A living lab for the Tropics
Creating communities and landscapes that are vibrant, sustainable, and fit for their populations is a task that requires many perspectives and abilities. JCU Associate Professor Lisa Law shares how collaborating with regional councils, industry partners, community members and her students has led to developing master plans for regional towns that create a legacy of sustainability and liveability throughout Northern Queensland.
Lisa has worked in JCU Planning for many years, but her passion project is the department’s Tropical Urbanism and Design Lab, better known as the TUDLab. Described as a ‘living laboratory for the Tropics’, the TUDLab advocates the key role town planning and urban design can play in shaping better futures in regional areas. The TUDLab team is comprised of an academic board, a professional board, and affiliated researchers. The Lab’s mission is to deliver research and tropical design expertise that promotes environmentally responsive and liveable communities.
As a member of the academic board, Lisa works extensively with the Lab. “We have academic staff members from planning, geography and sociology, and we’re also growing our postgraduate student cohort,” she says. “One of the real innovations of the Lab is the way we work collaboratively with local governments and industry partners for creative solutions.”
The TUDLab’s collaboration is key to their fresh and innovative ideas for urban design. “We aim to collectively think through a problem because most problems are multifaceted. If you don’t have multiple kinds of brains thinking through an issue, you’re going to come up with the same solutions over and over again.”
The TUDLab’s Tropical Design Studio series, “Strategic concept masterplans in Northern Queensland country towns”, showcases the impact of this collaboration. The masterplans developed in this design studio are the outcome of a process aiming to improve the liveability of regional communities in Northern Queensland and have also received the Minister’s Award for Urban Design in the Master Plan category.
Award-winning planning through inclusive perspectives
These award-winning masterplans began in a block mode subject that Lisa coordinates for undergraduates studying the Bachelor of Planning. The subject’s main assessment asks the students to listen to the community, and to workshop ideas that could improve the built environment and eventually become part of an overall master plan to enhance the liveability of a regional town.
“Local councils facilitate the community engagement, and industry professionals provide advice and guidance to the students,” Lisa says. “We had quite an enthusiastic response from the industry professionals who can pass on their knowledge and expertise.”
The project begins with Lisa taking students to a regional town in North Queensland. “We visit the community for about four days,” Lisa says. “The students talk with locals and listen to what community members view as the most important issues, the community’s strengths and what they envision for the town’s future.” These perspectives inform the direction of the students’ projects and gives them valuable experience in collaborating with communities and councils.
After gathering valuable insights from local councils and community members, the students work with their peers and the industry experts to lay out their part of the master plan. “The industry experts tutor the students and help them come up with ideas that would actually work in the real world,” Lisa says.
Such ideas could include improved footpaths in consideration of aging populations, increased signage to generate greater tourism or local engagement, or suggesting re-directing a one-way street to move traffic past a point of interest in the town, such as the waterfront.
“After the assessment, a few students go on to complete a placement with the TUDLab. They collate the information they gathered while working on the assessment and work with TUDLab industry professionals and government partners to create a full master plan for that town.”
“This design series is an excellent collaborative project. Students gain experience and insight from industry and government partners. Industry professionals pass on their expertise and experience. For a small fee, councils get excellent design advice specific to their community. It’s a lot of effort, but it yields fantastic results for everyone involved.”
Associate Professor Lisa Law
Creating legacies for Far North Queensland
The Tropical Design Studio series has driven collaborations between the TUDLab team and local communities all over Far North Queensland.
The team has completed strategic master plan projects in Ingham, Innisfail, Ravenshoe and Malanda. The Malanda master plan is one of their most successful runs of the project so far. The TUDLab’s cooperative approach to design in regional areas garnered the attention of the Minister’s Award jury, and Lisa believes the passionate collaboration involved earned her team the award.
“I think what the Minister’s Award jury saw was a sophisticated conversation about design happening in regional towns and now that conversation is being funded, too,” Lisa says. “It’s an amazing thing because many issues in regional towns defy easy solutions.
“They have aging populations with young people moving away because they’re not engaged in town affairs. Schools struggle because families move away. Dairy deregulation has caused one of Queensland farmers’ main industries to decline. People travel to Townsville or Cairns to shop, so high streets are now deserted. The problems are big, but the populations are small, so it’s tricky to come up with funding to help solve the problems.”
But the TUDLab method provides comprehensive strategic frameworks to make small regional towns vibrant places to work, live and visit. The team’s efforts are already yielding improvements in the liveability, walkability, sustainability and rate of tourism in these regional towns, a key element in earning the Minister’s Award for Urban Design.
The Minister’s Award jury highlighted the critical role of urban design in shaping Queensland and the importance of collaborative relationships that lead to the successful development of the built environment. The jury specifically sought out projects like the TUDLab’s that had three winning qualities: challenging the status quo, demonstrating leadership and design excellence, and leaving lasting, sustainable legacies for the broader community.
“The master plans project is so exciting because it makes a real impact in these communities,” Lisa says. “We’ve even had individuals from the towns where we’ve worked see the power of this kind of thinking and process and enrol in JCU Planning because they want to make that kind of a difference. Bringing urbanism and design strategy into these regional towns is a big step towards the goal of liveable, sustainable legacies in Far North Queensland.”
The combined recipients of the Minister’s Award included TUDLab plus CA Architects, LA3 Landscape Architecture and TPG Architects with Tablelands Regional Council, Cassowary Coast Regional Council and Hinchinbrook Shire Council.
Associate Professor Lisa Law
Lisa Law is an interdisciplinary researcher whose research focuses on creating inclusive, quality urban spaces in Southeast Asia and tropical Australia. She is interested in how we understand liveability in regional areas and how to deploy place-based strategies of urban design. Lisa is the founder of JCU’s Tropical Urbanism and Design Lab, an interdisciplinary team of geographers, architects, sociologists, and planners interested in urbanism in the tropics. Lisa has particular interests in responsive urban designs for tropical built environments, social and urban geography, and disaster resilience in the wider region.