• P.O.V
  • By Emma Brain
  • Leverage


In an article first published in Leverage, TF.A's Andrew Broffman and Kieran Wong grapple with the shortcomings of current community engagement practices and suggest an alternative approach using the principles of critical cartography.

There is a lot spoken of ‘co-design’ processes and the importance of ensuring that community has a voice in projects, processes and systems that ultimately affect communities in myriad ways – ‘nothing about us, without us‘ has become an important mantra. As architects and designers, we have also promoted the notion of community voice in the development of infrastructure. But have we done enough to create genuine dialogue – a conversation between two parties where each gain understanding and insight?

Co-design processes now take many forms, from game-play, collective writing onto ‘sticky notes’, or via the use of Play-Doh to allow people to express their creativity and describe their imagined futures. These techniques are decidedly optimistic – imagining a brighter horizon, one with a new skate park, or a new drug and alcohol program, or an upgraded community centre. The projects are motivated by the perceived need to repair, fix or regenerate something in community.

But is this optimism a fantasy?


Crucial and foundational decisions are often made well in advance of the first piece of modelling clay being warmed in the hands of an eager participant.

These ‘upstream’ decisions could include the building location, its functional requirements, operational model and program governance. And if/when a formal process of community consultation and co-design occurs, the ability of participants to genuinely be involved and to make meaningful and knowledgeable decisions is effectively constrained.

What motivates funders and governments to implement a co-design process? Is it to simply refine and gain support for their own design and infrastructure formulations? The choice to even have such processes is often made without community involvement, and the design of the process done in such a way as to limit the opportunities, instead ‘focusing’ the attention of the audience on a defined set of questions and parameters.

Focusing on the ‘issues that matter’ to governments limits the possibilities for dialogue with community. Key community members are invited to participate in co-design workshops or ‘charrettes’ with limited preparation, resources or tools. The co-design framework has already been established to support the requirements of the funders or facilitators, but does little to promote community agency.

Think again of the game pieces, the plasticine models, and the post-it notes that are collated and simplified, until a ‘consensus’ is built  by moving away from the complex, overlapping and messy contradictions of real life towards an agreed and unified statement or vison depicted with pleasing arrows, bubbles and colours signifying future possibility.

In this scenario the role of the facilitator is to ensure that ‘deliverables’ are achieved by meeting’s end. The words, scribbles, notes, complex and sometime ambiguous notions are all ‘distilled’ and ‘synthesised’ into a series of readily re-workable ideas, vague enough to ensure that any changes that will be required due to technical limitations or further design development will still be able to play back against the ‘co-designed community narrative’, creating the illusion that the voices of the community are embedded within the design.

These methods can be fun and engaging, but they rely on culturally specific signs and symbols to encourage participation. These tools – an ill fit when language difference and lived experience are considered – are designed to suit limited time frames and according to pre-arranged agendas. What they lack, above all, is uncertainty, ambiguity, inclusivity and possibility.

Co-design, then, has become shorthand for gaining support for processes and projects that ultimately limit the scope of interaction and outcome. It is hard to imagine a co-design workshop where the decision was made to abandon the project, or to proceed without the original proponent.

We might liken this to a modern car engine where the owner and driver is only able to add water to the wipers and (perhaps) check the oil level. Everything else is shrouded in smooth grey plastic, obscured from view, unable to be understood or repaired except by technicians and experts.

Infrastructure Literacy

How can we reimagine this process, one in which outcomes are not pre-determined, where the parties meet on equal footing, and in which the messiness of life is embraced?

As designers we have facilitated co-design processes that have sometimes failed to capture the complexities of people’s lives. Until recently we have been using the term ‘infrastructure literacy’ to try and describe better processes of engagement. But this, too, may be wanting. It suggests an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic in which the designers dispense knowledge while community merely receives. What we wish to describe, instead, is a two-way learning process that aims to support community agency and expand the thinking of technical experts with local knowledge of people and place.

This requires a new shared language to discuss infrastructure, one that vibrates between the technical and lived experience, but is neither one nor the other. Infrastructure literacy, described thus, might be this new language, and like any new language the aim is not necessarily fluency but rather communication and understanding. Critically, infrastructure literacy should enable co-design to be transparent, reciprocal and utilise tools and speech that are both familiar and imaginative to all participants.

EJ Holden which belonged to series creator Francis Jurpurrula Kelly
Production still: Bush Mechanics
EJ Holden which belonged to series creator Francis Jurpurrula Kelly

Co-design in this sense is more closely aligned to bush mechanics – getting stuff done with the tools at hand, but with a level of preparedness, invention, and a willingness to re-configure to the situation at hand.

A screwdriver, for example, might be used as a ground anchor for a ratchet strap to compress a coil spring. Francis Jupurrurla Kelly’s popular television series ‘Bush Mechanics’ took fans on a wild ride through bush ingenuity, using limited tools, re-purposed to ensure that the car kept moving and the band made it to the gig on time

Underpinning this ingenuity was the knowledge of how the car worked –the ‘bush mechanics’ knew what they could adapt and cut away while still allowing the car to drive. Without this literacy (the foundations of mechanical knowledge), adaptation to the problem at hand could have been a fool’s undertaking. How can we expect participants in infrastructure co-design workshops to make decisions, or have meaningful inputs on matters if they are not aware of the impacts of their cuts and modifications?

Rather than limiting co-design by a misguided notion that participants are not technically minded, the opportunity exists through ‘infrastructure literacy’ to generate a discussion over discovered compromises, celebrating the mess and blurriness of spaces and places containing real lives and lived changes, with facilitators having to adapt, learn new languages, rethink their expertise and widen their lens.

This letting go and opening up to other modes of seeing the world around us is extraordinarily difficult for professional designers to do. We have been trained to see, write, draw and talk in a confident, though limited manner; taught through school, university and workplaces as if it is the ‘right, logical and objective’ process.

And yet, there are other ways. Most recently we have started to explore the opportunities of ‘infrastructure literacy’ through what has come to be known as Critical Cartography or Counter Mapping.

Critical Cartography

As architects we are known for making buildings, yet when we talk about our work it is often the effects our buildings have (or we hope they have) that we lean on. We often conflate the building project with the community or client objective – strengthening family and community connections, or getting kids through school, or eliminating domestic violence, or fostering personal and collective well-being, or promoting political engagement, ending racism, creating livelihoods, or celebrating cultural diversity. These are challenging goals that do not so easily inhabit a building.

It is difficult for urban designers, architects, and landscape architects to imagine their efforts leading to anything other than a liveable city, an iconic building or a sublime landscape. We hope, of course, that these objects are invested with the aspirations of cohesive, engaged, productive and inclusive communities. But the impacts of the built environment are only revealed over time and across generations. We are an impatient bunch who want to see results now, so we look instead to measures such as ‘fit for purpose’ as a way of assessing our efforts. But this term, with its basis in consumer protection, is also deficient if we believe the built environment is more than something to be consumed

The value of design is not found solely in the objects that comprise the built environment, but in the very techniques we use to create it. How we shape, for example, the processes of community engagement and their relevance to community members may have the more lasting impacts on city shaping, building making, and landscape creationCritical Cartography (variously referred to as Counter-Mapping, Radical, or Alternative Cartography, and Community Mapping) has developed over recent decades as a provocative response to traditional methodologies used to understand human geography. Critical Cartography starts with the notion that mapping as both a process and physical (or digital) outcome is not value-free.

It is instead a political act, an exercise of the power and agency of those who 'make the map', who are empowered to choose what to look at and what to ignore.

Think of gerrymandering in the United States as an extreme example of power exerted on, and through map making. Or zoning maps that limit development to specific building types and sizes and fail to imagine alternative, fluid and more dynamic uses. By recognising this bias and by shifting agency from the ‘expert’ to the community, the more subtle contours of human geography are more fully revealed, and the progressive potential of mapping unlocked. Perhaps in this process we can come closer to engaging with Country, in a meaningful and complete manner.

Mapping Infrastructure Literacy

Critical cartography has developed creative alliances with arts practice, and it is at the intersection of surveying and art that a methodology of community engagement for designers of the built environment may emerge.

‘Position Doubtful’ is the metaphor artist and author Kim Mahood uses in her memoir of the same name to describe how white Australians have historically negotiated their way through remote Australia. Mahood’s book is a considered meditation on her own experience as an artist and a writer whose work is intimately woven with the lives of Aboriginal Australians living in the Western Desert. Her memoir’s subtitle, ‘mapping landscapes and memories’ foreshadows her integration of cartography and story-telling thorough art as a means of reaching a shared understanding of Country.

‘Position Doubtful’ is also a fitting description for how designers might approach community collaborations around the built environment. It suggests a posture of humility and a willingness to entertain uncertainty over clarity, accepting that one’s own position may be mis-placed, thereby making room for the place of others. From a position of doubt, Mahood suggests, a deeper understanding of Country and the connections between land, people, ecology and culture is possible.

Image by Kim Mahood in collaboration with UDLA
Cross-cultural map of UWA's Crawley Campus
Image by Kim Mahood in collaboration with UDLA

For the designer, the plan and map are fundamental tools for organising information. They are essential resources for establishing the principles of design thinking, and are therefore a natural place to explore engagement methodologies. The map typically delimits an area defined as the ‘site’. Once identified, the site is then analysed for solar access, prevailing winds, transportation links, pedestrian connections, environmental corridors, recreational nodes, development zones, heritage, and so forth. These elements are then inscribed on the map, establishing the constraints of design. The designer then exploits the gaps within these constraints to arrive at a design response. Within this analytical and linear process, there is a conceit of objectivity and rationality that lends veracity to the design, which itself assumes a truthful and logical relationship to the site analysis that has come before. The loop is neatly closed.

In working with communities, however, these maps and plans when used as tools of community engagement often fail to resonate with the lived experience of the community members themselves. This is partly due to the content of the map with its circles and arrows, dashed lines and shadings whose meanings are clear to the designer but often opaque to the community whose lives may be obscured by the technical overlay. Critical cartography suggests that embedded in the map’s folds and lines are competing agendas and geographies of power. A mapping of built heritage, for example, will describe the histories of some, but fail to acknowledge the lives of others whose stories may be hidden by a building’s ruins

Another reason these engagement tools may fail to recognise the diversity of community interest is in the techniques that are used to ostensibly elicit public participation. Shannon Mattern, in her critical review of community engagement methods used by Google subsidiary Skywalk Labs in their Smart City project in Toronto, argues that ‘Participation is now deployed as part of a public performance wherein the aesthetics of collaboration signify democratic process, without always providing the real thing’ (Mattern, 2020).

Mattern describes the kinds of ‘maps, models and games,’ noted above that are used to evoke community feedback, but she questions their efficacy. She points, instead, to critical cartography as a way of framing co-design and community collaboration, citing, for example, Rhiannon Firth’s work in a South London community. Firth’s examination of the community centre’s map archive uncovered a rich collection of maps that she classified as geopolitical maps, collective walks and radical history trails, art maps, practical maps and immanent utopias, affective cartographies, and affinity maps. These maps describe resistance movements, fossil fuel supply chains, working class oral histories, locations of edible plants, alternative tourist destinations, and maps of friendships. ‘Critical cartography,’ Firth suggests, ‘thus provides alternatives to disembodied, abstract practices of dominant geographic knowledge through the perspective of embodied experience’ (Firth, 2014).

The practice of community mapping through the technique of, for example, ‘Transect Walks’ addresses this question of power and knowledge in planning and infrastructure development. A transect map is developed by literally walking through a community (sometimes over several hours, or even days) with a range of community members and technical experts, each observing, commenting and recording on the map the infrastructure issues facing a community.

These maps, like Firth’s community centre archive, are grounded in community knowledge, and offer clues to an engagement model that combines mapping with art. As Firth notes elsewhere, ‘maps need not be drawn on paper, nor need they be two-dimensional. Indigenous practices show possibilities for mapping such as textile pattern weaving, orally narrated storytelling and mythological maps, or maps that communicate using notches in sticks’ (Firth, 2015).

The Art of Co-Design

In 2011 a group of CSIRO scientists, artists and Mulan community members came together at Paruku (Lake Gregory) in Walmajarri Country on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert to collaborate across scientific and cultural knowledge of Country. IMAGE The record of that experience, Desert Lake, describes the challenges and successes of working collaboratively to map a shared understanding of place. Among those present was Kim Mahood who noted a key challenge: ‘We needed a means of recording both kinds of knowledge that didn’t compromise either. The template of a painted topographic map provided common ground, and could be read easily by both Aboriginal people and kartiya’ (Morton, 2013).

Conversations about the ecology of Paruku and its embedded cultural knowledge occurred over a map that was painted at a large scale on canvas by Walmajarri people, with enough accuracy to satisfy CSIRO’s scientific requirements while allowing for significant places and stories to be inscribed as well.

Like the bush mechanic, the critical cartographer can adapt, remake, and re-use fragments of existing maps in creative and collaborative ways that tell stories of people and Country. These maps comfortably contain, side by side, technical detail and cultural knowledge, heritage and future possibility.

There is an optimism to the urban designer, the architect and the landscape architect that is compelling. We seek to fix and to change, and our work is located in both the here and now and in the future. There is a utopian element to critical cartography as well, and what we have called ‘infrastructure literacy’. Kim Mahood reminds us, however, that, ‘what drives me is not a desire to help, to fix or change, but to understand something about my country’ (Mahood, 2016). As design professionals, if we were to simply start with an understanding of place, the more ambitious changes may follow.


  • Crampton, Jeremy, and John Krygier. 1. “An Introduction to Critical Cartography”. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 4 (1), 11-33. (https://www.acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/723)

  • Firth, Rhiannon, “Critical Cartography,” The Occupied Times, April 23 2015. https://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=13771

  • Firth, Rhiannon, “Critical cartography as anarchist pedagogy? Ideas for praxis inspired by the 56a infoshop map archive,” in Interface: a journal for and about social movements, Volume 6 (1): 156 – 184, May 2014.

  • Mahood, Kim, Position Doubtful: mapping landscapes and memories, Scribe Publications, Victoria, 2016.

  • Mahood, Kim, “Why The Martu Don’t Need A Map,” in We Don’t Need A Map, exhibition catalogue, Fremantle Arts Centre, 2013

  • Mattern, Shannon, “Post-It Note City,” in Places Journal, February 2020. (https://placesjournal.org/article/post-it-note-city)

  • Morton, Steve et al, Desert Lake: Art, Science and Stories from Paruku, CSIRO, 2013.

Articles / Blog

  • Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) illustrated by Elizabeth Gould (1804–1841) for John Gould’s (1804-1881) Birds of Australia (1972 Edition, 8 volumes). Digitally enhanced from our own facsimile book (1972 Edition, 8 volumes).

    13 May, 2021

    Natural Ingredients

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • Photo by Todd Delfs, LVF Visuals

    29 Apr, 2021

    A Taste of Home

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • Image: Zan Wimberley

    15 Apr, 2021

    Colour Shift

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • Image: Rob Frith

    12 Apr, 2021

    Pippa Hurst on Leverage

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • 06 Apr, 2021

    In conversation: David Cain + Kieran Wong

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • The site recommended for the (as yet unbuilt) National Aboriginal Art Gallery was the Desert Park precinct of Mparntwe (Alice Springs), at the foot of the ranges rising to Alhekulyele (Mount Gillen).

    25 Mar, 2021

    Indigenizing Practice: Patronage and Peril

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • Pete Stone

    18 Mar, 2021

    Pete Stone on Leverage

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • 08 Mar, 2021

    IWD 2021: what to say?

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • Think early Eighties film clip, overlapping images, multiple perspectives viewed simultaneously - as if you were watching a film and watching its cast and crew creating the film at the same time. 
Throughout the production, director Tim Watts intrudes and comments on proceedings, sometimes seen by the characters, sometimes unobserved - part narrator, part psychopomp. If he ever turn up at one of your parties, run for the hills. The highest local hill you can find. 
- Artshub.com.au, 2019

    02 Mar, 2021

    Gathering Hunters

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • 18 Feb, 2021

    Gemma Hohnen on Leverage

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • 15 Feb, 2021

    Alan Pigram reflects on his summer internship

    By Emma Brain

    Read More

  • Founding Principal, MASS Design Group

    11 Feb, 2021

    Kieran Wong in conversation with Alan Ricks

    By Emma Brain

    Read More