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Amy Grey: on Brisbane’s communal land battle, troll spaces and temporary installations

Albert Street, Brisbane

Communal space in Brisbane is increasingly being contested by commercialisation, according to landscape architect Amy Grey. But the city has a lot of potential for innovative places, including “troll spaces” under bridges and expressways, and temporary spaces that can act to inform permanent ones.

Grey, who is with urban planning and design consultancy Meter Design, is one of the speakers at the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects inaugural conference, Forecast Future, which kicked off in Brisbane today (Thursday).

She told The Fifth Estate that the intersection of people and space in an open setting, and how this contributes to social sustainability, is the prime driver of her approach to design for projects such as the Southport Broadwater parklands on the Gold Coast, and in projects with the Brisbane-based U.R{BNE} Collective, which she co-founded.

Communal space and commercialisation

The idea of communal space is one she says is increasingly being contested by commercialisation, for example, at King George Square in the heart of Brisbane.

Grey initiated games nights in KGS, involving things like giant chess sets, to break down Brisbane’s socialising silos and bring different generations, cultures and socio-economic groups together. They succeeded and have become an institution where people who would normally never interact do, something she attributes to the “invisible” nature of design.

However, there are parts of the area where loud repetitive classical music is being used to deter young people from congregating, and this she says is deterring everyone from those parts of the space. Then, recently, almost the entire square was lost to the public for a few weeks when it was given over for marketing by a car company, so they could run a test driving yard there.

A car company takes over public space

A car company takes over public space

It is becoming harder in Brisbane to find a space where a person can feel comfortable sitting and eating a sandwich brought from home, she says. In Queen Street Mall, the combination of hurrying crowds and a giant TV screen showing around 60 to 70 per cent advertising commercialises the space, and a similar screen features at KGS.

The Botanic Gardens is currently being masterplanned for a makeover, but Grey is concerned the degree to which council wants to encourage commercial cafes into the gardens will take away one of the few places in the CBD someone can sit, be silent and read a book under a tree.

“The balance is being lost in Brisbane; we are not building parks and spaces for people to be in,” she says.

Along Eagle Street, where high rise towers dominate the built form, the public space contribution from the developer has manifested in open cobbled areas that she says have an uncomfortable seat put in the middle in the sun where it gets too hot to use. Grey describes this as “despicable”.

“It is hard for developers; they have to make a profit, so the city should be ensuring the checks and balances. And good developers should be aware of their future legacy, and they would want to be considering the legacy of community space and the legacy of social sustainability of their projects,” she says.

“As a society we need to improve the community, break down barriers and bring people together. I think this is the next thing we should be looking at.

Amy Grey

Amy Grey

“Our public spaces are becoming more and more commercialised. There will be a big sign saying what you can’t do, and the cafes are encroaching, so you find yourself thinking, ‘What can I do here? Can I bring a coffee I bought from somewhere else? Can I sit and eat my sandwich?’

“We have got some really contested public spaces throughout Australia. Why does there always have to be someone sticking their hands out?

“We need to have a conversation about how much commercialisation in our public spaces is too much. At Southport Parklands, that conversation was very much front and centre, and a decision was made by Gold Coast City Council to just put one cafe in. This was balanced with the rest [of the space] for parkland.”

This has now also become a space used extensively for free community events.

Grey says our beaches are another good example of non-commercialised public space.

“Our beaches are a no-go zone for commercialisation. We have drawn a line in the sand here in Australia [in contrast to places like Phuket in Thailand] and said, ‘No, we don’t do commercialisation of our beaches.’”

Sometimes, it’s a matter of degree. The Containervale project that Grey and others from U.R{BNE} developed at Northshore Hamilton, which has now evolved into the Eat St Markets, was initiated by the state government’s economic development unit’s marketing department as a strategy for shifting the perception of the area from industrial port to urban community.

Containervale

Containervale

Northshore Hamilton is formerly a working river port area and home to the cruise ship terminal. It has been masterplanned under the UDIA’s EnviroDevelopment tool to become a dense residential area and commercial, retail and entertainment hub.

Eat St’s pop-up restaurants and market stalls in repurposed shipping containers now create a weekly urban event that brings people to the area. It is also moveable, and the plan is to shift the market as parts of the area are redeveloped.

“It reintroduced people to the space, making it feel like a people-scale space rather than a big industrial space,” Grey says.

Temporary spaces influencing permanent ones

“My hope is, as they keep shifting it, the shipping containers will influence the permanent buildings on the site. For example, if they have to move one because the wind direction at that spot makes it uncomfortable for people, that is useful information for design of a building there.

“I’d like to see more trialling of things. It’s so much better for the city.”

Another example of the successful use of temporary trials was an experiential consultation carried out by Brisbane City Council at Albert Street. The council was considering closing a few blocks to traffic to create a public space area, however local businesses had concerns this could have negative impacts on trade. So Ms Grey undertook a project with the council where the road was closed for three days between the hours of 11am and 2pm, traffic controllers were brought in, and astroturf and temporary outdoor furniture added.

The result – the public embraced the space and local traders found business actually improved. That section of road is now to be closed to traffic and a public outdoor space created.

This method also resolves a difficulty with more traditional consultation approaches in that many members of the public find it challenging to interpret plans, and it is also hard to visualise the impact of a planning proposal from the lines on paper.

“This way, the community can see it, and we have an opportunity to identify any problems that might arise with the proposal,” Grey says.

Grey says the ability to use lighter, cheaper, moveable materials and structures can have broader applications for developers and allow them to experiment and gain a better understanding of a site.

For example, sites are often dormant for up to a year while approvals are being put in place. She suggests that adding some moveable furniture, and a shipping container structure and inviting people onto the site to use it and interact with the furniture can give useful insights.

“If people keep moving a seat to a particular spot because the sun is really nice there at lunchtime in winter, that tells you something,” she says.

“It is useful to prototype having buildings on a site. It comes back to context; developers need to be talking to residents when they are planning, so they can benefit from the local knowledge about wind and how elements like creeks or stormwater flows behave. Locals know these things.”

Grey says that the landscape context is a key part of any sustainable development.

“We forget that the landscape existed before we build, and it will exist after the building is gone,” she says. “That’s why I think it is important we landscape architects are involved in projects at the beginning, through the middle and at the end for successful sustainability outcomes. If you simply look at the building in a silo, it won’t be sustainable.”

Grey believes the conversation about public space needs to be started, and we need to be asking, what do we want from public space? And just as importantly, what don’t we want?

Opportunities for Brisbane

She says the next opportunities for Brisbane in terms of public space include Kurilpa, a riverside area near Westend, where currently decisions are being made about how much of the area between planned restaurants and the waterline will be public, and which types of activities will be encouraged there. It is potentially similar to Southbank, which remains relatively uncontested, and since it was given to the City Council to manage has become a place for a range of activities including free yoga classes and public games.

Southport Broadwater Parklands

Southport Broadwater Parklands

Another public space where a recent temporary event highlighted its potential is under the Expressway at Queens Wharf. The area is currently the focus of commercial building renewal, and is also home to the first building constructed in the Moreton Bay Colony – the Commissariat.

“That’s where Brisbane started,” Ms Grey says.

She says she hopes there will be a focus on public space at Queens Wharf and that the area will retain some of it’s “urban grittiness”, but that it is still unclear what the area will look like following redevelopment.

A recent festival she co-organised for the space under the expressway brought together skateboarders, multi-generational families and artists. Chalk was provided for people to contribute to a massive collaborative temporary artwork on the road under the expressway, and there were activities including Parkour lessons.

“It’s a troll space. We don’t have laneways like Melbourne, we have troll spaces, under the expressways, under the bridges. They are dark, and they offer some really interesting public space and design possibilities. We could do things with lighting, with art and with markets, and do really interesting things in those spaces. Those underspaces are another big opportunity.”

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