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New public gardens are coming to Melbourne

Early works are underway to transform some of Southbank’s lesser used streets into parks.

Bulldozers were ripping up swathes of bitumen from Dodds St, a street segment between Buxton Contemporary, the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. It will become a park that connects those three cultural institutions.

Dodds St between Southbank Boulevard and Grant St will become a park

A short section of Sturt St connecting City Rd with Kavanagh St was permanently closed to traffic in January as part of the Melbourne Arts Precinct Transformation. As well as the new contemporary art gallery, the project will connect and reimagine all the public spaces between Federation Square and the gallery. The spaces will be accessible and connected unlike formerly where obscure stairs connected the Arts Centre with City Rd.

The project will add 18,000 sq metres of public gardens. Note that word. Not open space, not public realm, but gardens ‘of unprecedented scale and complexity’.

Hassell is the landscape architecture firm designing the project with collaborators Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough.

Dunnett was a designer of the Superbloom, a project for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. The moat of the Tower of London was planted with 20 million seeds from 29 species of flowers. It was the first stage of a permanent transformation of the moat. The project was explicitly designed for birds, bees and other pollinators.

In a presentation at the Arts Centre in December last year, he spoke passionately about wanting to bring the experience of beauty and of nature right into the heart of the city for everyone to enjoy. His approach to such projects is motivated by gardening that addresses the biodiversity and climate crisis.

We tend to think of gardens as either ‘on’ or ‘off’ – blooming in summer and dormant in winter and nothing much in between. But the landscapes they create are about every single stage of the plant in its annual cycle. The projects are so designed that when one plant ‘dies’ off, another comes into focus.

During their visit to Melbourne, Dunnett and Hitchmough visited Emma Cutting and her Heart Gardening project. To follow Emma’s project is to get regular insights into the wonder of observations from the gardens she cares for. There is no space too small, or too large, to contribute to biodiversity.

It has been taken for granted that parks, generally speaking, have carefully mown lawns with trees and perhaps a flowerbed or two. These landscapes, which have been described as ‘blandscapes’, are high maintenance. They rely on frequent mowing, trimming and edging as well as inputs of water. High maintenance is expensive. Their gardens are complex and layered, and based on careful observation of the growing habits of plants, the soil conditions and the changing climate.

Dunnet insists that these landscapes are competitive on maintenance while they’re hands on winners in biodiversity and beauty.

Here in Port, we’ve experienced such ‘exuberant’ landscapes in Cruikshank St when a bed was planted with sunflowers, to be succeeded each winter with daffodils and other flowering bulbs.

Cruikshank St sunflowers in 2020

The Port of Melbourne, as part of the Port Capacity Project in 2015, invested in a landscape and shared path along Todd Rd. At the suggestion of then Friends of Westgate Park, the corridor was planted with a mix of locally indigenous plants to create a seamless biodiversity corridor from Westgate Park to the Sandridge foreshore. In places, particularly between the Boulevard and Williamstown Rd, the plantings have been very successful. The seeding grasses against the corten wall look fantastic at this time of year, an example of the seasonal experience we might have in the new landscapes in the Arts Precinct.

Grasses against the corten wall on Todd Rd

Unfortunately, other sections of the plantings have not been as successful with invasive weeds taking hold. The Port also faces the challenge of ongoing graffiti removal which a spokesperson said is ‘like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge’.

With care and attention to the gaps in the planting and the removal of invasive weeds, the Todd Rd landscape could be an exemplar of the type of landscape planned for the Arts Precint.

Read more about the Tower of London Superbloom and the Melbourne Arts Precinct Transformation by following the links below.

Nigel Dunnett

Hassell Melbourne Arts Precinct Transformation

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