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The Public Life of Infrastructure – elevated rail and linear parks

Date: May 30, 2023
Category: Insights
Melbourne’s level crossing removal program was initially touted as a way of improving motor traffic. But it has also established an entirely new kind of public space for the city – the under-rail linear park.
These new parks, now scattered across Melbourne, claw out public space in the slender space beneath elevated rail viaducts. They knit together street networks that were previously sliced in two by the immutable line of the at-grade railway, and a focus on active transport connections and multi-generational program means they are in use throughout the day and into the evening. Often found in mature and densifying neighbourhoods, they also provide outdoor space in places where new parks would otherwise be prohibitively expensive and complex.

It is fair to say that, by several important measures, these linear parks are a success. But anyone with a reasonable memory will remember how tortured and contested these projects were when they were first proposed. It seems appropriate, then, to ask how this shift in perception happened, and what this says about public spaces about our cities – and the people who live in them.
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Play structures at the Caulfield to Dandenong Railway Park

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.

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Dr Timothy Moore and Kirsten Bauer open the presentation
Designing with fear
The projects have been widely celebrated for setting new standards and creating an entirely new typology for Melbourne – but the panel pointed out these successes were hard-won.
Adam Kiekebosch, ASPECT Studios Regional Director, began by recounting how the Caulfield to Dandenong Rail Crossing Removal was initially maligned by the community and in the press. One of the first elevated rail projects in Melbourne, the designers were left without relevant examples of similar built work to point to, and instead relied on sketches and renders to communicate their plans to the public. This initially did little to soothe concerns about the bulk of the elevated railway, whether the new spaces would be harbours for antisocial activity, and the removal of trees.
Crowd gathers at The Public Life of Infrastructure
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Adam Kiekebosch discusses community engagement

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.

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Caulfield to Dandenong Railway and Linear Park

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.

Panelists from left to right: Kirsten Bauer, Tara Bell and Damian Collopy
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The Public Life of Infrastructure
Designing a line
More recent “skyrail” parks demonstrate a willingness to build on and refine what is becoming a Melbourne vernacular style, even when the process is led by different practices.
The Bell to Moreland Level Crossing Removal Project, designed by Tract Consultants and Wood Marsh Architecture, traverses the narrowest site of the projects completed so far. Built atop one of the oldest railway lines in Melbourne, the new landscape preserves, and in some places actively repairs, a number of heritage elements, including a pair of Victorian stations and signal boxes.

A recurring theme was that designing these parks, outside of the complex task of negotiating community expectations, is hard. A high and persistent level of creativity is evidently needed to create great spaces in such difficult places.
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Panelists from left to right: Kirsten Bauer, Deiter Lim and Richard Tolliday

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.

The linear parks, then, are an example of how focusing on the creation of a public good can deflect certain political and economic orthodoxies.

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.”

Elevated Rail and Linear Parks as featured in Melbourne Now
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Panelists l/r: Dr Jillian Wallis, Craig Guthrie and Damian Collopy
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Kirsten Bauer explains the benefits of elevated railways

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.