Book review: Connecting People, Place and Design

reviewed by Stephen Muecke

19 May 2021, 1:13 p.m.
Stephen Muecke

Connecting People Place and Design book cover

Book review: Connecting People, Place and Design

by Angelique Edmonds and reviewed by Stephen Muecke

Bristol: Intellect Books, 2020; 209 pp.: 978-1-78938-132-0, £65.00 (hbk)


Angelique Edmonds’Connecting People, Place and Design will be of interest to readers of Urban Studies who are familiar with initiatives such as London’s ‘Every One Every Day’ for the Participatory City Foundation. Such projects are democratising in that they take the wellbeing of the community to be a primary consideration in urban design and the participation of this community is built into the design structure, extending potentially to the inclusion of non-human life as a part of this democracy of things and people.

The book is set mostly in Australia, where the author’s Adelaide base is the setting for her teaching and consulting in urban design. It is a wide-ranging essay that does not shy away from foundational and philosophical considerations of human relationships with place. Grounded in the Western tradition, from Heidegger through to Edward Casey, it then explores how that conceptual architecture has changed and evolved in its significance over time. It includes some experiments on how to open conceptions of urban spaces for greater human participation, with techniques for shaping everyday urban places. Divided into three parts – place, people and participation – this book engages broadly with the fields of architecture, design, geography, cultural studies and philosophy.

Part I, on place, considers the cultural, political and philosophical shifts in our historical relationship to place, and it includes an analysis of the neolithic site at Avebury in Wiltshire, UK, in terms of how contemporary tourist rituals relate to and transform an ancient heritage. Part II, on people, considers movement and migration and how it structures human attachment to place. Part III, on participation, examines forms of public engagement and cultural systems for collaborative contribution to the design and creation of place. Improving people’s relationships with place requires connection and in Connecting People, Place and Design, Edmonds demonstrates the importance of renewing connection by having a conceptual architecture and a set of practices working together to nurture and sustain places.

Adelaide, South Australia, is sometimes dubbed ‘the Athens of the South’, with its Mediterranean climate and its neoclassical architecture. It was designed initially for a settler class of Europeans arriving with imperialising confidence in the 1830s. But it is also Kaurna Yerta, the country of the Aboriginal people, who were ejected from the city by the invaders and subsequently excluded from participation in the economy, except as base labour. A century later, post-war immigration saw many Greeks and Italians arrive, and more recently students from Asia and refugees. Congratulating itself on its tolerance of others, this ‘white nation’ (Ghassan Hage’s (1998) phrase) still defends its right to control the agenda, and these others can never forget that the places they move through are not ‘naturally’ theirs. For example, visual difference can provoke the non-reciprocal question, ‘where are you from?’, from white people thinking they are just asking a polite question.

This work is in the trajectory of Ash Amin, whom Edmonds quotes as saying ‘the city’s public spaces are not natural servants of multicultural engagement’ (p. 183). But then she sets about experimenting with new configurations of public space that might help ‘correct’ this hegemonic design. One such experiment in Adelaide was ‘My Story My City’, a project for newly arrived young migrants or refugees. Facilitated by Edmonds and artist Peter Drew, it encouraged school children to produce artworks that described ‘their fondest memories from their homeland and their dearest aspirations for their future’ in Adelaide. It was a great success in that it showed them that space and place are not just a kind of immutable white status quo but are actually open to their feelings and their modifications. This ethos is explicitly coded in Edmonds’ major concepts for her book, place, people and participation, thus pushing urban studies and urban design to include affectively loaded concepts such as generosity, inclusion and potential. She underscores the principle that art and design are key to showing how ‘public feelings’ (Stewart, 2007) construct a viable commons – drawing on Le Danec’s (2016)Designing Publics– much more than a punitive corporate austerity possibly can.

But the Australian material affords the opportunity for a deeper engagement with interesting Aboriginal conceptions of place in this book, something to which Edmonds constantly returns. This major contrast with ‘Western’ thinking is able to offer material to think with, in an anthropological mode, and she is thus able to offer new perspectives to the field of urban design, working from the ground up, a ground that includes the deep history of these two main traditions, European and Aboriginal, that converge and sometimes clash in Australia. A few years ago, her doctoral work had taken her to the Roper River region in the Northern Territory. She knew through her preparatory anthropological reading that it is well-established that place (much more than time) is a central concept in Aboriginal philosophies that have persisted for 60,000 years. For these cultures, Country (now capitalised for political reasons, referring to ancestral territories that still claim sovereignty) is alive, and non-humans (plants, animals, rocks) play active roles in giving places their rich meanings and, ultimately, laws. Humans are inalienably connected, and the complex kinship system spells out just how they belong to each other and to the non-humans to whom they are attached. Society includes all these others, so care and responsibility for keeping all things alive flow from these relationships. Edmonds moves on to contrast this kind of system with the modernist one invented much later in Europe. The Enlightenment had the bright idea of making humans exceptional and divided from what they came to call Nature. That domain was redefined as resources, as alienable property – both concepts conducive to extraction and accumulation in the economic system that accelerated modernisation to such an extent that it seemed to transcend place, to the ‘global’ stage where we now find ourselves or did until recently. We forgot where we were, or should be: ‘down to Earth’, as Bruno Latour (2018) says.

While climate change and COVID-19 are forcing this argument upon us, so is Edmonds in the context of urban environments. For cities are where most of us live, and they need to be redesigned, not just multiculturally but with the multiple ontologies that make places rich and liveable. There are many such expansive ideas in Edmonds’ book, but let us take another concrete example, another Adelaide project that was dubbed 5000+. It was about ‘city re-design, and city renewal for inner Adelaide’ and took place with funding from all levels of government. Being design-led, it was about ‘public engagement’ and ‘strategic creative alliances’. In other words, unlike classically modernist urban planning where relatively uniform ideas were imposed from above with Corbusier-like aerial vision, this was about on-the-ground and ongoing engagement and process. There were dozens of public events, for instance including children, the ‘indicator species’ who will inherit the city but who, as children, use space differently. 5000+ gave them the chance to ‘stretch their imagination and be responsible for adding something to the world’.

Edmonds is certainly well aware that it is those with the capital who have the ultimate say about what is built but she also refuses, through her participatory ethos, to allow that they are the only ones with something to contribute. The system that allies government planning with developer capital always has hesitations and gaps through which potential can flow. For example, with the COVID-19 pandemic we are seeing just how fragile this system can be as it is brought to its knees by an invasive, tiny, non-human species. Asking different humans (and even non-humans, who are not just externalities) to find ways of living together, to describe their concerns and what matters to them, is part of the ongoing process of designing a future together. In her book, Edmonds has set out a very useful way to do this and the book even concludes with a series of principles, making it an excellent urban planner’s guidebook to participatory community-based work.


Hage, G (1998) White Nation. Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press.
Google Scholar
Latour, B (2018) Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Google Scholar
Le Danec, C (2016) Designing Publics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Google Scholar | Crossref
Stewart, K (2007) Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Google Scholar | Crossref


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