Sharing Urban Wisdom

Barnaby Bennett talks matters urban with Dr Elizabeth Farrelly. Both are speaking at the 2018 Urbanism New Zealand Conference. To register

A Remarkable Career

Elizabeth Farrelly has had a remarkable career. She has been a designer, Adjunct Associate Professor, Sydney City Councillor, and is the author of six books. To say she is award-winning is something of an understatement with an array of celebrated acknowledgements that starts early in her career and continues unabated. Along the way she’s earned a PhD, received design excellence and teaching awards, and the Marion Mahony Griffin Prize. More recently Farrelly has taken on the role of being a Weekly op-ed columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and is one of the few prominent commentators in Australia that talks intelligently about design, public space, cities and architecture. Farrelly is a long-term resident, and scholar, of Sydney and returns to her homeland for the upcoming Urbanism New Zealand conference.

Sharing Wisdom

As New Zealand embarks on one of the most substantial housing and transportation construction periods in its history, it’s an appropriate moment for Farrelly to share her wisdom about Australia cities and how NZ might learn from their mistakes and successes. I recently sat down with Elizabeth and talked about cities, walking, and the dangers of utilitarian solutions.

Walking Through Cities

It’s clear when talking to Farrelly about cities that she experiences them, and prioritises the experience of them, as a pedestrian, as someone that loves walking through cities, a Flaneur. Her diagnoses of the problems of cities in relation to complex issues such as heritage, development, transport are imbued with this notion of walking. This isn’t the contemporary science of walkability, but a more productive notion of cities as places that create moments that surprise, reveal, and fulfil the people that live there. It’s evident in her various roles that she has always resisted the temptation to treat cities simply, and so her notions of surprise, delight and the creation of meaning through experiences of space have not become romanticised, translated into dumb rules or treated with lost nostalgia. Rather through her actions as a councillor in implementing protections for laneways, and as part of generating sophisticated planning rules, and through her regular teaching and writing, she has reminded the city that these more poetic and cultural experiences of cities are at the core of urbanism, not an accidental benefit.

Protection of Public Interest

The central thread that Farrelly kept returning turned to in our conversation was the question of how to best protect this rich and complex notion of ‘public interest’. Her current interest is in arguing for the city to be understood ‘as an animal with symbolic resonance for people’. As something that is ‘representative of identity’, in the sense that it gives meaning to the people that live within it. This is a notion that she thinks has been abandoned as we instead buy into 20th-century ideas about ‘the city as a machine’ in which ‘a utilitarian approach has become the dominant paradigm’. There is a tricky balancing act between addressing the failures of the city and not destroying the village to save the village. The warnings for a government intent on fixing contemporary problems in NZ cities couldn’t be clearer.


Dr Elizabeth Farrelly and Barnaby Bennett are both speaking at the 2018 Urbanism New Zealand Conference 14 to 15 May in Wellington. For more info

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