Dr Deborah Dearing spoke with Siobhan Toohill for Out The Front in October 2013.
Deborah Dearing is a thoughtful, inspiring and highly-regarded leader in urban design in Australia. In a career spanning over 25 years Deborah has both created new places in our cities and lead policy change to cultivate better placemaking. Testament to her entrepreneurial spirit and her commitment to advocating for better design, she established the Urban Design Advisory Service and the Stockland Design House. She’s a respected teacher and mentor. Deborah is relentlessly positive, passionate as well as practical, admired for her lively mind and formidable capacity for problem solving, and has a keen sense of what it takes to create better outcomes in the built environment. In this interview Deborah talks about how she discovered architecture, her time studying, raising children and developing a career, her love of Sydney and how to make this city (and many others) a better place.
SIOBHAN: A leader in urban design planning, Dr. Deborah Dearing has over 25 years' experience working internationally, and for the Australian Government and private sector, as a senior planning strategist, urban design consultant, in executive roles, as well as an architect. And now she's sitting with us in the kitchen, enjoying a glass of water. Deb, what lead you to study architecture?
DEBORAH: Well, it was almost by accident. I hadn't actually quite finished high school in Adelaide, I received a scholarship to upstate New York. I moved over in December, spent six months finishing off secondary school, and then had six months to fill in at a university at Syracuse. And I was asked which course I wanted to do. I had never contemplated studying architecture prior to that time, and so I thought, what would be a really fun course, something slightly different? My brother was an artist, a painter, and I thought, I'd like to do Fine Arts, but maybe not Fine Arts, because it was the same as what he'd done. Architecture was a similar area so I took it on as a fun thing to do for six months. Having completed that period of study at Syracuse University, I then went back to Adelaide, and I was absolutely hooked. But it was never a long consideration about why or where, it was actually... I simply just fell into it.
SIOBHAN: And then you practised as an architect for a few years?
DEBORAH: I did. Not for a particularly long number of years, I had some undergrad experience in a firm in Sydney, which was Edwards Madigan Torzillo Briggs, where I worked on the High Court, and a small consulting group, based down at Balmoral. I had some experience in Adelaide, but soon after I graduated as an architect, I moved to Copenhagen, where I studied urban design.
SIOBHAN: You studied with Jan Gehl, who was your supervisor, what was that like?
DEBORAH: He's a fabulous person. He enjoys people, he's very talented as a communicator, he understands urban design and people issues. He's very community-focused, as opposed to a perfectionist in built form. He really understands the way people use spaces.
I remember very clearly some words of advice he gave me when I first met him: 'during your time in Copenhagen, the most that you will ever learn, or the biggest lessons you will learn here are not from the lectures, and they're certainly not from the essays that you'll have to write or the drawings that you need to do. It'll be from your fellow students, from the people you meet, and the interactions you have with our culture.' He said, 'That's where you want to spend your time.'
SIOBHAN: Are there any particular moments of studying with him that you recall as particularly great moments?
DEBORAH: He was always very enthusiastic, very positive and supportive of his students, I've never heard Jan say a bad or damning word about any of the people he worked with or taught. I remember clearly one of the schemes, in one semester was to look at traffic-calming devices in Copenhagen, and we're talking 35 years ago, so in those days, traffic calming was a very unusual thing. They hadn't really introduced the concept of traffic calming, even in Amsterdam, in Holland. But we were looking at what it could be. And there was a student there from South America, who did a scheme where he designed a whole road pattern, with normal rectilinear roads, but in order to calm cars, his idea was to build them as violently as he could. It was like sand dunes gone berserk so that you'd be lucky to get a car down them. Jan was so excited, he said, 'This is a brilliant solution, that'll keep the cars out, and the people could make their way and have fun on skateboards and other things.' So it was quite creative and exploratory. He was very open to new ideas and enjoyed developing the unusual.
SIOBHAN: And then later in your career, you commenced a PhD, and did a PhD around affordable housing, can you talk a bit about why you then embarked on that further research, and what your kind of core area of investigation was when you did your PhD?
DEBORAH: Well, the PhD wasn't actually on affordable housing, it was motivated by some work I'd been doing in Sydney at the time. I'd been providing some advice to the Department of Planning, and I found it very frustrating, when at that time in Sydney, they were talking about urban consolidation, and some of the things that you would have thought were fairly rational or logical moves were being dismissed.
For example, suggesting the idea of identifying a limit on urban growth was dismissed. The comment was that we can't possibly do that … we can't possibly limit the growth of urban centres. Or they would say, you can't actually expect people to live in apartments, because people don't want to live in apartments. There were a whole lot of assumptions, assumed truths, which I found very difficult to accommodate. Particularly since I'd worked for a number of years in Switzerland. Switzerland is a country with a healthy economy where urban consolidation has always been centre and foremost in everyone's mind. It’s a small country, with a population roughly the same size as NSW. And they have always had to manage their urban patterns very carefully, and they certainly restr icted urban growth, they certainly questioned some of the things which in NSW at the time, or Australia at the time, were considered impossible things to deliver or even propose.
My PhD looked at the patterns of urbanism, in terms of housing, and it was broken into a number of chapters. One of them looked at the politics, the constitutions, and government policies in Switzerland, and compared them to those approaches in NSW. While there are geographic and demographic differences I was interested in exploring why they adopted such a different approach to land-use planning. The Swiss Government has four levels of government, the NSW one has three levels of government. And in NSW they say we have far too many levels of government, far too many local councils, and I kept questioning: why does it work in Switzerland and why doesn't it work in NSW. Similarly, some of the things we said about or housing stock, why people made certain choices, I queried that as well. So it was about the assumptions that we had been basing our planning policy on, and whether they founded in truth, or were they simply, you know, a nonsense. And... that's what I tested.
SIOBHAN: You're also someone who's gone from being a principal at a hands-on practice, and you shifted into the world of directing design teams and corralling developers and shaping the policy. What, in your mind, led you to go on that shift from that hands-on phase into that kind of more higher-level directing policy and that overarching perspective that you now take?
DEBORAH: It was a pretty simple evolution from my perspective. I had gone from studying architecture to working on the High Court building, which was a fabulous project. At the time was one of the two or three high-profile projects in Australia. In that role, I would spend weeks and months designing cabinet joinery, and designing a specific hand-made bolt, and details for a building which was quite extraordinary. But at the end of the day, I had the impression, this is not the big picture. Designing a door for a week is a huge luxury and probably a bit of a nonsense.
When I went to Copenhagen, and we were talking about urban design, urban issues, city issues, community issues this was a whole different scale and it was far more interesting. We were talking about poverty and wealth, and it was a whole social influence, which actually changed the interest in architecture into one of urbanism. When I came back to Australia, having worked in Zurich in an urban design firm, called Urbanistics, I found that urban design as a profession didn't really exist in NSW. It was a very new field. I remember doing some early work in North Sydney, where I was told, 'Look, what you're doing sounds really interesting, and that's probably the way we should go, but we have no money, we can't afford it, go away and come back in 10 years' time.'
So that was my passion, the bigger picture. It was difficult to accommodate in NSW, but I was always keen to move that way. When I was given the opportunity, later on, to return to Sydney, again from overseas, to establish the Urban Design Advisory Service for the NSW government I was really excited. That's where I was actually very fulfilled, and very fortunate to be able to work with a great team, and try to drive some of the agendas which looked at the bigger picture of design: not the small details, but what does design mean on an urban scale, and that's where I think there's benefits to be had.
SIOBHAN: When I think of you, I always think of you as some one who's an incubator of talent, and also you've been a teacher. I think UDAS was very much an incubator, I certainly benefitted from that experience. Why is this teaching, this form of incubation of talent, why is that important for you?
DEBORAH: Well, I don't know that it was important for me, it wasn't something consciously that I was aware of. I was very keen and interested in growing the expertise in this new field of endeavour, and maybe some of that enthusiasm wears off. I was fully aware of the challenges in trying to achieve our goals. UDAS was relatively high-risk: a new organisation set up as a fee-for-service unit, which is very unusual in government. We were actually out there trying to encourage other organisations – local councils or private companies – to engage us on a fee-for-service basis. In order to do that, you have to have some damn good people in your team.
I was very careful who I actually engaged in that exercise – I only employed the best people, who I thought had the ability to grow into that sort of role. And I think we were very successful. But it wasn't accidental, and it was a two-way exercise. I enjoyed working with really smart and clever people, and they inspired me – and hopefully I inspired them. It was an area of great passion, and I wasn't the only one who was passionate in that space. All of the people who worked with us were equally contributing.
SIOBHAN: You're also someone who's straddled private practice and public service and then some corporates, and you've sat on numerous boards. Where do you think the power in city-making really lies?
DEBORAH: It's a very interesting question, because it lies in a whole range of spaces. City-making is about passion and commitment, and that's at a personal level.
It lies in good government, and good leadership, and government is not necessarily regulation, because regulation only deals with the lowest common denominator, and only can ever get rid of the worst. Good government can actually lead opportunities and provide opportunities.
It relies on private organisations, big corporates and others, to pick up the challenge, and try to be better than each other. How do they move from a small improvement to a better improvement – we've seen that at Stockland and Lend Lease and Mirvac and the others. People within those organisations are commonly A-type personalities and they all want to be better than the next.
So how do you achieve change through that healthy competition? The market. The market needs to be aware and demanding. Often in urban design, people can't articulate what the differences are, but they know and feel the difference. Lots of non-urban-designers will go to Italy and say, this beautiful old town we've seen, it's absolutely gorgeous. They've travelled to other parts of the world, loving where they are, not knowing why they actually react that way. They can also see in Australia the spaces that they really enjoy, and know they are enjoying them, without being able to articulate why.
Being able to interpret the reasons for that appreciation of space and place is critical to good urban design. But you've also got commitment, you've got government leadership, you've got major corporates who are interested in driving the agenda, and you've got the community actually understanding and appreciating what the benefits are. And then to be quite frank, even marketing. The whole marketing sphere has a role to play. We all know of organisations whose marketing is based on whimsy and it's only about a very shallow agenda, but nevertheless, when good outcomes have been well-marketed, and they develop a higher profile and better reputation as a result, this is to the benefit of everyone.
SIOBHAN: When you reflect on all the different roles that you've played, and all the different projects that you've contributed to, which one for you was the most satisfying?
DEBORAH: That's very difficult! The Urban Design Advisory Service was really challenging and interesting. It was a lot of fun establishing and setting up a new team and doing great projects, but I was only with that team for a period of two years, a relatively short period of time.
Then we moved on and I was working as an executive in Department of Urban Affairs and Planning. Some of the challenges there were huge for me, and I think we made some fabulous gains in terms of what we were trying to deliver. For example there's a program called Sharing Sydney Harbour, which had a number of programs associated with it, like Natural Harbour Access, Working Harbour, things like that. We were engaging with people who traditionally hadn't been involved in some of those planning exercises. We delivered outcomes which, at the time, seemed relatively minor, but I think are huge contributions, such as the Bays Run, all around the Parramatta River, the Georges River Healthy Rivers program, fabulous outcomes. There were other projects too which achieved urban consolidation in a way which was interesting, probably not the outcomes we absolutely aspired to, but they are still much better than what would have been otherwise.
One of the eye-openers of course was working for 10 years at Stockland, or nearly 10 years, and moving an organisation, from a point where awareness of sustainability was largely non-existent in 2002, and evolving that through a Sustainability Scoping Report, being discussed, and then developed, and a position becoming available, and you being appointed to that role and driving that agenda. Now only a year or so ago, Stockland were globally number one on the DJSI [Dow Jones Sustainability Index]. That was fabulous. And that journey through Stockland was very rewarding in terms of what was possible, and what we made happen. The whole organisation contributed to that, there's no doubt.
So each of those things, I think, were satisfying and different in their way. But all good.
SIOBHAN: When I think of you too, you're someone who I think of as a person who's a problem solver. I think you're someone who can dive into a team or a project and help people find a way through. What is it from your experience that has lead you to help people tackle problems and find a solution?
DEBORAH: Well, I have to say, I enjoy a problem!
A simple project is pretty boring, to be quite honest. I mean, one of my current projects, if we manage to actually deliver it – which I hope we will, we're working towards it – some will think it a miracle. That's the White Bay Power Station. What I enjoy is how you actually work that through with a team that's committed and interested, with huge opportunities – why do I do it? Because that's what I find most interesting. It's...problem-solving. It requires strategy, ingenuity. It requires an understanding of where other participants or stakeholders are coming from, and maneuvering a solution, having an idea of the big picture and what it could be, and exploring the way, the journey to get to there.
And it's never easy; if it's easy, it's mundane. It's a bit like doing a puzzle where you're interested in the challenge, and you can't quite do it, or you can't do it easily, but you like spending the time trying to get there.
SIOBHAN: I guess also, you're someone who hasn't...for you, being a woman, and being in leadership roles in the property sector, it strikes me as something that's never really got in away, hasn't really been a challenge for you, but I daresay there have been challenges along the way?
DEBORAH: I think it's absolutely a huge challenge. It is absolutely a huge challenge.
SIOBHAN: I think you make it look easy!
DEBORAH: Well, it's not easy. I think you've just got to bounce back and ignore all that stuff, because if you actually tried to tackle it head-on, you can't. And the challenges are...ingrained.
Sometimes you'll be working with teams which are highly supportive, which is fabulous. When I was with the Department of Planning and Sue Holliday was DG, it was different ball game. She was absolutely supportive and gender was never an issue. And that's great. But in other organisations you aren't always given the equal opportunities.. far from it. And there's no point beating your head against the wall. You could actually take action, legal action or complain, but really, what's that going to achieve at the end of the day? In my generation, there was no point, and so, you just keep going. And while you say, this is not satisfactory, you also ask what choices do I actually have?
SIOBHAN: I think the other thing too, there's always a sense of balance around you. You're someone who's been a mum, your family is important to you, how have you managed to achieve that? I remember the great stories you would tell about your kids, working while you had kids, how have you managed to achieve that?
DEBORAH: With the help of a whole lot of other people, and the kids survived! They didn't mind. You probably have to ask the kids how I managed it… and they may say I was hopeless, but they're reasonably well-adjusted adults. You do look back on it, at the time Alex and Lani were born... I took four weeks off for the birth of Alex, and I remember sitting in hospital, and my partner brought in a whole lot of work files to keep me busy while I'm sitting there, breastfeeding a brand-new baby. And when Lani was born a few years later, within six weeks, I was off to a conference in London and she came along as well. We just kept going.
Because in those days you didn't have a choice. There was a clear understanding that if you stopped working while you had children, you probably would lose most of your career choices. It was automatically assumed you would become ‘brain-dead’, and therefore to make up the time you would have taken off, would have been very difficult. So a number of us didn't… There were relatively few women who did work through their child-bearing years like that, but I'm not the only person. And we worked really hard, and it wasn't until my children both turned about 10, that I finally slept in for the first weekend ever, and it was absolute bliss. So you only realise how hard it was after the event, because at the time, you just keep powering forwards.
SIOBHAN: Deb, you're also an Adelaide person, I remember many conversation where you'd talk about people that you knew from your youth and growing up in Adelaide, but you've also discovered recently that you may have Indigenous ancestry. What does that mean for you, and your identity?
DEBORAH: Well for me …, I've never identified as an Aboriginal person, or even a part-Aboriginal person, but it was very interesting. Within our family, there were a whole lot of unusual questions, which never had a clear answer. And it all started through discussion with my cousins, who now live in Far North Queensland, who had always assumed that there was an Aboriginal connection. And we ought to have had a sense of it, but for our parents' generation, that was simply never discussed. It was never an acknowledged facet of the family. It was not the thing to be done.
We knew as kids that our grandmother had actually grown up on an Aboriginal mission on Point McLeay, that was clear, and everyone acknowledged that, but the reason she happened to be brought up in the mission was never articulated. Then later on, she became a milliner, she had a trade at about 15 years of age, and there were a whole lot of other family histories which never really fell easily into place. Until my cousin in Queensland did some exploring through the archives and records, and started to check some of the assumptions and stories that we'd heard to see whether they had other basis or evidence for them. And of course, she found that yes, there was some substance in the things that we had heard.
So...what does it mean for our family? It explains a number of things, it explained some of the family attitudes, it explains some of the sensitivities. For example, I remember my uncle, my mother's brother, looked quite Aboriginal, and I remember on one occasion, Carol, my cousin, said to me he'd been in the Adelaide Markets and someone had assumed he was Aboriginal and started treating him as an Aboriginal person. He was outraged, stormed out of the market, took the whole family home instantly. Similarly, my mother, who had dark, curly hair, when she once went down to the fish and chips shop in Adelaide to buy fish and chips, and they'd started speaking in Italian to her, the way in which she reacted to being treated as though she was dark or different, was an unusually aggressive reaction. She was outraged that they thought she would be dark.
And so it was a culture, it was a very difficult thing for their generation, not for ours, but for their generation to come to terms with, because it was considered not the appropriate family background to have. But for our generation it was very interesting. As a family we've had relatively close connections with Aboriginal people over a long period of time, but it was unknown for most of that time, that we ourselves also had some direct connection. When I mentioned our lineage to some other friends of mine, I was very surprised how many others in Sydney had said, isn't that interesting, because we have the same sort of connection in our family. It is far more common than one would have assumed, not surprisingly.
SIOBHAN: It almost feels like people are getting a sense of this as something that they can talk about now...
DEBORAH: Absolutely. And there's no controversy about saying that you have an aunt or an uncle or whatever. But for our parents' generation, it was considered a potential embarrassment.
SIOBHAN: Deb, when you think about places and cities, having lived in Adelaide and lived in Sydney, you've also lived overseas, which for you has been your favourite place that you've lived in, as an urban designer?
DEBORAH: Well, I have to say we live in Sydney because it's where we have chosen to live. I have a Swiss passport, and we could live in Switzerland, we could live in other countries, but I love Sydney. I wasn’t born here, I came here for the first time when I was about 18 or 19, and while I've lived overseas on a number of occasions between then, my choice is Sydney.
If I asked myself, where is the next place that I would like to live – we did for a number of years live in New Caledonia, I enjoyed aspects of New Caledonia, but not to live. It's way too tiny and there's no debate on urban design, and the architectural work is not particularly exciting, but it was a very interesting place. Some of the islands around there are beautiful.
Switzerland too, because my husband is Swiss and we have Swiss nationality, whether I'd live in Switzerland I'm not so sure. Parts of Europe are fabulous, but I enjoy Sydney.
SIOBHAN: What would Sydney do well to make it an even better place?
DEBORAH: You know what I would like? You know what would make me really happy in Sydney? It's to have far more bike paths.
I've only recently taken up bike-riding. I didn't ride bikes as a teenager, but my son was an elite cyclist, and I got my first bike five years ago. I was really wobbly.
The second ride I ever had was on a holiday in Thailand, and I got on this bike, and I went head-over-heels, which was a bit scary, landed on the ground with the bike on top of me. My son, who is obviously a very talented cyclist, came over and said 'Get up, get back on your bike, start pedalling.' So it was really funny, because he was getting really frustrated with his mother for falling off the stupid bike! But I think it's a fabulous way to get around, and if they had bike paths everywhere in Sydney, that would make Sydney fabulous because I could use the car less, zero. I’d ride very comfortably where I want to go, and that would be fabulous. And I'd keep fit!
SIOBHAN: And it would make it a safer place as well.
DEBORAH: We've got to have off-street bike paths, because as soon as you have to go down a road, then you have risks you don't need. And people like me would not be getting on a bike so quickly. But if you could actually make it safe, then it's fabulous.
SIOBHAN: What about that thorny issue of density? Would increased density make Sydney better?
DEBORAH: It depends on where, and how it's managed. It's not just density for density's sake, I think that is really counter-productive. I think the issue for Sydney is to have enough urban density to be able to afford and build the services and the urban amenities that make living in an urban environment enjoyable. If you just have density, without all of those amenities and those high-quality spaces and opportunities, then you've only got slums, predominantly. It's about the places, not about the density.
SIOBHAN: More than half the world's population now lives in cities, we're now using technology to think about our cities differently, what makes you excited when you think about the future of cities?
DEBORAH: Aye-aye-aye! Excited? I mean, when you talk about all of the technology… I’m not a technology buff. One of the things I find frustrating about some types of technology is its impact on people. Everyone sits on the bus with a iPod or a phone and you no longer talk to each other.
So the future of cities needs to get beyond that – we need to get rid of all that IT stuff which consumes our attention... It may be in the background, but hopefully it won’t be long before we can start talking to each other again. You’ll be able to sit down on the bus and have a chat to the person sitting next to you, instead of sitting next to someone who is ‘linked up’ somewhere else.
So I'm waiting for the day when we move beyond some of that IT electronic stuff, beyond it. There is something really special about the opportunity to talk to a person instead of talking to a machine.
SIOBHAN: Deb, I really enjoyed talking to you tonight. It's been really wonderful chatting to you and understanding about the things that make you tick. I've known you for a really long time, and you've given me great opportunities, and it's really lovely to hear more about your stories tonight. So thank you for joining us on Out the Front.
DEBORAH: Thank you very much, Siobhan.
Interview: Siobhan Toohill
Photography: Dean Sewell
Producer: Adrian Wiggins
Art direction: Sara Jinga
Transcript: Fiona Wright
This interview has been proudly sponsored by
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews