No Place Like Home: Innovation And Imagination For The Cities Of The Future

WORDS: Michael Jacobson PHOTOGRAPHY Supplied

Southern Cross University is at the core of a growing network that is creating ambitious strategies to transform tomorrow’s cities and the lives of the people who call them home.

If future cities are to be smart, resilient and sustainable, academic “smarts” have a significant role to play – and Southern Cross University is embracing this responsibility.

Amid a national housing crisis, a post-pandemic population surge, building company collapses and associated concerns, the University’s academic expertise is informing endeavours across urban planning, architecture and construction, environmental and infrastructure management, and crucially, community wellbeing. Circular economy principles are also to the fore.

All this is happening as campuses on the Gold Coast, in Lismore and Coffs Harbour epitomise areas in focus as to how and where Australians will live in the future –


  • The Gold Coast is Australia’s sixth largest city and a hub for the exponentially growing south-east Queensland region


  • Coffs Harbour is an expanding coastal city in a sweet spot for growth, midway between Sydney and the Gold Coast


  • Lismore – the second largest city in the NSW Northern Rivers – is a future regional city in progress as it continues to recover after the 2022 floods.


An exciting contributor to the future cities agenda is Living Lab Northern Rivers, a joint project between Southern Cross University, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the NSW Reconstruction Authority.

Drawing on the model developed in the post-Hurricane Katrina (2005) environment in the US, Living Lab Northern Rivers seeks to align lived experience and rigorous research to boost resilience, replace outdated systems and provide greater certainty in uncertain times.

Academic Director Professor Elizabeth Mossop and Engagement Director Mr. Dan Etheridge both worked on the Hurricane Katrina project in Louisiana and bring vast experience to Living Lab Northern Rivers.

An Adjunct Professor at Southern Cross University, Professor Mossop served as Dean of the School of Design, Architecture and Building at UTS and is the principal of leading landscape architecture firm Spackman Mossop + Michaels. She has held executive positions at Harvard University, Louisiana State University and the University of NSW.

Mr. Etheridge graduated from Southern Cross University’s Applied Science in Coastal Management Program in 2002 before working in the US for two decades. He is the co-founder of the Public Interest Design Student Leadership Forum, out of the University of Texas, which has built a network of design and planning schools across the US.

Both agree that Southern Cross University’s civic leadership can enhance its already influential role in education and research. “And not just Southern Cross,” says Professor Mossop. “I think this is what universities must do. Here in the Northern Rivers, our community rightly wants a say in how it rebuilds and, based on our research, we can bring practical and achievable ideas to the table.” A recent exhibition at Living Lab Northern Rivers took this idea and really “brought it home”.

Old sites, new possibilities

In October 2023, the Bring It On Home exhibition challenged architects to present speculative housing designs that might be appropriate for existing sites in and around the Northern Rivers, and which in turn might expand permanent housing stock.

Infill housing is one intriguing option, with case studies at the exhibition ranging from social housing garden villas and dual living development on the Gold Coast to contemporary terraces in Victoria, co-housing plans in New Zealand and raised, low-impact housing on flood-designated land in Newcastle.

“Infill development is where you find sites to put in new housing within existing built-up neighbourhoods,” says Professor Mossop. “Such neighbourhoods are already served by infrastructure, by schools, by access to parks and so on, so you can add more housing into those neighbourhoods.

“You might be trying to put two houses where there was one, or four apartments where there was one. Or perhaps there is an option to put dwellings into the back of people’s lots, potentially increasing the density of some of those areas.

“You can also look at different types of co-housing, where dwellings are smaller and more affordable because resources are shared, such as gardens, laundries or other communal facilities.”

Professor Mossop says there are many ways to adapt neighbourhoods and provide better, more affordable housing for a larger number of people.

Living Lab launch and exhibition on Woodlark Street in Lismore.
The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation (NRRC) and Southern Cross University, in partnership with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), are collaborating on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to inform and shape the future of Northern Rivers communities following the February and March 2022 floods.

“In a place of acute need like the Northern Rivers, prefabricated and modular housing – factory-built and delivered on-site – warrant consideration, as do special development zones that exist outside the usual regulatory framework and allow the piloting and testing of innovative solutions.”

As recovery continues in the Northern Rivers, Mr. Etheridge adds that Living Lab Northern Rivers is prioritising adaptation and improvement, rather than simply putting things back as they were.

“Going forward, I see Living Lab Northern Rivers as being central to creating and maintaining a space where all kinds of community members and technical knowledge can work effectively together with Southern Cross University.”

Agile, scalable and evidence-based

Living Lab Northern Rivers is just one example of Southern Cross University initiatives working for and with communities to develop agile, scalable, evidence-based solutions. These same qualities are propelling other projects within the University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering and its Research Impact Clusters.

One is unfolding on NSW’s Hawkesbury River, where Professor Damien Maher is leading a team working on behalf of Sydney Water to investigate nutrient cycling and wastewater treatment pertaining to the future needs of Sydney’s rapidly growing west.

“The population of Western Sydney is likely to grow by about two million people in coming years, with development and industry accompanying that growth and bringing significant community and infrastructure needs,” says Professor Maher.

As one of the leaders of the Catchments, Coasts and Communities research cluster, he welcomes this emphasis on community connections.

“We are inviting the community to share in and have a say in what we are doing as a university and as scientists, and why we are doing it,” he says.

The “what” and “why” are also integral to Southern Cross University’s commitment to Circular Economy principles across disciplines, evidenced in concepts including the ReCirculator program and Zero Waste research cluster.

Such initiatives, when combined with increased civic responsibility and leadership, find Southern Cross University at the forefront of collaborative progress towards a better future.

Living Lab launch and exhibition on Woodlark Street in Lismore.
The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation (NRRC) and Southern Cross University, in partnership with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), are collaborating on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to inform and shape the future of Northern Rivers communities following the February and March 2022 floods.

There are many ways to adapt neighbourhoods and provide better and more affordable housing for a larger number of people

– Professor Elizabeth Mossop