Top Australian urban designers and landscape architects T.C.L might best be described as visionaries — leveraging their design smarts to uplift natural and built environments, creating ‘landmark’ destinations that unify local communities with nearby amenities.

From T.C.L’s clever reimagining of Western Australia’s Scarborough Foreshore to South Australia’s Adelaide Botanic Gardens’ Wetland, the team has well and truly cemented its position as the ‘go-to’ studio for conceiving and realising ‘big-picture’ thinking.

Now, T.C.L has the south-east firmly in its sights. The practice’s Brisbane studio is headed up by Deb Robbins. She has more than 25years’ experience across all public-realm typologies and has played key roles on the urban design and masterplans of major city-infrastructure and precinct projects.

Deb believes Brisbane’s waterways could be the key to unlocking innovative ways to unify the city and encourage locals and visitors to better engage with its subtropical beauty. She admits the work has already begun: The Brisbane River serves as a compelling prototype of sorts — illuminating how natural bodies of water can be used as connecting devices. Deb describes the city’s “river resurgence”, over the last 20 years, as positively impacting how people live, work and commute.

“People now have daily interactions with the river,” Deb says. Riverside walking, cycling and running have become popular pastimes. Meanwhile, Brisbane’s bridges work well to connect northern and southern commuters with the city’s beating heart.

QUT Pedestrian Spine

But more can be done …

Deb says other parts of Brisbane’s waterways are yet to be leveraged to full effect. Many locals might be unaware the city actually comprises close to 40 major creek catchments that may well be Brisbane’s quiet achievers.

“We have a wonderful untapped resource within our creek catchments’ system,” Deb says. “Due to their locations and innate beauty, creek catchments have the potential to become powerful connectors — that draw people down to our waterways and up to surrounding amenities.

“I’d love to see our city adopt a series of ‘catchment corridors’(consisting of boardwalks and permeable pavements) that entice people to engage with their local waterways via ‘greener’ commutes to nearby workplaces, schools and local communities,” she says.

T.C.L has an impressive track record of fortifying the futures of unloved Australian and New Zealand waterways. Back in 2010, they served as Principal Consultants for the first stage of the Auckland Waterfront redevelopment (which went on to win the 2012 Washington Waterfront Center Annual Honor Award). Here, T.C.L designed and documented plans for the precinct’s promenades, parks, gardens and other recreational facilities — enticing the community to embrace the site — and serving as a catalyst for further retail and commercial development. More than a decade on, this mixed-use precinct is still a major attraction for locals and tourists.

T.C.L’s Managing Director Perry Lethlean, who worked on the NZ waterfront project and today collaborates with Deb on Brisbane initiatives, charts the evolution of how cities engage with their waterways: “For centuries, cities have been attracted to bodies of water for their trade and resources.” Perry adds that importantly Traditional Owners often describe the critical role waterways have as living entities and as places for ceremony, gathering and resources.

Fast forward to this century, when many of our waterways and waterfronts became laden with hard infrastructure — becoming more and more engineered as purely conveyances of water. But, according to Perry, a welcome change has emerged.

“Thankfully, we’re now reframing the role of waterfronts and waterways as fantastic places of connection,” Perry says. “They have the power to be a city’s ‘front door’, where people come together to experience all of their beautiful sensory qualities and as a setting for new ecologies, play and community.”

Auckland Waterfront Silo Park

Could a series of catchment corridors transform the ‘river city’?

According to Deb, restoring, connecting and activating Brisbane’s catchment system has a myriad of benefits. People’s wellbeing is chief among them. Deb points to evidence that supports the belief that our wellbeing improves when we engage with nature. “The corridors could give people a vital ‘green hit’, as they walk along the water’s edge, observe the local wildlife and take in some gentle exercise,” Deb says.

Regenerative steps, like increased planting around catchment sites, can also spark increased habitat movement through urban areas. “This movement enriches biodiversity in a way that benefits local wildlife,” Deb says. Think possums, wallabies, koalas and birds making use of a much broader patch for feeding and mating. According to Deb, Working with Country, and drawing upon the insights of First Nations people, is also essential to ensuring regeneration is done in such a way that complements Brisbane’s local ecology.

These catchment corridors also have the potential to generate employment opportunities. New cafes and/or other small hospitality businesses could capitalise on the influx of people embracing creeks’ edges — providing a welcome retreat/refreshment at the end of sojourns along the water.

Deb also suggests maintenance of catchment corridors could bolster local employment. “To supplement voluntary community catchment groups, a cohort of Creek Rangers could be established to help maintain the sites. “We need more well-trained land carers in the urban realm,” Deb says.

Pilot program

Realising a concept like catchment corridors could be years, possibly decades, in the making. Suffice to say, such big and bold ideas require a pilot program. Deb suggests locations near Olympic Games’ precincts could be the ideal starting point. Some are already underway and Deb hopes more will follow.

“Imagine having catchment corridors that gave people an alternative commute to events — one that gets them out into nature and walking along waterways that deliver them to the base of a major Olympic precinct!” Deb says.

Sounds like a gold-medal idea.