Launch of draft Waterfront Plan. Samoa. Photography courtesy of Jian Vun

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Helicopter view of waterfront. Saoma. Photograph courtesy of Jian Vun.

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Public forum. Samoa. Photography courtesy of Jian Vun.

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Launch of draft Waterfront Plan. Samoa. Photography courtesy of Jian Vun

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Placemaking is often used to strengthen communities and revitalise places. But what does this look like in a context of Samoa, a small pacific island state which is facing rapid urbanisation and increasing impacts of climate change?


In this interview with Jian Vun, we unpack some of the challenges and opportunities of creating new public spaces in Apia, with key take away lessons for how placemaking can be reconceptualised for local cultural contexts. Jian is undertaking an assignment with Australian Volunteers from International Development (AVID) as an Urban Design Officer with the Planning and Urban Management Agency (PUMA) for the Government of Samoa.


1.  Many cities are starting to rediscover their Waterfronts, and the role they play in public life. Can you tell us a bit about the context of the Apia Waterfront Plan, and its objectives?


The Apia Waterfront actually started out of as a ‘beautification’ project an initiative under the New Zealand Aid Programme’s tourism sector support program. There was recognition that Apia’s waterfront could be improved and enhanced to be more friendly to its visitors and tourists, particularly those arriving by cruise ships. The pedestrian experience as one disembarks a ship and walks along the seawall is currently not particularly pleasant, as the disembarkation point is a working port (meaning many shipping containers are being transported in and out of the area). There is a lack of attractive urban design features such as shade, landscaping, lighting and signage; and there are few exciting tourist destinations along the waterfront.


However early consultation on the project in October 2015, which included wide engagement with stakeholders, local businesses, NGO and whole-of-government revealed a broader vision.  People wanted more than beautification. They wanted a holistic strategy that would help create a thriving public space – addressing some of the issues in the area like parking, biodiversity and environmental issues, as well as reinforcing the waterfront as a place that was uniquely Samoan – not just making things look pretty.  


The project then set out to create a series of interconnected public space -such as beaches, tide steps, public parks, recreational spaces, safe swimming areas and plazas. This will help to revitalise the Apia waterfront and make it a unique and attractive destination, but it will also result in a space that is primarily for locals, as well as tourists.


2. Land and sea play an important role in Samoan culture, but is the concept of 'public space' relatively new?

The concept of communal or shared places is definitely not new: over 80% of land in Samoa is ‘customary land’, passed down from family to family, with many spaces being communal and semi-public. It is not uncommon for families to share various resources such as beaches, green spaces, sporting fields and other communal spaces with one another. However there are often restrictions on these communal spaces, such as which villages may use them, or times during which they may be used.


As such, the western concept of ‘public space’—a space that is freely accessible by any person at any time of the day—is relatively new, especially public spaces that have been planned and designed for the greater community. There is increasing demand for these type of ‘third places’ particularly for young people, who might want to congregate or hang out in a public place away from the village.


The Apia Waterfront Development Project is hoping it can change the way that people think about public spaces in this regard. We’ve included ideas such as a central park for all Samoans; a public plaza surrounded by market stalls; a number of urban beaches/tide steps; a series of interconnected pocket parks and green spaces along the waterfront; and sporting fields for the whole community to use. However these concepts draw on existing uses and local traditions in the area. For example, the public plaza hopes to amplify and improve the existing market; and the tide steps are being designed in collaboration with a local artist.


3. One of the objectives is to reflect a uniquely Samoan experience, what does 'placemaking' look like in this context?


This is difficult to fully answer as I’m not Samoan – but based on design workshops that we’ve held and two months’ worth of consultation activities, I think I have a bit of an understanding about what this means.


What our stakeholders have told us is that they want a waterfront that is planned and designed by locals. A waterfront that showcases Samoan art, design and culture; one that allows Samoans to share their stories with visitors and future generations. For example infrastructure along the waterfront could incorporate Samoan design such as carved wood detailing, patterns commonly found in Samoan designs (such as the elei in fabric design), traditional materials and construction techniques, references to nature, and planting appropriate to the Samoan climate and microclimates.


I spent the first 6 months of the project just learning and observing and listening. What I found was that my colleagues knew exactly what they wanted but couldn’t always put it into ‘planning speak’ or a statutory framework. This has been my biggest lesson, to listen to what people want. These are not my ideas; my role has been to draw ideas from community and counterparts. That’s what planners should be doing in any part of the world.


4. As an Australian working in Samoa, what are some key lessons that you have learned about working in a cross-culturally?


I have learned a lot about Samoan culture whilst facilitating consultations for the waterfront project. Social hierarchies in Samoa need to be considered during community consultations – the pulenu’u (mayor) of villages, matai (those with chiefly titles) and the sui o tina (women’s committee) usually lead consultations and are official representatives of their village. I found that some consultation activities that worked in Australia (e.g. open forums) did not work well in Samoa, possibly because urban planning is still such a new concept in the country (the Planning and Urban Management Agency is only just over 10 years old).


Working in a cross-cultural environment can be challenging for many people. Many well intentioned consultants and advisers come to Samoa thinking they know what Samoa needs to develop, but what I’ve come to learn is that Samoans know exactly what they need, they just don’t have enough financial resources or technical skills to do certain things. My role as a volunteer is interesting because I sometimes act as an intermediary between my Samoan counterparts and external advisers, with the hopes that the local perspectives are heard.


5. Climate change is already having a strong impact on villages and settlements in Samoa, with resettlement becoming a pressing issue. What impact is climate change likely to have on the Apia Waterfront?


As a small island developing state, Samoa is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Impacts on the waterfront area include the effects of predicted rises in sea level, increases in cyclones and storm surges leading to flooding of the waterfront area, increased vulnerability of coastal housing and infrastructure, and rising temperatures due to the urban heat island effect due to rapidly increasing development in Apia.


A key strategy for the Waterfront Plan is to ensure the area is resilient to the effects of climate change. This includes not just new buildings but also coastal infrastructure and the public domain. All developments will need to consider how they will adapt to climate change through their design, sustainability, durability and energy efficiency.


6. What are some of the challenges you have faced working on the project?


A significant challenge of the project is working within the parameters of the governance structures in Samoa. The national government is responsible for all planning projects in Samoa but there are no other formal governance structures that exist to assist with local planning issues. This means that PUMA has national, regional and local planning responsibilities.


Furthermore, land rates and developer contribution fees do not exist and development consent application fees are relatively low. This means the planning agency lacks capacity to generate significant revenue, which makes implementation of the waterfront project difficult. As a result, the waterfront project—like many other projects in Samoa—is relying heavily on development partner support through bilateral aid program agreements or multilateral agencies. Thrown in with competing interests from private sector, community groups and government priorities, there are a lot of expectations that the waterfront project needs to meet.


7.  What aspects of the project are you most proud of?


What I’m most proud of for the project is that the future Apia waterfront area will have been planned completely by Samoans and local residents. The amount of stakeholder consultation and variety of activities offered to provide feedback is probably unparalleled by any other urban planning project in Samoa to date. Ideas were captured in design workshops, school visits, public meetings, stakeholder forums and social media by PUMA officials who prepared the entire plan in-house – no small feat for a small project team.


8. How important do you think cross cultural experience is to urban designers today in a globalised world?


I’m very fortunate to have travelled a lot and have learned so much from how other cultures design their cities. It’s very important to learn how other communities are doing their placemaking. Urban Designers shouldn’t be doing is copying and pasting from city and city; it should be reconceptualised into localised concepts.


9.  What are the next steps for the Apia Waterfront Plan?


The final plan will be launched in early December and following this we will be developing planning and design guideline documents which will become statutory. Following this we will be proceeding to develop concepts for two catalyst projects – a public swimming area at Eleele Fou and some Tidal Steps to increase access to the water. We have had interest from development partners already about these projects and look forward to seeing them progress.


JIAN VUN is an Australian volunteer with the Australian Volunteer for International Development program, funded by the Australian Government.  He is on assignment as an Urban Design Officer for the Government of Samoa



issue 2. summer 2016