Design dialogue: The oldest way

It is by participating in dialogue, particularly with the ancient Indigenous wisdom of the environment, that landscape architects can develop better informed design processes. This discussion by Perth-based artist and landscape ecologist David Deeley, for the Connecting People and Place edition of Landscape Architecture Australia.

In this article, I share some personal observations about how landscape architecture as a discipline has the opportunity to not only create functional, aesthetically pleasing spaces to connect people to place, but through participatory design dialogue embed into the mainstream a process of “buy-in” that can further empower communities to address the great complexities and uncertainties facing humans today. Indigenous knowledge systems based upon the interrelatedness of humans and the biosphere can further inform our design processes.

Aboriginal spirituality

All religions aim to explain existence and to some extent regulate behaviour. Aboriginal spirituality integrates these aims into a world view that considers the parity of all life and embeds this notion into a system of religious sanction.1 This is based on the concept of the Dreaming – part creation story, part overarching rules for living.2

The interconnectedness of animate and inanimate elements is central to Aboriginal spirituality. People, plants and animals, landforms, and celestial bodies are seen as being interrelated and indivisible.3 The knowledge of how they are interconnected and why it is important to keep all things in healthy interdependence is encoded in sacred stories or myths.

Eldership is a concept central to the organization of Aboriginal society. Male and female elders are revered as role models and are entrusted with embedding and explaining decisions in the context of sacred rituals, stories and myths. Aboriginal society lives under the umbrella of spiritual law and lore, caring for country and community as both a recognition of healthy interdependence and as a core cultural obligation.

Western world views

In 1969 Ian McHarg, sometimes known as the father of town planning, published Design with Nature, which contained step-by-step instructions on how to integrate built form with nature. This pivotal work has been further developed to inform the disciplines of environmental impact assessment, new community development, coastal zone management, brownfields restoration, zoo design, river corridor planning, and ideas about sustainability and regenerative design.

Despite McHarg’s wise guidance, urban development has underperformed in this regard. Australia’s capital cities have expanded rapidly and remain among the least sustainable in the world. Each resident of Australian capital cities requires six to seven global hectares of land and water to support their current consumption lifestyle compared to a world average of less than three global hectares per person.4

“Capitalism is a force for ceaseless accumulation … hard-wired to expansion … It expands or it dies … It is a human order set in epic contest with the natural order, scaling ever upwards the heights of risk.”
—Brendan Gleeson, Professor in Urban Policy Studies, University of Melbourne 5

The epic contest described in the quote above had its roots much earlier, in the 1600s, in the views of Francis Bacon. Bacon believed that nature should be “bound into service” and made a slave to the human ends of regaining our dominion over nature lost in the “fall from grace” in the Garden of Eden. The German writer Wolfgang von Goethe is believed to have alternately postulated in the 1700s: “The man to whom Nature begins to reveal her open secret feels an irresistible longing for her most worthy interpreter – Art.”

It is indeed an unfortunate quirk of history that Western societies have followed the path of Bacon, wanting to dominate and dishonour nature, rather than that of Goethe and McHarg, embracing nature’s limits and opportunities.

The challenge now is how to improve sustainability outcomes during urban (re)development. The magnitude of this challenge should not be underestimated, especially given the current rate of population growth, the need for greater budget accountability, increasing expectations of meaningful community involvement in the design process and ever-faster delivery of affordable new suburbs. These constraints place great pressure on an orderly and considered process of landscape design and implementation. Scenario planning is a process that has significant potential to frame the landscape design process, including stakeholder involvement.

Scenario planning – a process to frame landscape design

Scenario planning is a strategic planning method adapted from classic methods developed in the military intelligence sphere. It is based on an exploration of multiple factors that may combine in complex ways to create unexpected outcomes, and uses the technique of describing the future in stories that read as if written by people from the future. Above all, scenario planning is a tool for developing plausible scenario storylines, encouraging collective learning, reframing perceptions and accommodating uncertainty.

Scenario planning has been successfully used for evaluating options in public policy, industry, commerce, sociology and environment; this encompasses anything from relatively simple, tactical decisions to the complex process of strategic planning and long-range forecasting.

Problems may arise because there are limited safeguards against political derailing, agenda control, myopia and limited imagination when conducting scenario-planning exercises within real organizations. Another trap is taking the scenarios too literally, as though they are static and map out a fixed future. In actuality, the aim is to set boundaries around the future but in a flexible way that permits learning and adjustment as the future unfolds.6

Despite these potential issues, scenario planning can be particularly useful where there are:

  • unquantified relationships between cause and effect
  • significant levels of complexity and uncertainty
  • divergent expectations among stakeholders
  • varied cultural perspectives and obligations
  • legitimate elders willing and able to sanction the preferred outcomes.

Design dialogue is a contemporary form of scenario planning used by some landscape architects to explore alternative design options at a variety of scales with stakeholders. Because of its nature, design dialogue avoids many of the weaknesses of scenario planning and builds on its strengths, since:

  • it is an inclusive, participatory and non-threatening process
  • it can operate early in the land-development process to inform policy alternatives and at the end of the process in exploring options for built assets
  • its facilitators (usually landscape architects) are experienced professionals who generally have a good understanding of the implications of possible alternatives
  • it has a low risk of political derailing, agenda control or limited imagination.

One of design dialogue’s great strengths is that it can operate in real time, with creative sketches and overlays on tracing paper providing immediate feedback to participants.

“Artistic representation can reveal both the surprising plasticity of seeing and the range of individual perspectives that may be brought to what is a universal ‘ground.’”
– Dr Peter Stafford, 20067

Design dialogue – the 100th monkey?8

The hundredth monkey effect describes a scenario where a behaviour is taken up by so many members of one group that it spreads to all related groups. The point of the heading is to say that contemporary design dialogue the oldest way (i.e. incorporating ancient Aboriginal wisdom) celebrates the interconnectedness and non-divisibility of living and non-living elements of design. There is clearly an urgent need to move to a more sustainable built form, in no small part to mitigate and adapt to climate-change impacts while building community. As is the case with Aboriginal cultural obligations, design dialogue may be seen as a modern cultural obligation for landscape architecture in addition to being an indispensable design aid.

Aboriginal cultural obligations also provide the right to speak for country. This means there is a non-negotiable requirement to maintain the original values of place and the maintenance of plant, animal and inanimate landscape elements. This is consistent with McHarg’s dictum to design with nature – to use endemic plants and themes in the design process – to tread more lightly on the planet.

Contemporary design dialogue the oldest way is also grounded in collective leadership, accessibility and inclusiveness. The merging of ethics, ideals, experience, enthusiasm and legitimacy can be achieved by experienced “elder” stakeholders joining younger, less-experienced stakeholders through the process. The design process can therefore act as a touchstone for drawing out a higher common purpose. It is a non-threatening, inclusive process of imagining and visualizing what might be at multiple scales.

The opportunity for landscape architecture to be creative catalyst in the face of increasing economic rationalism and pressure for ever-faster development rollout should not be lost. Landscape architecture as a profession is uniquely situated to embed collaborative bottom-up scenario-planning into the mainstream, especially if indigenous knowledge systems with their notions of interconnectedness and custodianship are also included.

Landscape architects are not generally experts, but rather expert generalists. They are well placed to coordinate and facilitate expertise and input and ultimately deliver outcomes that provide a custodial and sustainable approach to providing public open-space experiences. Heaven knows the planet desperately needs the hundredth monkey if we are to accommodate the complexity and uncertainty of life with more than seven billion humans and 400ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.

1 Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011), 123.
2 Gammage, op. cit., 123.
3 Vicki Grieves, Aboriginal spirituality: Aboriginal philosophy: the basis of Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing, discussion paper series, no. 9 (Casuarina, NT: Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, 2009), 7.
4 Peter Newton, “Australian Cities: Liveable, But Are They Sustainable?” Australian Policy Online website, 30 November 2010, (accessed 31 May 2013).
5 Brendan Gleeson, “Urban Sprawl Isn’t to Blame: Unsustainable Cities are the Product of Growth Fetish,” The Conversation, 20 March 2013, (accessed 31 May 2013).
6 “Scenario Planning,” Wikipedia, Scenario_planning (accessed 31 May 2013).
7 Peter Stafford, “Art, Water and Fluid Thinking,” proceedings of the 1st Australian National Hydropolis Conference (Perth: Stormwater Industry Association, 2006), 3.
8 “Hundredth Monkey Effect,” Wikipedia, (accessed 31 May 2013).



Published online: 1 May 2016
Words: David M. Deeley
Images: David M. Deeley


Landscape Architecture Australia, August 2013

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