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Mel Drake: From SimCity to Urban Design

When Principal Urban Designer Mel Drake was 8 years old, she discovered a passion for building bustling cities by playing the video game, SimCity. Now, she’s turned play into a profession.  

17 April 2024

Destined for a career in placemaking

There’s one childhood memory that has stuck with Principal Urban Designer Mel Drake all her life. It was the moment she clapped eyes on a physical architectural model and told her brother, “When I grow up, I want to do that.” 

She recalls sitting in the backyard of her family’s Brisbane home one balmy day, and being told by her sibling, “that’s what architects do.” It was that conversation, she says, that sparked the embers of pursuing a degree in architecture, with a second major in urban planning. 

But the signs that Mel would one day be shaping cities and places were already obvious to keen observers, well before that juncture.  

“When I was younger, I was obsessed with making little models of houses and other structures for my toys, and I was always playing The Sims and SimCity,” she smiles. 

Fast forward to graduation day, armed with a Masters in Architecture, Mel says the aftershock of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) meant that the career she had carefully laid foundations for would need a slight design overhaul.   

“There weren't a lot of roles in architecture around at that period of time”.

Turning the post-GFC lemons into lemonade

When the world was recovering from the onslaught of the GFC, the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, Mel’s realisation that she couldn’t easily land an architecture job during her studies was instrumental in an early career pivot. 

“During my final years of architecture, I was purposefully skewing all my projects to be more master planning and public realm based. With master planning and urban design, you can have a much larger impact – it’s more about the wider context and creating a sense of place, rather than an individual building.” 

Although architecture took a backseat, urban design was always the direction Mel ultimately wanted to follow, so serendipity was on her side. 

As Mel’s studies were wrapping up, undeterred by the sour employment market conditions, she set her sights on gaining more work experience. In that moment, she had a strong urge to get more exposure in the development industry and followed her instincts by walking through the doors of the Urban Development Institute of Australia’s Queensland branch (UDIA Qld)

“I started working at the UDIA Qld office part-time, and then moved into their EnviroDevelopment Program after I graduated, which is a sustainability rating tool for developments. So, I started to get a little taste of architecture, design, and planning through that experience, as a lot of the projects we were assessing were residential master planned communities,” she reminisces.  

A chance meeting with Dan Gibson, RPS General Manager for Southeast Queensland, who sat on the board of EnviroDevelopment led to a role at RPS as a graduate urban designer. 

RPS Principal Urban Designer Mel Drake sitting on steps in Cohenhagen admiring the architecture
Mel in Copenhagen

From crafty kid to designing liveable communities

Growing up, Mel was exposed to parents who were always busy creating, fixing, or making things. She vividly remembers days spent at her mum’s sewing classes and watching her electrician dad being the proud home renovator. 

These two strong influences converged in Mel’s early love of design.  

“I remember, I used to make model houses for my toys and figurines out of cardboard and paper. I always had a weird fascination with houses and buildings.” 

These days, Mel works across a range of development projects, from boutique residential developments through to new communities and town centres. She’s a specialist in large scale, greenfield master planned communities.

Like her younger self, Mel continues to find joy in the creative process, especially when it comes to working with natural features or characteristics on a site.     

“If there's a ridge line, an existing pocket of trees or a waterway, the way I design is very much driven by looking at those features and figuring out how best to design in a way that embraces those and makes people feel like they're connected to those areas of natural environment.”

“What really drives my creative process is thinking about the human experience moving through the space – for example, the orientation of roads so that when people come home, they all get a view into a park at the end of their street. It’s not hard to be creative with urban design – a lot of the time when you start working on a site, it kind of tells you how it wants to be designed.” 

RPS Principal Urban Designer Mel Drake hard at work on bring your dog to work day
Mel shares her desk with her furry companion on bring your dog to work day

A day in the life of an urban designer

No two days are alike for Mel. On any given day she could be out on a site visit, giving strategic direction, getting approvals through the door, drawing up master plans, delivering a workshop, or working through built form details. 

Ultimately, she says her role is about designing vibrant and harmonious places that people want to live in.

“We'll do design guidelines to determine what a home might need to look like and where it's positioned on a site to give a particular outcome.” 

“We also look at creating opportunities for people to interact with one another. We might locate a school next to a local centre, or a local park. There are key urban design principles for creating a sense of community and a sense of place.” 
 
Over the past decade, Mel’s made a reputation for herself for producing visionary designs that are commercially feasible. Unsurprisingly, the most fulfilling aspect of her role is seeing something that she drew on paper many years ago, leaping off the page to become a reality.  

“I love going out and seeing something that we've designed and seeing how it's changing lives,” she gushes.  

“When you visit five or 10 years later, and see the community thriving, it's just a ‘wow’ feeling knowing that I had a hand in creating this.” 

A recent trip back to Baringa at Aura was a reminder of exactly that feeling. 

“I was arriving at Aura right around school time and driving along the main road. All these kids were using the bike paths to get to school because there's a big, dedicated cycle network. When you go somewhere and see it looking like what you hoped – that experience is really fulfilling.” 

However, design ideas that worked successfully in Aura, she says, won’t necessarily be the right solution elsewhere. Mel explains that each project is unique and throws up its own opportunities and challenges. 

“You can’t take what you did elsewhere and try to use the same design solution. That means, regardless of the site, you're having to think on your feet and come up with solutions to problems that are unique to a project.” 

“You have to constantly be on top of evolutions and trends in the property development market too. You have to think about emerging housing typologies, or the way people are changing how they want to live. You need to be across changes in legislation, whether that’s from a building construction or statutory planning perspective,” she elaborates. 

Mel Drake wears black and white and is on stage presenting to a live audience about the subject of placemaking
Mel presenting at the 2023 Asia-Pacific Leadership Summit

Just right: the Goldilocks principle and urban design

The 19th century English fairytale Goldilocks is famous for the takeaway that people are inclined to seek just the right amount of something. But when it comes to where we choose to live, the idea of ‘just right’ varies vastly depending on our stage of life. 

One new trend that really excites Mel is innovative housing typologies: that’s new and emerging housing types, often smaller or more compact than a typical house. Over the last five years or so, she’s seen a real push to rethink the type of housing within residential master planned communities.   

“When you think of residential master planned communities, you think of sprawling residential communities with 15-metre-wide blocks that are 30 or 40 metres deep. That’s a very traditional and conservative way of thinking about urban design.” 

“Some of my clients are drawn to innovative housing typologies as it speaks to certain needs like affordability or upkeep. Not everyone wants to live in a four-bedroom house on a big block and maintain the yard or clean the house. Having different housing typologies is important because it means that you can pretty much have anyone from any walk of life find a home that works for them within the community – it creates diversity within the community.” 

The Aura master planned community on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland has already started bringing this concept to life. The Stockland driven project is Australia’s largest master planned community under a single ownership and has an ambitious vision to design and construct to the highest global environmental and sustainability standards. 

RPS has been an integral member of the Aura development team since the site was acquired in 2005, and Mel has been involved in the development of the ‘urban village’ neighbourhoods to create a central hub of diverse housing options. 

“They have different type of neighbourhoods that includes more innovative and compact housing typologies – products like rear loaded terraces or little micro homes. It’s a different built form outcome and some are on tiny blocks of land, but the homes are designed in a way that they're supposed to be compact – and it's targeting a specific type of buyer.”

“For me, that's the space that I love playing in. Because all that we want within our communities is to provide diversity. If you have diversity in the people that are living there, then you'll get better outcomes on the ground and people will have richer lives.” 

Sense of place: connecting with Indigenous culture

Another trend that’s growing momentum is connecting to Indigenous culture on the land. Mel says we’re seeing a step in the right direction for respecting the existing sense of place and celebrating cultural heritage and Indigenous stories, particularly in the context of landscape architecture.
 
“When it comes to designs of open space pockets or parks, we can incorporate Indigenous stories within landscapes that flows into an educational narrative that allows people to learn, understand and reflect.” 

According to Mel, the Borrol Lookout Park in Lendlease’s Yarrabilba community is a perfect example of how RPS landscape architects connected design with our Indigenous heritage. 

“At Borrol Lookout, the design of the park celebrates views to particular mountains which are important in the Dreamtime creation stories for the area. The stories are shared with visitors to the park through storybook plaques, carved totems, and integrated play elements. It’s this sort of design that further enhances the sense of place that we try to create.” 

Borrol Lookout Park in Queensland includes a reflective space to learn about First Nations stories and heritage
Borrol Lookout Park, Queensland: a reflective space to learn about First Nations stories and heritage

It takes a village to create a village

As an urban designer Mel says she takes a lot of advice from other technical consultants – then she uses that collective intelligence to create a successful place for people to live in.

“When we work on a project there'll be our client and a wide variety of consultants – town planners, civil engineers, traffic engineers, stormwater specialists, bushfire consultants, ecologists’, and so on.”

“When you start a project the bushfire expert might say, ‘I need you to have a setback from this pocket of vegetation because we need a bushfire buffer’. Whereas the engineer might say, ‘I need a stormwater basin in this location, and I need it to be this particular size and shape’.”

There’s a whole slew of frameworks and regulations that Mel also must comply with when she’s in the design process. Added to that, there are planning schemes, with certain codes that she needs to design in accordance with.

“There’ll be high level guidance that tells us specific details such as the number and size of local parks, the residential density we need to achieve, or that there needs to be a bus stop located within a particular distance of every home. So, we get all that information together and we then have to create a design that ticks everyone’s boxes, but also a design that provides a great, liveable outcome.” 

RPS Principal Urban Designer Mel Drake sketches a drawing on her iPad. She wears a colourful dress with hot pink, orange, blue, and apricot tones.

The power of drawing and 3D

While Mel and her team spend their days working in AutoCAD (a 2D and 3D computer-aided design software application) and the Adobe Creative Suite (photo and design software), they still dedicate time to hand drawing a lot of concepts too. 

“If you jump straight into CAD, you're not actually going through the design thinking process. If you can give someone a pen or pencil and help them form the vision for what they’re designing, you get much more creative and well-grounded outcomes.” 

Although Mel has a confession to make. She says most of her hand drawings nowadays are done on an iPad. 

“It's easier to do on my iPad – it’s a lot quicker, and I can use the undo button! You can then export it easily as opposed to drawing on massive sheets of paper and then scanning it in.” 

“Our whole team do a drawing course with an architect based in Brisbane every few years to get a refresher so that people keep drawing by hand because it's an important part of the design process.” 

According to Mel, drawing by hand in a workshop setting also helps various stakeholders have input into the design process. 

“Nothing beats when you’re in a workshop, giving someone a pen and having them draw out their ideas – people then have ownership over the design process and the outcome.” 

As much as Mel loves hand drawing, she’s equally enamoured with 3D modelling, which is one of her other specialisations. 

“You get to think about some of the built form outcomes in a more physical sense and understand what it will look like on the ground. I really like doing things in 3D because it makes me feel like I'm playing The Sims again – and getting paid to do it.” 

“The 3D-project that I'm most proud of relates to Carseldine Urban Village where we did a fly through to assist with their sales campaign for the Village Heart; it’s their mixed use centre which features a High Street, retail, commercial, community and apartment offerings. We created renders and a flythrough of the masterplan, including people walking through the streets, cars driving along, and so on.” 

Mel says by thinking in 3D, she’s able to make smart financial and commercial recommendations to clients. 

“In 3D, I not only think about the built form outcomes, but also things like the slope across a particular site or streetscape interfaces – and I know what's commercially feasible and what an ultimate operator like Westfield, or a home builder wants.” 

This knowledge then translates to more innovative initiatives like compact housing. 

“Because I understand architectural intricacies, I can propose outcomes and float ideas and discuss new ideas with a sense of understanding as to what's possible and what's not.” 

A pictorial representation of Carseldine Village
Carseldine Urban Village

Designing the urban DNA

Carseldine Urban Village is an Economic Development Queensland (EDQ) project. It’s the last remaining parcel in the Fitzgibbon Priority Development Area and is set to revitalise the former Queensland University of Technology campus grounds into a vibrant urban village, whilst retaining 75 per cent of existing bushland on the site. 

Mel’s worked on this project from its inception: from concept design through to detailed design development and approval negotiation. As the design lead for the project, she says Carseldine was one of the most rewarding projects to be a part of. 

“There are a lot of innovative housing typologies that we've put in the masterplan, and I've been able to drive the design vision for the Village Heart. I've been able to experience everything on that project from start to end and it is also just down the road from where I used to live, so I felt a real personal connection.”

When asked to pick her favourite projects, Mel laments that it’s like asking her to pick a favourite child. Yet, she’s quick to add Flagstone located in Logan, Queensland to her list of special projects.  

The PEET Flagstone project is on track to provide over 12,000 new homes, alongside a town centre which will include 250,000 square metres of Gross Floor Area across retail, entertainment, commercial, civic, and community spaces.  Flagstone has been designed as a ‘community of villages’ with the masterplan embracing outdoor adventure and discovery. 

“We’re essentially creating an entirely new city. Being able to work on something like that has been incredible and it throws so many curveballs at me and I'm always working on something different. I'm able to work on everything from residential masterplanning to retail concepts, design guidelines, and open space planning.” 

Spreading success: a career champion

In 2022, Mel was named one of UDIA's emerging leaders. A year later, she found herself in the USA as part of the 2023 Tetra Tech Leadership Academy. This initiative was driven by RPS’ parent company which boasts a thriving global workforce of 27,000 employees. From such a large pool of staff peppered all over the world, Mel was one of 40 emerging leaders chosen to attend.  

“I was sent to the USA twice and this helped me further my growth within RPS. I was thrilled to join the cohort and be thrown into an environment that would further my professional development. I made some fantastic connections with colleagues from across the world and learnt a lot about my own management style and how to inspire others in my team.”

Reflecting back on her early years, Mel has come a long way. She remembers a time when she didn’t always feel confident to speak up. But with the help of supportive clients and colleagues she found her own unique voice.  

“What helped me through those early years was clients and colleagues championing me as an individual. Having the support of those people to push me forward, to have my voice heard and to feel that my opinions or ideas were valid was the biggest thing.” 

Now, Mel is on a mission to give back to the industry that has given her so much. She believes that to help shape the industry you also need to be actively involved in a lot of industry groups and build meaningful relationships. 

“Working for the UDIA early on in my career made me understand that aside from the work we do and the energy and effort we put in as consultants within the development industry, we need to give something back if we're wanting to achieve the greater good and to open up dialogue and conversations.” 

True to her word, Mel has contributed articles and opinion pieces to the UDIA Qld and the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA). She’s also a regular speaker at the UDIA Qld’s Professional Development courses and educates people new to the development industry on all things urban design.  

Mel Drake surrounded by her cohort of 40 at the Tetra Tech leadership academy.
Mel Drake surrounded by her cohort at the Tetra Tech leadership academy

Much ado about mentors

While Mel had her sights set firmly on a career in urban design, she says without a mentor she wouldn’t be where she is today. 

After hiring her at RPS, Dan Gibson, also took her under his wing and played a vital role as a mentor, which Mel believes changed her career trajectory. 

“He always had the time to explain things to me and I was never made to feel like I was being annoying or asking too many questions. Dan gave flexibility and backed me to do things, but if I failed, he was ready to jump in and help me find a fix.” 

“When Dan moved into a management role within RPS, he had trust in me to take over all the projects which I had been working on with him. At the time, I didn't feel like I was ready for it, but I was able to succeed in that environment. The opportunity he gave me allowed me to get out of my comfort zone and I was able to take on a lot more responsibility which proved to me how much I could do. I hadn't really given myself credit for my abilities prior to that.” 

Mel recalls that one of the hallmarks of Dan’s leadership style and his role as a mentor was that he encouraged his team to bring their whole selves to work. 

“You never felt like you were just an employee to him. He always made the effort to have a chat and ask you about topics outside of work. He’d always show interest in what you did over the weekend and make you feel like you were part of something bigger and not just coming into work for RPS to do these deliverables.”

RPS Principal Urban Designer Mel Drake presenting at a Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA) event
Mel presents at UDIA

Career advice for emerging urban designers

One of Mel’s friends jokes that, ‘you won’t find anyone more passionate about urban design’ than her.

It’s this drive and enthusiasm, along with pure sheer hard work that has set Mel up for success.   

“I have a strong work ethic. From the time I started, I have put a lot of effort and pride into what I do. Sometimes it means that I’ve struggled over the years with my work-life balance, but at the same time, I know that if I hadn't put in the hard work, I wouldn't be in the position that I am now. I have progressed through my career quite quickly compared to others of my age.”  

“I also have a drive for learning as much as possible. So, in the early days I was always asking questions and I believe no question is ever stupid. For the first few years of my career, I wanted to be like a sponge, and suck in as much information as I could.” 

Mel says no course can ever fully prepare you for a career in urban design. 

“It's very much about listening and throwing yourself into different experiences. It takes a long time to understand what we do and how to do it. When we have a new person starting on our team, it normally takes two years for them to just get the basics. It's probably another two years after that, that they feel like they know what they’re doing and can give advice wholeheartedly to a client.” 

“So, once you’ve finished Uni, you’re not going to hit the ground running. There's a long training process involved – and it’s less defined because it is a creative field. You need to try a whole range of different things and find what works best for your creative design process.”

Even as an experienced Principal Urban Designer, Mel is put to the test each day. Her recent work on Ellendale, a Cedar Woods project, which is a master planned community just 12 kilometres from the Brisbane CBD, has proved her mettle.   

“It's probably the most complicated slope responsive project that I've ever worked on. We're having to look at individual locations of trees, earthworks levels to ensure we can get vehicle access while also limiting heights of retaining walls, setbacks from vegetation to manage bushfire – all to figure out where homes can be situated that have the least impact on the environment.” 

But Mel enjoys these out of the ordinary experiences that come her way, like the over 50s lifestyle villages she also gets to influence. 

“The over 50s lifestyle villages are for people wanting to downsize and to feel part of a community, and they have a bit of a bad reputation because they appear quite dense, but our clients developing them care about the residents and have a long-term investment in their lifestyles.”  

“And you can do some really cool stuff with the community facilities and open space embellishments providing some green relief – stuff that you couldn't normally do in a standard residential area. So, it's interesting working for a different demographic and it has been a good way to test some different ideas.” 

There’s no place like home

Mel’s love of urban design doesn’t stop when she clocks off from work. It’s a passion that often seeps into her personal life too. 

Before Mel started working as an urban designer, she was already co-designing her first home with her partner at an RPS designed master planned community in Fitzgibbon Chase, in Brisbane.

“I ended up building a house there and moving in before I even fully understood the gravity of it. I knew about Fitzgibbon Chase from its certification under EnviroDevelopment at the time – it’s a sustainable and innovative award-winning community.”

“That gave me a real understanding around the decisions people make when they’re buying a home in a new community and gave me firsthand experience with the builders and how they create particular outcomes on the ground.”

Once Mel started working for RPS, she would drag her partner and their dog along for drives to checkout different sites whenever there was an opportunity.

“I’d say we've got a spare afternoon. We're going for a drive out to Ipswich to check out this new community.” 

After eight years at Fitzgibbon Chase, Mel has found a new home and she’s using her design skills to shape her new pad with an extensive renovation. 

“We’re very slowly renovating the house ourselves. I take all my drawing, building, and 3D skills from work. So, every new room that we're renovating I model up in SketchUp and render it and make sure that I'm happy with what it looks like before we start physically changing things. My husband thinks I’m a little crazy, but it hasn’t failed us yet!” 

If she could turn back time

Short of jumping into a time machine, if Mel were able to give her eight-year-old-self, that SimCity obsessed little girl some advice, what would that be?  

“When I was going through my Uni degree, I knew that I wanted to move into urban design and master planning, but a lot of people thought it was a weird choice and that becoming an architect was the only option. I wasn't given the faith that I could think outside of the box as to where my career could go.” 

“So, I’d say just follow your gut and what makes you happy in terms of what you professionally want to do as a career and the types of projects that you see yourself working on – and you'll find a way to get there. And continue to be passionate about what you do – it changes people’s lives.” 

RPS Principal Urban Designer Mel Drake wears a black and white outfit and brown sandals, and is facing a video camera hands on hips and smiling.
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