-cutting feminist approach is applied to all areas of the City Council, policy and society. Barcelona’s Superblocks (Superille in Catalan) initiative is aimed at supporting carers in the community. They show the benefits of prioritising people over cars with a focus on accessibility, and encouraging community participation.

Estelle's research, centred around how to build better cities for women and girls, was motivated by the fact women feel the need to be vigilant in public spaces, thinking about what time we're going out and what we're wearing and who we're going to be with and how we're going to get home if it's after dark. She found U.N. statistics that showed only 3% of 18 to 24 women haven't been harassed in a public space, yet when it comes to the people responsible for building infrastructure, in Australia only 2% are women.

Gender equity in planning decisions, asking people what they need from public spaces, and having the empathy to put yourself in the shoes of others will create cities that care better for women and girls.

"Stories about safety and women and girl’s experiences of unsafe places can open the door to deeper thinking about care in public spaces."

Estelle Grech

Well designed spaces = caring places

Olivia Hyde says good design and caring are one and the same thing. The built environment is the hardware of public space and if we don't get it right it's really difficult for the software, which is all of us and how we inhabit it and use it, to make it work. A well-designed public space needs to emerge from an integrated process that brings design, architecture and landscape design together.

Critically, it has to start with Country, and we're really only just beginning to learn how to do that. But, for all those work in the built environment area, it's both a challenge and an exciting opportunity. The Government Architect NSW's recently released Connecting with Country Framework tries very hard to be a practical guide for those involved in the delivery of the public space built environment.

"A well designed public space, whether it is a street or a square or a park, will be a caring place. The symbiotic relationship there is that if somewhere is caring, then it induces us to care for it, and that becomes a virtuous cycle."

Olivia Hyde
Mural in Springwood NSW by artists Merindah Funnell and Allie Banks. Photo by Dr Miriam Williams

What can we do to help create more care-full public spaces?

Olivia Hyde: Next time you're in public space, look at when you feel comfortable somewhere. Is it walking somewhere, sitting at a bus stop, going to a park or spending time with your children? Think about what is it that's working and why. If we all become a bit keener, as people who work in this space and are passionate about it, that can be really useful.

Estelle Grech: Try to walk in others' shoes and think about what it's like from their perspective.

Elle Davidson: Go down to the Barangaroo Reserve. Every time I go there I try to drop into that space and think about what's around me, what am I hearing, just that observation. One of the things in the Connecting with Country Framework is about sensing Country. A really important part of what we're all charged to do in this space is use our imagination and use our senses to think differently and then use what we get out of that to inspire us to thinking differently in our work and practice.

Professor Feng: More high quality urban greening and also less screen time. This will keep us healthier and more socially connected.

About the speakers

Dr Miriam Williams is Senior Lecturer, Geography and Planning at Macquarie University who is currently co-authoring a book on Cities that Care: towards caring urbanisms for University of Minnesota Press with Associate Professor Emma Power. Miriam's work focus on care and justice in the city.

Elle Davidson is a Balanggarra woman from the East Kimberley. Elle is the Director of Zion Engagement and Planning, an Aboriginal training and consulting business and an Aboriginal Planning Lecturer at University of Sydney. 

Professor Xiaoqi Feng is the Professor in Urban Health and Environment at the UNSW School of Population Health. Professor Feng leads a program of research focused on enhancing population well-being through identifying modifiable environmental factors (e.g. green space) that shape health across the life course.

Olivia Hyde is Director of Design Excellence at the Government Architect NSW. Olivia is a Life Fellow of the AIA and a registered architect with diverse private and public sector experience leading many award-winning local and international projects.

Estelle Grech is a Policy Manager at the Committee for Sydney. Estelle is an urban planner and policy specialist with a keen focus on designing for social equality in cities. Estelle has worked in local government, consulting, as a NSW Government Ministerial adviser and is currently leading planning and housing policy at the Committee for Sydney.

Uncle Allen Madden is a respected Gadigal Elder and cultural representative for the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council.

Uncle Allen is a Gadigal man from the Eora nation, born in Redfern NSW in 1949. He attended Redfern Public School, which is now reformed NTO National CIE, Narwee Boys High School, Newtown Technology High School. At the age of 14, Uncle Allen started working at Ingham Chicken, Shelly soft drinks, City of Sydney Council, Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Children’s Service, Aboriginal Legal Service and New Careers for Aboriginal People Employment.

Uncle Allen has been on the Board of Sydney Foreshore Authority, SBS, Central Coast Aboriginal Heritage along with various other organisations. At present he is a Board member of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Local Council. Uncle Allen has been involved in television with Redfern Now, Walk on Country, Greatest Cities of the World (BBC), First Australian, Pemulway, First Contact, and Foot Prints.

He is married with 10 children and a life member of Redfern All Blacks RLFC.