Finn Jones was recently appointed National Design Director of Place Design Group, an international planning and design consultancy with offices across Australia, China and South East Asia.

With more than 20 years experience in urban development, including chair of the Australian Institute of Architects Gold Coast Region for over eight years, Jones believes in identifying 'places' for individuals and creating communities to reinforce each city's unique opportunities. 

Architecture and Design spoke to him about the current challenges urban designers face, human centred designs and the unique opportunities on the Gold Coast.

What is the greatest challenge for urban designers these days?

I think it is relevance, or at least authenticity. So much of the ‘urban design’ we see – whether it be policy (assumption of standardised best practise), proposition, or implementation – is based on “universal” principles that deliver standardised outcomes devoid of critical engagement with people, place, culture, and time. Each neighbourhood, new town, or city is reading from the same 'playbook’ and recycling the same rhetoric. There are sound principles, but the lack of exploration, rigour, and critical engagement is leading us down a path of 'sameness’ that overlooks the value of individuality.

You focus on human centred designs for optimised urban centres. Do you think this is an approach that is taken in the industry?

There are always different approaches, subtleties, theories, or as in my case, infatuations. My preoccupation with the human condition, especially spatial intelligence and psyche, is the driver of my thinking and yardstick for my problem solving.

For me, ongoing urbanity must reveal a new custodianship of space where the urban fabric is actually a product of our spatial intelligence and provides for each and every one of us the prospect and refuge that we so desperately need, rather than just the programmed distraction of activity in town centre streets and corner plazas for more pedestrian space.

You've said that each city has unique opportunities. What unique urban opportunities are there on the Gold Coast at the moment?

The City of Gold Coast has always offered a very unique urban opportunity – a sub-tropical coastal development zone wedged idyllically along a narrow corridor between the Indian Ocean and Hinterland mountain range. It is a city that has always leveraged its unique natural assets and developed typologies that respond to the ways people dreamed and aspired to live on the coastal edge.

The city’s critical mass and maturity is driving opportunities for inland and indeed coastal redevelopment. There are countless disconnected and irregular suburban neighbourhoods between the coastal edge and the rural west of the foothills that can be repaired and invigorated with new typologies.

The city’s “Green Heart” bisects some of these neighbourhoods and presents as an immense untapped resource for high-quality living adjacent and connected to a vast natural open ‘green’ reserve that is connected to urban centres. The inland redevelopment opportunities most probably offer the city a chance to once again demonstrate bravery, embrace spatial intelligence, and experiment with new multivalent typologies that leverage the ‘green’ behind the ‘gold.’ 

The investment in public space infrastructure (light rail, world class foreshore and parks), along with the forthcoming Commonwealth Games (including legacy projects) is also driving a new wave of urban infill along the coastal edge, the likes of which the city has not seen before, but one that hopefully continues a unique urban fabric that is reflective of those aspirations and dreams of the city’s residents. These infill opportunities are simply very different to any other place that I can think of and require a new way of thinking.

How does that differ from opportunities on, say, the Sunshine Coast?

In some ways both 'Coasts,’ and indeed many coastal urban centres, share the opportunities that can be delivered by leveraging the critical relationship between ocean and hinterland. The Gold Coast is a high-rise city. The formative and most visible urban fabric was the coastal edge experiments with high-rise; delivering slender towers in landscape resort settings. The city expanded, starting with the inland canal estates and continued with increasingly disconnected and irregular suburban subdivision sprawl. 

The juxtaposition of the coastal and inland urban makeup, in itself, creates certain opportunities. The willingness of the city to embrace high-rise and understand the wider benefits of compact, high-density, vertical living including access to space both at ground and podium levels as well as in the air (views and visual connection to other parts of the city), means that there are unique opportunities for urbanity.

You uncover the needs, behaviours, and desires that support people in urbanisation. How do you strike the balance of taking the community needs into account, but also balancing the client's needs?

I have never had much issue with achieving this balance. I think the key is in strategic design - that is, identifying the problem or opportunity that exists. It is the rigour of this process that unveils how each project can leverage greater opportunity based on enhancing the urban fabric (empathetically) for the benefit of community and residents. Helping both the client and community understand the opportunities is obviously a big part of the solution.

Your career spans 20 years. Do you have one career goal that you're yet to achieve?

I have always coveted a role with the UN. At times it has felt like the furthest thing from my reality, but I think my aspirations and altruism have directed my career thus far and in some way I feel as if I’m doing the type of work I aspire to do for the UN. As Steve Jobs said “you can’t join the dots forward” but perhaps my early dreams of UN service have influenced what has at times seemed like haphazard professional meandering. It is the journey first I guess.

I am still so driven to contribute to and highlight the need for urban solutions that are a product of our spatial intelligence and sympathetic to the psychological and well-being need of humans and humanity as a whole. How do we provide for the needs and betterment of the individual in global urbanisation, especially when the focus is consistently diluted to simply accommodating all of the human collateral whilst keeping them distracted on invasive, active street frontages?