By Dominique Hes (with guest Matt Novacevski)

    The sustainability narrative of the early 2000s focussed on ‘sacrifice’, emphasising the things and practices we need to give up in order to create a better world. It was just ‘tighten the belt’, guilt trips and never feeling like you could do enough to fix things. I didn’t think that messaging would cut it. I felt we weren’t seeing the potential, the hope, the human beauty and wouldn’t create the change we need for a thriving future. 

    So I decided to devote my research to Regenerative Development. It’s an approach that turns the tide of despair by looking at nature to find ways to create positive changes in communities. It encourages people to observe the natural patterns of their place and design ways to support and strengthen those patterns.

    Imagine the children in your life. Some are naturally creative, some sporty, or bookish, nerdy, or have green thumbs. They each have their own nature or personality.

    Try taking a sporty kid and forcing them into art, or an arty kid and forcing them to play sport. It is hard work for everyone! Allowing kids to follow their interests and supporting them 110% is what regenerative development does. 

    Regenerative development looks at a place or a challenge and asks: What is its nature? Just like Parisian culture is different to Melbourne’s, local ecologies differ from place to place. Lowlands differ from highlands, tropical areas have different needs to arid areas, etc. You assess what makes a place unique, what brings health, vitality, creates joy and supports life in that place. 

    Only then can we see opportunities, design solutions, the people power, plans and policies to increase health, vitality and viability in the ecological fabric of a place and the local community.

    Doesn’t regeneration take place naturally in the environment?

    Often people associate the word regeneration with forests after fires. Yes, they regenerate but the extent of the regeneration depends on the health of the system that supports the forest (and the intensity of the fire). 

    To apply these practices to human designed systems like cities we need to support the things that bring them to life. Things that support people like good health care, good education, good community capacity, healthy places, green space, and the ability to contribute. These all create healthy, strong, resilient places. The tool for this is placemaking. 

    When used well, placemaking listens to the people of a place and through activities, testing and feedback works out how to increase the vitality and resilience of their place. 

    Enter Matt Novacevski, a placemaker who’s been envisioning a post-colonial approach to placemaking in Footscray as part of his PhD. I asked Matt, what he thinks placemaking is?

    ‘Placemaking is a complex-sounding word for something that humans do intuitively. At one level we shape place so it’s more fit for habitation … At another level, placemaking refers to small-scale interventions, often in the public realm of cities, that introduce warmth or vibrancy to a site.’

    ‘The term “placemaking” can be a bit of a misnomer, as placemaking works with what already exists in terms of stories, materiality or ecology.’ 

    He talks about how placemaking differs from other local development approaches which ‘don’t pay attention to the context’ of a place, or the importance of history and the ‘who’ of a place. 

    ‘Any discussion of placemaking on this continent that did not reckon with settler-colonialism would be spurious … because of the extractive, exclusionary and at times ecocidal way settler-colonial cities have been developed since invasion.’ 

    Unlearning the destructive practices of settler-colonialism

    If we are to understand this place, the western suburbs, we have to understand our colonial past and most importantly, unlearn the approaches that have caused such unfathomable harm. In a regenerative approach we heal by embracing the raw potential and uniqueness of place and use it in a way that supports its nature. Any other approach is a waste of time, energy, and resources.

    Matt, himself a second-generation settler of mixed European descent, says, ‘The modus-operandi of settler-colonial urbanism has resulted in cities that are too often disconnected by design from their surroundings. In turn, this disconnectedness engenders a sense of social isolation, which makes sense given the mass dispossession and acts of violence that surrounded the founding and development of our cities.’ 

    From the latest chemical spill into Stony Creek, to the mass clearing of vegetation for development it’s clear that violence done unto the environment continues here unabated.

    I asked Matt how the rich layers of Footscray’s story from deep time to present day contribute to its richness. He spoke about the Wominjeka Tarnuk-Yooroom or Welcome Bowl in the Footscray Mall. It’s a public art sculpture incorporating ten basalt boulders which symbolise Indigenous smoking and welcome ceremonies.

    ‘I spent many hours here and was fascinated by the ways people interact with these basalt boulders, cast in the shape of a coolamon.’ 

    ‘It’s incredible work in how it brings rich poetics and story into the public realm in a way people can interact with in joyful, reflective, playful or restful ways.’

    ‘The work tells a rich story of the enduring presence of Country, as the boulders emerge from the crust of a space that is full of hard, smoothed over surfaces. The colour and scale of the raw basalt feels really humane in that sense.’

    ‘One day I noticed a man with one leg leaning on one of the rocks that got to about hip height. He was resting, having conversations with people passing by, shaking hands. There was laughter. I realised the scale of each of the boulders is so human, and he probably could not have had these interactions on a conventional urban chair or bench that would be difficult to get to. This is one of the many everyday interactions that shows the generosity of the work, and how it promotes a sense of inclusion that encompasses the living materiality of place – the basalt that has been in the landscape around the Maribyrnong over deep time.’

    Pausing and listening are keywords here. Wonder, curiosity and pause are critical human expressions of connection and attachment; a wanting to belong and contribute. They’re also the essence of regenerative development. 

    ‘When you spend a lot of time slowly listening to place you find so much wonder and more gold than anyone rushing to Victoria in the mid-1800s could have imagined,’ says Matt.

    ‘We live in such a rich, beautiful corner of the world and yet we often rush too much to appreciate it.’

    Matt’s parting words are to encourage us to head to Footscray Mall and visit the Wominjeka Tarnuk-Yooroom. 

    ‘Perhaps touch the rocks and feel how that influences your own sense of presence or belonging. And take some time out to immerse yourself in a place you love. It’s good for the soul.’ 

    Dr Dominique Hes
    Dr Dominique Hes
    Dr Dominique Hes is the Zero Building Carbon Lead at the City of Melbourne. Dominique mixes theory and thinking, with doing and testing to discover how we can best contribute to the well-being and thriving of place, people and planet.

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