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5 August 2021

Meet Mathew Furness, Senior Associate: Planning and Urban Design

Scottish-born, Melbourne-based planner and urban designer Mathew contributes to the creation of exciting places all over the world; from stadium precincts to river trails; high-rise developments to train station precincts.

With over 15 years of experience in planning, placemaking and urban renewal, Mathew’s expertise includes urban design and strategic and statutory planning. He provides project formulation advice, complex project management and expert evidence statements for VCAT and panel hearings.

We met with Mathew to find out more about placemaking, his unique path to becoming an urban design specialist in Melbourne, and his unlikely connection to the Queen of Great Britain. 

What is a placemaker’s role in advising on key projects?

I think the placemaker’s role is about considering all of the ingredients that go into making successful places to meet the needs of everyone who lives, works or visits. It’s about taking a people-centred approach that is open to opportunities to maximise the benefits of development to the full range of stakeholders. Placemaking advice can help identify opportunities for broader community benefit which assists in gaining development approvals as well as contributing to successful places that work for people. 

What kind of expert evidence do you give to VCAT?

My skill set lies at the intersection of planning and urban design. This means that I can provide evidence that addresses matters of built form and design detail within the context of the planning framework and what it seeks in a particular location. Assessing proposals usually involves the need to balance a range of planning policies and provisions. My experience and expertise are in interpreting how these influences should be reflected in the form and design of a proposal.

What are some challenging projects you’ve tackled while working with Ratio?

All projects have their challenges, whether they are large or small! But there are a few current projects that stand out that are interesting and rewarding. These include the masterplan I have been leading for the Wyndham Stadium project, the advice I have been providing to clients concerning integrated development opportunities around level crossing removal sites, work undertaken for some major landowners relating to the proposed built form controls for the Moonee Ponds activity centre, and our ongoing work in relation to the Plenty River Trail for Parks Victoria. There are also other exciting projects in the pipeline that I can’t say much about yet!

Did you always know you wanted to work in urban design?

I've always had a keen interest in urban design, how the form of cities evolves and how places can be created and enhanced through good design. Urban design is often seen as a separate discipline now but was an integral part of my planning training in Scotland. My professional career started in statutory planning but, through previous roles in the UK, I became involved in developing placemaking initiatives, place strategies and public housing and estate regeneration projects which allowed me to broaden my urban design expertise. This was deepened through my six years working at Message Consultants before our merger with Ratio last year.

Tell me about your career between Melbourne and the United Kingdom.

My first planning jobs were in councils on the urban fringe of London and Edinburgh, dealing with issues of development pressure around the urban fringe; similar to what we see around the edge of  Melbourne. There was a lot of focus on protecting green space and agricultural land while generating economic activity and development. My first job in Australia was at the City of Yarra where I learnt about the pressures and controversies of inner-city areas where change can be confronting for residents. Since then, I have bounced between Australia and the UK several times, working for consulting firms in strategic planning, with councils focusing on public housing generation, place-shaping and master planning public housing renewal sites. My partner is Australian so we eventually settled in Melbourne. I think moving between here and the UK has given me a broad perspective; I’ve learnt different things from many different places and can compare how things are done in different places.

I’m sure London and Edinburgh have similar challenges to what we’re just facing now?

I think so. Those cities have different histories and are at a different stage of their evolution in some ways but are also grappling with similar issues like how to be more sustainable. A decade ago, London was very strong on reducing dependence on cars, reducing parking, and trying to get everyone onto public transport. They were in a place that we're only starting to get to now around discouraging parking in apartment buildings and office buildings.

What was the biggest change you’ve seen in your career?

The way we manage the development and change in our cities is a long-term evolution process, so change is usually gradual. Occasionally, big policy initiatives come along like the better apartments initiative, or recently the amendment in the City of Melbourne to protect parks from shadows in winter, which changes the dial a bit. The biggest change that I’ve seen is the gradual increase in development being more people-focused. We’re looking for better amenities for the residents of the development and also improved street environments, better walkability.

What's been your favourite project?

Currently, I’m working on the Wyndham Stadium precinct which is first principles master planning for a really exciting and transformative mixed-use precinct around a stadium. The project will provide identity, economic and health benefits to the new community that grows up in the western region.

Lastly, tell us something we don’t know about you.

Fun fact – I once fixed the Queen’s suitcases! When I was at school in Edinburgh, I had a Saturday job at a leather repair workshop who had the contract to keep the leather cases in top order, polishing and preparing the corners, fixing the buckles etc. One year, when the Queen was in residence at Holyrood Palace, I was sworn to secrecy and collected her cases for maintenance!

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