The NUDF08 organisers wondered (and hoped) that there would be enthusiasm for the theme, and that the benefits would far outweigh any difficulties of logistics of small town conferencing. The long shot paid off. Both the attendees and the town will enjoy the lasting benefits.
A walking conference
A “walking conference,” NUDF08 addressed issues in an environment that was the subject of the conference itself – so participants could observe, experience, and engage with a country town, its environment and people while discussing these issues.
It is no secret that, with drought, reductions in rural employment, petrol pricing uncertainties and lack of public transport options, many bush towns are struggling. Nathalia, as the host town, has had the lowest rainfall of any town in Victoria in recent years, yet has managed, through a number of strategies, to not only survive but to remain proactive and optimistic.
The session topics helped set the scene: “So you reckon you’re small”, “It’s a question of scale,” “Community initiatives” ,“Art/Landscape/Culture”, “Is the economy stupid?”, and “Getting it all together.” With enthusiasm and wonderful imagery, presenters carefully took us through a range of projects that varied in scale from those the size of villages, to small towns, to regional centres.
Learning about urban design in rural towns
We learned: how planners, landscape architects and artists need to look and act with particular care when working in rural towns; how they have to be mindful of local histories and contexts and the changing demographics of rural centres; plan in ways that capitalize on existing assets; identify human resources and capacities; understand the community and its aspirations; let the story of community be told; seek to respect indigenous culture in the process; expand the role of creativity and arts in rural centres; create images through art and landscape that have local cultural resonance – and always plan with sustainability in mind. It was quite an agenda!
In the midst of all this dialogue there was room for local art, local foods and wines, a campfire barbeque with a traditional bush balladeer, music by a classical string trio, and the “Famous Forum Dinner” – where local culture and stories were sheeted home by Nathalia’s bush poet and yarn spinner, Tammy Muir.
With this as a backdrop, the ‘business end of proceedings’ was remarkable for the wonderful and passionate presentations (articles in this edition of UDF and the next edition) that showed the commitment, energy and achievements in a large number of rural projects, as well as the future possibilities in environmentally sustainable design, economics and community development.
We were very fortunate to have the Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser AC, officially open the conference. He, with commitment and insight, addressed many of the key issues that we were to discuss over the weekend, and the last word here is his: “There is so much that needs to be done in urban design, whether it be in the city or in the country, and forums such as this are a wonderful part of the dialogue.”