From the Ground Up

12th May 2014

" … it is not simply a matter of replacing the old with the new, but of carefully considering a variety of elements …"

Kirsten Bauer, Aspect Studios

Successful urban regeneration relies on multiple factors, and such has been the case at Victoria Harbour. By Rowena Robertson

The making of the modern Victoria Harbour – its transformation from the heavily industrialised, working docks of old into a comfortable, welcoming place to live and work – has been a mammoth task. This is the nature of urban regeneration: it is not simply a matter of replacing the old with the new, but of carefully considering a variety of elements and the interplay between them. 


In addition, the needs of an array of stakeholders must be factored in. This process can – and usually does – take years.Commissioned by Lend Lease, the Victoria Harbour masterplan, by Aspect-Oculus – a joint venture between the two landscape architecture firms that was created to work on large-scale public domain projects in Australia and internationally – took two to three years to complete and was a highly collaborative undertaking. Involved were government organisations, architects, project developers, traffic planners, engineers and services experts. Considerations included economics, sustainability, public realm issues, community facilities, structures and services, and the plan needed the agreement of Places Victoria (then VicUrban) and the City of Melbourne – two of the aforementioned government organisations – and naturally that of Lend Lease.


“It’s a combination of collaboration at a conceptual level, a financial level and a technical level,” says Kirsten Bauer from Aspect Studios. “It’s not a simple process, because you’re trying to put a vision together, trying to think forward 20 or 30 years and decide ‘what type of community do we want to develop here? Who do we think is going to be living here? What do we think their needs are going to be? How is this community going to add to Melbourne’s cultural identity?’”


In any urban regeneration project public space is a central consideration. Aspect-Oculus drew on the reams of research on public space and conducted extensive community discussions to come up with, in collaboration with Lend Lease, a concept for the public realm at Victoria Harbour. Bauer believes a successful public realm is about quality, not quantity, as well as having a diversity of public space.“At Victoria Harbour you have the northern promenade, for instance. You don’t want the southern promenade to be of the same type of scale and design,” she says. “You don’t want to be repeating the type of public open space. You want people to think, ‘Well, if I go down to this space I’ll have this type of experience; if I go down to that space I’ll have that type of experience.’”


The northern promenade is the most prominent public space at Victoria Harbour, and has changed in concept from the early days. The future promenade will be narrower, to reduce the sense of ‘largeness’ and wind exposure. Dock Square, further inland and more protected, has been designed to counterbalance this openness. It will be a space for the whole Harbour with a strong civic feel.“Dock Square is seen as a major event space and public open space, and we worked closely with the authorities and with Lend Lease to ensure the programming was right,” says Claire Martin from Oculus. “It had to have an open space for more active recreation, it had to have the flexibility to host events – small, more frequent events as well as larger-scale events – and Lend Lease and ourselves were very keen to incorporate a play component to make this a destination in its own right.”


Adhering to the idea of a diversity of public space, Victoria Green is a smaller and a more local space that relates to nearby buildings and offers great value to daily workers as well as the residential community, with its playground peeling off the back of Serrata, Caffe Bambino, barbecues and a community garden. At the next level there are smaller, ‘pocket’ parks, usually situated at the end of laneway just before the main promenades; these areas are for sitting and relaxing in, on the way to the larger spaces. “It’s kind of a fabric of smaller open public spaces throughout all of Victoria Harbour, with some key focus  on public space areas,” says Bauer.


In addition to the focus on types of space, Lend Lease and Aspect-Oculus had to consider finer-grain elements of the public realm such as materiality, planting and public art.  In Dock Square, for example, bluestone is prominent. “The materials were chosen to reinforce the fact that it is a civic space and it is an urban space,” says Martin. “Because of the formal nature of the park and the symmetry of the park, we wanted there to be quite a weight to the bluestone, so the way we articulated the  walls was to reinforce the corners, to physically give it some weight, but also to play up that they are meant to  be there for a while.”


Planting in the square is non-indigenous, so as to link it with some of Melbourne’s iconic public spaces, and these plants have also been chosen for their ability to survive in the very particular environmental conditions in Docklands. This formal tree planting also helps to mark out the different zones of the park; for example, the play space, marked out by planting, sits quietly amid the more open condition of the turf.


Lend Lease was also keen to ensure that Victoria Harbour is a leader in green development. To this end, timber has been sourced from the old wharves, and has been used in Dock Square and as decking under the new library. Some of it even shows the original boltholes. “The timber registers the site in its grain,” says Martin. “Investing in Victoria Harbour from a sustainable perspective is about trying to engage people in the life of the space.” In terms of public art, Dock Square will play host to  a significant work – a 15-metre-high ‘tree of life’  sculpture by renowned Australian artist Sally Smart  that is intended to speak to multiple generations of inhabitants of Victoria Harbour.


“The team worked very integrally with her and [lighting designer] Bruce Ramos,” says Bauer. “It’s part of the  whole story of Dock Square … The scale of the work  is in line with the future scale of the trees.” For Lend Lease, Aspect-Oculus and all the other parties involved, the master planning of Victoria Harbour has been an all-consuming but ultimately rewarding undertaking. These rewards are already being passed on in kind to the residents and workers of Victoria Harbour, and will continue to be into the future.


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