This question was posed and pulled-apart at “The Public Life of Infrastructure,” a panel session curated and hosted by Kirsten Bauer, ASPECT Studios Global Design Director, and Timothy Moore, Curator in the Department of Contemporary Design and Architecture at the National Gallery of Victoria. Featuring the Landscape Architects behind a range of the parks, as well as representatives from local councils and the Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA), the event was a look at the design intents motivating the realised form of the parks, as well as a discussion of the environmental issues and political anxieties that gave them shape.
Damian Collopy, Principal Advisor on Landscape Architecture at the Office of the Victorian Government Architect, said that visualisations tend to leave people cold. A render is, after all, only a representation of an idea. The community has to trust that the idea will be realised in the way the designers insist it will, and that trust had not yet been established for projects of this type. Kierkebosch produced a post-occupancy study, produced with data insight company Place Intelligence, that used mobile device data to show how well-used the project has been since its completion. In hindsight, he said that it was the community’s animated expression of their concerns that led to the creation of many of the park’s most successful and generous elements.
“People know when things are tokenistic,” he said, and by engaging with the concerns particular, these final outcome works to actively mitigate these concerns, with expanded public facilities and programming that ensures the site is populated into the evening.
Designers who have worked on similar projects since then have experienced related difficulties. The Caulfield to Dandenong project was not yet complete when the designs for the Carrum and Kananook Level Crossing Removal Project, by Rush/Wright Associates and Cox Architecture, were presented to the public. Describing the Carrum Station section of the project as a “backyard to the beach,” Collopy praised the way the coastal character of the new landscape and the way it ties the beach to the train station, but recalled similar objections to its creation.
When asked when the tide of public opinion finally turned, Tara Bell, Team Leader of Urban Design and Place at the City of Kingston, said it ultimately came down to having a similar completed project – in this case, Caulfield to Dandenong – that concerned people could visit. “The minute people can be in a space, opinions change,” she said.
Dieter Lim, Managing Director of Tract Consultants, said that the narrowness of the park meant that the space was “all edge,” allowing for a unique level of programmatic intensity. Richard Tolliday, of Merri-bek Council, said that the park serves several groups of people who were not previously well accommodated by existing green spaces, like dog owners who now make good use of a new dog park, and older teenagers who are drawn to the skate park. Craig Guthrie, Principal at Hassell, presented a different flavour of the typology with the work done around the more suburban Werribee station, which focused on connecting the neighbourhood to the river and Indigenous co-design.
Closing the panel, the University of Melbourne’s Dr Jillian Wallis read an essay that connected the parks to the international trend toward linear parks in post-industrial cities, and located them in a contested social context. In an elegant summary of the anxieties and disputes that have often defined these projects, Wallis said public spaces in Melbourne are often a “dumping ground” for public and political concerns. One of the few kinds of public project that are truly accessible to everyone, disagreements about who and what the city is for erupt into view.
Moreover, Wallis argued that it was the physical character of the parks themselves that allows them to function as “[…] very pure examples of what landscape architecture can add to a city.”
“The thin park can be conceived as a necklace of events or spectacles presenting a typological linear ‘stage’. In its varying suburban contexts, the Level Crossing Removal projects showcase a theatrics of Melbourne suburban life offering glimpses of its multi-cultural and cross generational users which inhabit the outer rings. And it is because of this, that perhaps the linear is the overarching typological approach to contemporary open space in Melbourne. This space not only offers landscape architects ‘intellectual ownership’, but also tends to lie outside the grasp of neo-liberal development.”
Bauer, in her closing comments, celebrated the rapid growth of the form in Melbourne, making the claim that the city is a genuine leader in creating high-quality public space in tandem with large public infrastructure projects.
“How many landscape architects are now employed solely to work on level crossings in Melbourne alone?” she wondered. It will be interesting to see what happens next.
The Public Life of Infrastructure: Elevated Rail and Linear Parks took place at the NGV Australia as part of Melbourne Design Week. The Caulfield to Dandenong Linear Park can be found exhibited alongside other great Victorian public spaces as part of Melbourne Now, which runs at the NGV until 20 August.