Images have a unique language for making sense and creating ‘new knowledge’. It is easy to become caught up in the rhetorical power and momentum of images, to the extent that they often stop short of becoming communications with change agency. With this brief, we would like to steer away from visual communications design as a practice of generating discrete representations and focus on the potential of the discipline as a research-based practice to contribute to generating real and meaningful dialogues. The focus of this brief is on how visual communications design may be brought to the project of making and sharing the commons – commoning in Gibson-Graham’s et al. (2013) terms – in Riverlands, Sydney.

The Brief asks each Workshop group to respond to the following question:

 How can design activate public engagement in the commons in Riverlands, Sydney?

Responses can be in any form that represents the language of participants’ own design research practice – visualisations, info graphics, maps, annotated photographs, recoding strategies, ethnographic documentations, installations, co-operative research proposals, visual scenarios, storyboards, events and so on – but these must be geared toward generating a real dialogue with those living and working in the region. *

*The ICD team is currently developing a list of potential partners/clients for these conversations.

‘Western Sydney’ names an extensive residential, industrial and rural environment of nearly 9,000 square kilometers encompassing the major cities of Bankstown, Blacktown, Campbelltown, Castle Hill, Fairfield, Liverpool, Parramatta and Penrith, with a population of 2 million people. Currently the third largest economy in Australia (behind Sydney CBD and Melbourne), Western Sydney is earmarked for a ‘tsunami’ of population growth over the next twenty years, and with this a need for the creation of 20,000 new jobs. It has the highest concentration of immigrants, particularly the newly arrived, in Australia. Western Sydney is a contested landscape with a rapidly developing urban fringe. The region has for some time experienced a decline in food production (since the 1970s when turf farms in the fertile flood plains of the Hawkesbury region were reclassified as agriculture) and is facing specific climate change challenges including water scarcity, soil degradation and urban heat islanding (UHI) caused by the combination of hotter and more extreme climate conditions* and hard urban development. Residents of Western Sydney are also more vulnerable than those located in higher density parts of Sydney to ‘lifestyle’ diseases such as obesity and depression, due in part to a lack of access to locally grown, fresh food coupled with the growth in private car use, ‘big box’ supermarkets, and poor public transport infrastructure. A consequence of these somewhat certain trends and development trajectories (which are certainly not unique to Western Sydney) is a diminishment of shared life resources – often referred to as ‘the tragedy of the commons’.

*October 2013 was the hottest on record for Western Sydney

A sense for the commons
What and where are the commons in Western Sydney? And how are they seen and negotiated by communities both inside and outside of the region? One of the most regionally distinctive and important commons in Western Sydney are its rivers. A map of Western Sydney is veined by extensive river systems. The Nepean and Hawkesbury rivers, Parramatta River and South Creek catchment traverse the region and exist in relation to extensive parklands and recreational areas. Equally, Western Sydney is layered by social and cultural landscapes that may not be as apparent to the naked eye. At present Western Sydney is defined by its relation to the Sydney CBD and often, intentionally or not, in a subordinate role. A further binary exists between the famous Harbour and coastline and the rivers, which have their own unique ecologies (and are bereft of the cooling sea breezes enjoyed by coastal cities). In fact, there are myriad binaries that delineate Western Sydney as an imagined and experienced environment. The Mapping Urban Resilience working group at UWS (led by Professor Katherine Gibson) has proposed an intervention into this binary by recoding Western Sydney as ‘Riverlands, Sydney’. We invite the ICD Workshop groups to consider this recoding as part of their response to the brief.

“Take Back Property: Commoning” in Gibson-Graham, JK et al (2013) Take Back the Economy: an ethical guide for transforming our communities

Please go to Resources for additional material.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008). Sydney: A Social Atlas. ABS Catalogue No. 2030.1. Belconnen, ACT: Australian Bureau of Statistics

Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment management authority website

Metropolitan Strategy of Sydney 2031 (Draft)

Miller, K. Books, T. Hugh, A. & Senn, A. for The Turf Growers Association of NSW (2005). “A History of the Turf Growing Industry in the Hawkesbury Valley”

Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment management authority website

NSW Government (2005). Metropolitan Strategy: City of Cities: A Plan for Sydney’s Future. Sydney: Department of Planning, NSW Government

O’Neill, P.M., Piquer-Rodriguez, M., Phibbs, P., Crabtree, L., & Johnston, K. (2008). North-West and West-Central Sydney Employment Strategies. Parramatta: Urban Research Centre, University of Western Sydney. Available online [Accessed 9 Dec. 2013]

Western Sydney Trade and Investment Pocket Profile

WSROC. 2008. An Agenda for Sustainability and Wellbeing for Western Sydney. Blacktown: WSROC. Available online [Accessed 9 Dec. 2013]

WSROC. 2011. Future Directions Western Sydney 2030: Discussion Paper. Balmain: Arup Strategies for Change