Not often does the act of a single project offer the chance for the reunification of a community, let alone 12 suburbs. A train line that has divide 8 kms of suburban Melbourne into two for over a 100 years is being elevated. This has created an opportunity for either side, which have developed independently to finally come together below, with enormous potential for civic, social and cultural repair. The train line, which first contributed to the growth of these communities, is now the very thing restricting them. What leftunder interrogates is how the momentum from a large infrastructural project can be opportunistically used to address a broad range of local issues. The 225,000m2 of space created below the train line is simply a by-product of an election promise to remove 50 of the most dangerous level crossings within Melbourne, and was never the intention of this undertaking. OFFICE saw that without the appropriate consultation and activism from the local community an underwhelming treatment of the space would be the result. It could be argued that the government's proposal is just that.
Questioning the traditional tools of the architect, leftunder became an independent online forum that assumed the role of facilitator in the engagement of these communities. The online forum allowed for new interactions between all those who have a stake in the project and traditionally tend not to be heard. To coordinate a series of projects below the extent of the 8 km train line, demands the need to facilitate and engage with a number of stakeholders. Traditionally the local residents are missing from this engagement, or are engaged when it is too late. The website was our way of navigating and cataloguing the desires of these parties, as an open dialogue was established. By engaging with the local residents, leftunder directly addressed the complex social, economic and political make-up of the suburbs that the train line passes through allowing for site-specific responses. Establishing strong relationships within local residents and community groups, opportunities for the growth and occupation of these spaces arise, well past the completion of the infrastructure project.
An example of this process is the work OFFICE has done with AMES (Adult Multicultural Education Services) Noble Park who lease a plot of land adjacent to the rail corridor and wanted to explore the opportunity that they have in occupying the space below. Working closely with the regional manager we explored the skills and desires of the refugees and recent migrants in the area in creating a master plan that responds to their needs. By understanding the refugees’ skill sets unrecognised by the Australian government, the engagement highlighted the social and political issues present within this community, and the opportunity to identify these through the infrastructural project. Though this is one example, OFFICE continues to work with councils and community groups to engage with and co-opt the government's proposal.
Infrastructure is vital to our rapidly growing city, leftunder identifies a possibility to leverage these large scale projects for community benefit. The success of leftunder as a model is its ability to bridge the gap between top down and bottom up needs and desires. To engage with infrastructure as a necessary and generative system, that when properly understood can reinforce the uniqueness of the suburbs it engages with.
As a critique on current development leftunder is a model for a replicable platform, a project that addresses the lack of engagement within local communities affected by development. The project attempts to repair not only a spatial fissure, but hopes to repair the relationship between the general public and built environment professionals. As an independent group it’s questionable how much impact it has had on the final design for the space below the line. The State Government has released the final concept plans for the 225,000m2 of linear park, which appear to be a rollout of generic and hackneyed ideas. Late 2018 will see the next state election, coincidentally timed with the completion of this infrastructural project. If we look past the freshly rolled turf, playgrounds & bbqs, will these spaces really help the local communities or will it simply be another misrepresentation and understanding of what is actually needed.