Maitland pop-up library. NSW. Photograph courtesy of Maitland City Council.

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Maitland Map. NSW. Photograph courtesy of Maitland City Council.

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Maitland pop-up library. NSW. Photograph courtesy of Maitland City Council.

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Maitland local government area is located in the lower Hunter region of New South Wales. With the Hunter River winding its way through the city, the area is made up of a number of unique suburban and rural communities of scenic beauty and historic significance. Nearly 70,000 residents live across these town centres, rural areas and growing suburbs, with the population expected to grow to 90, 000 by 2023.

Council has committed to a people centric, rather than a solely infrastructure focused approach to activating public spaces, that hopes to respond to the unique local context, creating a positive, active environment that invigorates economic and cultural life.

One of the first steps to enabling a vibrant Maitland with a strong sense of place has been the development of the Maitland Place Activation Strategy (MPAS). This new strategic framework aims to define place activation for Maitland and guide Council’s decision making around future place activation practices, both internally and for the wider community. The first step in the development of the MPAS was community engagement.


In understanding that successful place activation and places occurs around strong community participation and ownership, it was integral to establish strong participation from the very beginning though the implementation of an interactive and innovative ‘consulting by doing approach’ to engagement. In addition to traditional consultation methods, ‘place orientated’ methods were used to gather stories, ideas and reflections on place. The process aimed to:

·        Excite and inspire the community

·        Communicate Council’s intent for place activation

·        Build community ownership of place activation and strengthen partnerships

·        Explore community stories, memories and experiences as well as the many aspirations, priorities and ideas for place activation in Maitland.

Focussing on taking the consultation to the people and into the public domain encouraged hands on participation and in situ reflections.

Site Walks – Place Assessments: Key stakeholders and community identities were invited to attend a walk around their local area. The site walks reflected on key place activation themes including uses and activities, image and wellbeing, access and linkages and sociability. They were unique and on the ground insights that allowed many participants to see the streets in a new light. Participants talked about seeing the street from a new perspective and learning new things about the place they live. One young participant spoke how it gave her a new appreciation for her town and the opportunities that exist within it, she commented “It was a great experience to learn about my town and it helped to actually be there and see the places in front of you”.

‘I’m an Activation’ roadshow: A number of activations were rolled out across various locations with the purpose of communicating the many possibilities for place activation and inspire people passing by to participate in providing their own thoughts. Activations included live musical performances, pop up libraries, magicians, a pop up produce market and mobile coffee van. A sample of simple, fun and engaging activations was a way to show the community how easy it can be to enliven the streets. The diverse sample was designed and located to draw on the different types of people and interests across the LGA, pop up story time at the library focussed on drawing in families and children, whilst the live acoustic music was situated near a local teenage hang out. The roadshow also proved to be a testing ground for what kind of temporary activations would be well received.

Black Dot conversation starters: Across key public sites, giant circular blackboards were set up asking ‘what would bring this space to life?’ and ‘what would you like to be doing here?’. People were free to fill the space with ideas written with chalk. The boards were up for a week and targeted users of the space they were located, ranging from train stations, parks and shopfronts. At the end of the display time the boards were filled with creative community ideas and feedback on the space. The target group were those who may not normally participate in other engagement formal activities, but who could anonymously leave their thoughts.

We also hoped that this would spark conversations between people who may agree or disagree with what was already written down. These ‘virtual’ conversations were evident with people commenting on other ideas on the board. The activity generated hundreds of ideas and although it is unclear exactly who was providing input, we were able to gain valuable insights into the vision the users of the space had for that specific space. The unstructured nature of this method also enabled community to provide feedback on a range of broader Council issues, outside the scope of the project, and provided insights into potential ways for broader Council engagement could be delivered.  

Experience Mapping activation: A giant map of Maitland was set up in shopping spaces and on footpaths. The community could walk on the map, identify places that were special to them and mark places that they would like to see revitalised. Each session begun with people being curious and slowing to read the map, children were drawn to the game like nature and were able to follow roads and find their home. As the sessions progressed the map filled with colourful dots that represented each person’s idea, this drew even more people to the map as their curiosity led them to see what was written by others. Some were looking for more physical changes like community gardens, seating and creative lighting, others wanted creative projects like street art, heritage interpretation and many were looking for creative economic projects like markets and food trucks.

Each of these methods allowed the community to interact with the idea of place activation and allowed the engagement process to move away from the traditional confines of formal workshops or surveys. By taking the consultation to the streets, parks and laneways the Council was able to build excitement for new possibilities, engage with those outside of ‘the usual suspects’ and gain insights that can only come from being present in a particular place.

Council looks forward to seeing this momentum continuing and making many of the community ideas a reality. We hope this just the beginning of the conversation with the community in creating a vibrant place where they live.


AMBER HERRMANN is the Place Activation Officer at Maitland City Council .  With a background in community development and engagement, Amber is bringing the visions of the Maitland community to life through the development of a Place Activation Strategy and program. The program will guide the City’s approach to creating great public spaces, with community included at every step of the way.



issue 2. summer 2016