Selling your project

Mark Ames from Sydney-based Strategic Cities specialises in media management and engagement strategy for cities and government agencies. He played an influential role in London, helping to secure an ambitious and controversial 10-year one billion pound cycling strategy and action plan. Other clients include Auckland Transport, and the cities of Sydney, Adelaide and Vincent (WA).

He recently visited New Zealand courtesy of Boffa Miskell, to discuss how to overcome resistance to change in cities.

 Mark Ames from Sydney-based Strategic Cities specialises in media management.

Mark Ames from Sydney-based Strategic Cities specialises in media management.

LAA: You say the way we talk about ideas is as important as the idea itself - why is that?

MA: We say we value communication a lot in our industry, but sometimes I wonder if that’s really the case! I’ve been in many meetings where the proponents of ideas – good ideas – fail to successfully communicate change, and are then shocked at the way the community reacts. People have an emotional attachment to the places they live. Whether you’re reclassifying farmland as an outstanding area or moving someone’s favourite car parking space, if your plans challenge those emotional attachments then the people who hold them will have an emotional response. That’s why the so-called soft skills of engaging and communicating are critical to success.

LAA: How important is the media when trying to sell a new project?

MA: Newspapers, the TV, radio and internet can help to quickly spread the “who, what, where, when and why” which justifies your project, and can help to sell why change is necessary in the first place. It’s one of the best ways of reaching a lot of people at once, even on a local level.

Conversely, the media can also act as a barometer of public opinions and will amplify controversial or extreme reactions. Dealing with the media is not without risk and needs to be done with skill and care.

In London we had to have a very public discussion about the role of our streets and the city we wanted from the future. This involved hours of broadcasts and acres of newspaper articles which convinced enough people the change was worthwhile and the disruption manageable. Without that media discourse the remarkable changes we’ve seen in London, like the arrival of its Cycle Superhighways, would not have been possible.

 Mark Ames says cycling projects in the UK originally received negative press, but cynical headlines have proven to be unfounded.

Mark Ames says cycling projects in the UK originally received negative press, but cynical headlines have proven to be unfounded.

LAA: The media will make up its own mind about an angle or focus for a story.. how can landscape architects influence this?

MA: You’re right that news doesn’t just happen, it’s chosen. The headlines we read have been carefully curated and filtered to appeal to a particular world view, or to fit a specific commercial or political agenda. But there are opportunities for influence throughout this process – there’s certainly a good way and a bad way of dealing with that relationship.

While not every landscape architect in the business is going to have an expert understanding of that process, what is important is that everyone is “thinking media” from the outset of their project. What is the opportunity at hand? Who do I need to talk to and convince this is a good idea? Who will oppose it, and why? How might my work be portrayed in the media? If everyone in the industry prepared with this simple checklist of questions from the outset, then negative coverage would be less common and easier to contend with.

LAA: The work of landscape architects is often perceived as an added extra - how can we change this?

MA: Storytelling and place are important in civic identity and the way we feel about where we live. Landscape architecture should play a key role in that, but again, it’s all about the way you talk about it.

Sometimes we are too tied up in our own professional languages, like “Sub section 4 of masterplan X will deliver strategic priority Y of the unitary plan” instead of “This will create a new place to live” and all the exciting things that might mean.

I’ve recently spent time working with Boffa Miskell, who designed many of the new shared space streets in the centre of Auckland, like O’Connell Street. Those streets are integral to the story of how Auckland is evolving as a place for people and the opportunities that presents. Storytelling is key.

 Shared space streets like O'Connell St in central Auckland are integral to the story of how Auckland is evolving as a place for people.

Shared space streets like O'Connell St in central Auckland are integral to the story of how Auckland is evolving as a place for people.

LAA: Getting the public to see a bigger picture than their own personal environment is difficult.. and change can sometimes mean losing what's become convenient for them.. how do we persuade people to think of the greater(into the future) good?

MA: It’s a mistake to believe all the community think the same thing about your proposals – even if media headlines suggest the opposite! Some people will resist the change and disruption, certainly. But others will be on the opposite end of the spectrum – they’re the change makers and early adopters. Both sides have the potential to pull the silent majority one way or another. I would advise enabling the change makers who can help bring community consensus along with you, instead of investing all your effort in combatting negative reactions.

LAA: You've had a lot of experience with convincing people cycling is the future.. Why do you think there is opposition to cycleways in cities?

MA: We see a lot of negative coverage about city cycling projects for two reasons; because certain prejudices about bikes are a popular media trope which are almost guaranteed attention, but also because a city becoming more bike-friendly is often the first sign that it is starting to become less car-orientated. That’s a change to the status quo, which is bound to provoke a response. That response is often confronting for the people working to deliver change, but I’ve seen it happening in cities all around the world where I have worked. It’s a process which can be managed. Cycling projects in the UK were described in the press as “a blight”, “lunacy” and “more damaging than the Luftwaffe”. That sells lots of newspapers, of course, but the cycleways were built and the headlines proven to be unfounded.

LAA: What are your top five tips on advocating for projects in the media?

MA: I could give you a hundred tips, but if there is just one it’s this. I’d like people in the industry to join me in pushing back on awful ribbon cutting events with just politicians and delivery partners in attendance. They’re so boring! None of the people in the photos look like the project end users or the local community, and poor beleaguered media editors get sent hundreds of these dull photos every day. For your next plan, think about how the official opening could be a bit more visually exciting and appealing to the wider public."