Walgett, NSW. With a population of just over 2000 people, it's one of the most disadvantaged Indigenous communities in the state. And it's become what CEO of the Walgett Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC) Kelli Randell calls an "initiative town" – one that's suffered through repeated unsuccessful interventions aimed at solving its social problems.
As 20 UTS design students recently discovered, it takes more than good intentions to solve long-term disadvantage. The students, all in their second year of the Bachelor of Interior Architecture, spent a week in Walgett and the surrounding communities of Gingi and Namoi as part of the Mind the Gap subject, one of six design studios being run under the theme of "spatial agency".
The subject called on students to use design as a tool for social change. In a town like Walgett that meant developing design proposals that responded to issues of community and culture that were specific to the residents of the town.
"If we're going to redesign Walgett, we need to redesign it in a way that meets cultural values, that meets cultural practice and cultural needs," Randell says.
According to Campbell Drake, a senior lecturer in the UTS School of Design and the driving force behind the Mind the Gap project, the studios provide students with a first-hand experience of design as a collaborative process.
"The process looks at ways in which design and architecture can break down some of its more traditional hierarchies where things are designed from afar," Drake says.
"Instead, it's really familiarising students with the power of community buy-in, and to allow that to re-frame and position the act of design."
The studios also foster an important learning exchange between UTS Design students and Indigenous communities in NSW, which speaks to the broader UTS commitment to equip all UTS graduates with the capacity to work effectively with and for Indigenous Australians.
Prior to their visit to Walgett, students developed an initial design proposal informed by what they'd learned about Walgett's culture, geography, climate and politics, and from key Indigenous policy documents such as the Closing the Gap report. The proposals included a rooftop garden, a community fire pit, and an outdoor school.
The students then travelled to Walgett to place their designs in context, presenting them to local residents and gathering feedback to help them progress their work.
"Quite literally, they have the drawings on the ground in the space with community," Drake says.
The community feedback, coupled with the students' first-hand experience of life in Walgett, informed a revision and re-design process – some students altered their proposals, while others developed entirely new concepts, making them more responsive to the community's immediate needs.
"What we've found with the UTS team is that that they actually gave our people that little bit of hope that there might be the opportunity to get it done their way – the way that they know will help them to advance and progress and improve," Randell says.
Student Harriette Poiner, who scrapped her initial concept for a new recreation centre in favour of a bridge to link Namoi residents to existing facilities in Walgett, says the course opened her eyes to the importance of collaboration as key to effective design.
"The communities were eager to contribute to our design process, which helped ensure a culturally sensitive design approach," she says.
"The opportunity to apply the skills we are learning in a real environment, that could possibly change the lives of the people within it, was an invaluable experience."
A group from Walgett, including members of the LALC and a number of local students, will travel to UTS in November to view a presentation of the final designs.