Perspective + Empathy

trophy Awarded

As one of the least dense cities in the world, Brisbane has seen a concerted effort towards intensification of the urban fabric to condense the population and handle rapid growth. With globalized, homogenous design and a lack of attention to community, culture, and local diversity, the city and others like it are becoming ‘worldified’ and indistinct in their urban character. Through a new process of experiential cognitive mapping, the designer can broaden their perspective and gain an understanding of the landscape through the eyes of the community and synthesize the valuable latent heterogeneous character of the urban fabric. With a full empathetic understanding of the shape and depth of landscape we can define and preserve the valuable existing character of Brisbane and meet the new cultural, needs of the quickly growing population.

Issue and context

Rapid Growth of Brisbane

With a global trend towards city living from 55% currently to 68% by 2050 there is clear population drive behind the expansion and intensification of cities. Australia is ahead of this trend with more than 67% of the population already living in the state capital cities alone, particularly along the eastern seaboard.
With these statistics in mind, the change into and effect of a dense urban environment already felt by the other eastern seaboard capitals is an inevitable outcome for the inner city of Brisbane which is still currently dominated by low-density zoned residential. The drastic change that is underway is therefore both the central issue and opportunity for landscape architecture in the urban environment of Brisbane.

The issue of Homogenisation

As a reaction to this context of growth, developer-led globalised designs become the norm, through their fast and economically profitable results. They often lack the defining character and aesthetic of the neighborhood or urban area where they are being introduced. As a result the look, feel and sense of place can be affected, damaging or twisting the existing culture and aesthetics which make up the communities shared sense of place.

The power of Character

This homogeneity is a common thread across many cities however Brisbane in particular could be at a unique turning point due to the potential for building a unique city character.

The local vernacular of a city or nation is not only a part of the lifestyle of its citizens, its value can in fact extend beyond the city or nation as a cultural export sometimes referred to as ”cultural capital’. With the opportunity to combat homogeneity in new construction and landscaping of the urban environment, the larger community has the chance to build its cultural aesthetic character. Whether the goal is a heterogeneous style or a push towards local areas of distinct aesthetic theming, the community could benefit culturally and economically from a unique and defining character.


The implications of rapid growth and globalized homogeneity can vary widely due to the scale and amount of people who are and will be affected in the city. To my mind, so much change has already happened within Brisbane, much of it contentious and yet the city moves on and communities adapt. Whether it be the now very normalised powerlines and infrastructure, loss of ecologically valuable green space, the complete domination of the streetscape by vehicles or even just the juxtaposing visual effect of larger buildings, change has happened and will continue to do so.

My vision is for a process that creates empathy for landscape, in order to understand the context of past and present. All this should be done with the mindset that people and their landscape identity can be changed and had been changed. By understanding the broken parts of the urban fabric fully and with an empathetic perspective, we can begin to stitch together a new urban character amalgam out of the disparate pieces. Not only is this landscape amalgam valuable, its heterogeneity can be used as cultural capital and expanded into the culturally or aesthetically low performing areas of the landscape to meet the future cultural aesthetic needs of the city and its inhabitants.

Theoretical framework

The nature of human perception creates attachments and narratives based on our experiences and point of view, often ignorant of context outside that view and the context of our lives. As a result, the established landscape becomes deeply personal and wrapped up in our personal identity but is also limited in scope creating a ‘landscape identity’ which we often share with a community of the same views. With homogeneity of culture and demographics the landscape identity is weakened as it lacks perspective and empathy for those outside of its definitions of landscape.

In order to combat this, perspective must be widened and conceptual boundaries should be broken down to allow for a full understanding of landscape. With the use of an empathetic lens and systems of mindful mapping we can experience the landscape differently, improve our sense of place, understanding of the attachment to it and finally shape our own narrative identity.

The output of this process and the experiences found therein can allow the designer, in this case myself, to widen their landscape identity to improve their understanding of the landscape and become far more mindful of its culture, character and fine details that might be missed. This allows for a stronger context of place for design, construction and community outreach.


In order to find the existing character of the city, I devised a empathetic process of immersion based on my theoretical framework of ‘landscape identity’. The process works primarily for the designer, allowing them to see through the eyes of the landscapes inhabitants to find its latent character. It works by synthesizing three empathetic data sets to define the cultural aesthetic and ‘landscape identity’ of a place, in this case West End. The word ‘data’ here is broad – this process is heavily steeped in subjectivity but also empathy so these three parts of the process could be thought of as 3 experiential recordings of a community and place.

Crucial to the process and the reason for this subjectivity and empathy is the way the data sets feed into each other. After recording and thematically analysing interviews and questionnaires from West Enders, these themes along with place and route names are used as data drivers for the system of psychogeographic mapping of the urban context. In the theme of subjectivity my own experience and understanding of the landscape, now expanded and hopefully more empathetic, will also be used as a data set. This will allow me to apply my own artistic hand which was a goal for the project from the start.



Following in the themes of perspective and empathy, the interviews which make up the first set of data taken during this project have widened my perspective about the suburb of West End and my understanding of it, therefore forcing myself to reform my narrative identity in order to retroactively parse the new information. This is the first example of why my opinion is the last step in the process chain as my knowledge and opinion reacts and reforms after each step of the process. As the first set of information I gathered was long form interviews they had a strong initial effect on my understanding of the issues and character of west end. Along with being a formative step in the process, the nature of qualitative, narrative and conversational interviews has a larger effect than raw quantitative data. This is because I am at heart an extroverted, creative person who becomes excited no more so than when sharing passion with people, such as a love for West End.

EXPERIENCIAL MAPPING -or- psychogeography, adjusted

Psychogeography is rooted in writing, poetry and art that seeks to reject the habitualisation of the urban context and it’s hard lines and systems to challenge established, systemic perceptions. Using the broad roots of psychogeography in my process, I created a work flow of:

1. INPUT – The lens with which to view the landscape
2. TYPE – The form of movement through the urban environment
3. REPRESENTATION – What art style and form the data collected is represented by

I followed 4 versions within my report with a high level of variance in these three factors as well as the empathetic perspectives they gave me, the designer. All versions of my process include a walk through the city (recorded for time and direction) photographs to collect the data, and a stream of consciousness style diary to include thoughts directly as they come to preserve the perspective and mindfulness that comes with the process.


Old and new, falling apart or pristine, if we can have a vernacular in less than 100 years this is it.

It’s not perfect but it reminds me of home and so is part of the sense of place.


Drudging in the rain, walkers look downcast but the subtropical landscape shines.

The amount of green and intercostal space between the building is even more striking when it rains. Feels like it’s holding together the neighborhood.


Culture and community adapting and adopting aesthetics

To many the sight of powerlines is unfortunate, but within the urban context, especially one with such rapid change as Brisbane, there is almost the necessity to adapt. I would argue powerlines and other visual clutter have become normalised to the point where you literally stop noticing them. Similar to the eyes seeing past the nose despite the fact it is always there, with enough time anything can become adopted into the aesthetic of a place. Powerlines and cracked pavements may not be inherently beautiful to most but they have become part of the genus loci for me and others.

The powerlines are one of the only consistent forms throughout the landscape as if they string up and hold together the urban fabric.

The character here may not be what everyone wants but at least it’s something unique in the context of Brisbane.

Stream of consciousness


Davies Park Markets

There are so few places quite like the West End markets in Brisbane and these days it caters to far more than just the local community. If one thing is clear through the historic cultural context of West End, it is anything but a monoculture. With so many cuisines to choose from in the same place, the markets offer a sense are a product of multiculturalism. The use of photographic collage serves to highlight the movement of varying people and cultures as the lifeblood of cultural infrastructure.

Boundary Street Spatial Forms

The form of the street is a result of a greater percentage of the streetscape being devoted to pedestrian use, the buildouts and mature street trees almost alternate down the landscape pushing into the realm of traffic. The main spatial factors here are concerned with the livability and walkability of the landscape which are present in well performing high street landscapes. Despite the West End high street showing an improved human use to most of the streetscapes in the area it still devotes ~50% of the streetscape to vehicle use.

Orleigh Park Green Space

This representation of Oreligh Park compresses both the time and distance between 5 of the great fig trees which are central to spatial quality of the park. In a sense compressing the lengthy experience down into one scene without a huge canvas is difficult and requires the loss of information, in this case distance. Conceptually this represents the importance of the trees to the shared sense of space for the community through a single natural element.


Queenslanders. Ongoing relic or future vernacular?

Apartment buildings. few front runners in a slow race

Local hubs. the boundary street goanna

Jacarandas. a symbol of conflicting perspectives

mangroves. the last remnant vestiges in an urban landscape


With the limits of a student project, the number of interviews, experiential perspectives and applicable outcomes is limited. However
with a strong process, this framework can be applied to other landscape to define character by broadening perspectives and in that sense. This is an example outcome of the process from a smaller data set and mapped with a single, original but empathetic and now broadened perspective.

With the caveat of implied subjectivity, I am happy to say both the output of mapping and the process of data collection have significantly increased my depth of landscape perspective dispelled some ignorance. I believe this variation in perspective is key; from a looking at the landscape through a mindful or forensic lens to hearing the direct perspectives of other who live here, there is the potential to learn much from our fractured landscape if one can have empathy and patience for it.


As an artistic synthesis of the data collected, the work here tries to represent the ‘urban battlelines’. These battlelines are between the heterogeneous character of West End and the homogenous character of the modern city, and how they affect the residents of the landscape and their landscape identity. The character of West End in its current state is one of flux and growth lines which make up the broken urban form of the area. These growing pains are contentious to the local community not necessarily purely because of the issues of growth, homogenisation and gentrification (although those are the causes) but because of the identity crisis this causes for some who call the suburb home. The West End community are feeling the cracks in their neighborhood widen, reducing their shared landscape and fracturing their sense of place. As a result, this division of the landscape creates an identity crisis in its long term residents. In light of the opinions in this project I have gathered, this results in feelings of anger and loss.


In understanding the sense of loss of the community, particularly their shared sense of place and attachment for the heterogeneous, it is important to return to the Indigenous context, one which is undergoing a long battle for their landscape identity. If the homogenous, worldified or gentrified city is pressing in on the character of West End, imagine the same threats on a landscape and community which has already been fragmented far more severely. If that landscape can be restitched then it is a moral imperative to revive this unmatched depth of place attachment and cultural memory.

– Thank your for reading –

Christopher Vanulzen

Christopher is a British-Australian born in Brisbane with a passion for the aesthetics, culture and community of urban landscapes. While rooted in both construction and art growing up, his further passions for science and psychology made a career in design a natural choice, allowing for a focus on how design experiences make us feel.