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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Promisetown - now with more crumbs.

Please read Promisetown in conjunction with  City vs Sprawl - A Tale of Two Melbourne's 

There is a small tract of land called the Main Street Reserve, located at the back of Main Street in Thomastown, a Northern suburb of Melbourne. The reserve is unexceptional in both name and outlook. It’s windswept and desolate: a place you wouldn’t want to wander through after dark. There’s a sports oval and a clubroom made in the days when mission brown was thought to be a good thing. There’s a swing and a slide, and, for reasons the water company, the local politician and the residents can’t explain, a section of a creek to the east that is just a concrete drain hole.

This unremarkable reserve was recently allocated a Sports and Recreation Victoria grant to pay for an upgrade, with a focus on the location of the swing and the slide. The grant ignited a flare of hope in down town Thomastown.

The City of Melbourne did a magnificent service to the community when they created that strange paved and uneven space in the city centre: Federation Square. With its big screen and stage, cafes, deck chairs in the summer time, information booth for visitors, open-air tai chi, a million and one events, buskers, sideshows, markets and book fairs. Since its inception in 2002 over 8 million people have converged upon it. Federation Square has allowed us to gather in the middle of the city, so we all can take part, watch, talk to passers-by, connect and belong to the city of Melbourne. 

Evidence abounds about the benefits of spending time with others
VicHealth, the world’s first health promotion foundation established in 1987, states: 

Feeling like you belong and being part of a group are intrinsic to better mental health and well being. We know that social isolation can have a negative effect on your health.

Yet our screens consume our attention, our cars isolate us from contact and our shopping malls transform us into somnambulant consumers. The demise of the milk bar, the introduction of self-serve check outs at supermarkets and the advent of online banking means that some people don’t have a single human interaction for days on end. A chilling thought.

So why can’t there be outdoor gathering spaces in every suburb? They don’t have to be as grand as Federation Square. Just a park offering something a little bit special that might create some pride of place, or a potential counterpoise to extreme levels of disadvantage: high levels of unemployment, gambling losses and high rates of violence. 

Let’s take Thomastown as an example of the type of suburb that might benefit from such a space. Thomastown is north of Melbourne’s CBD, past Bell Street and beyond Mahoney’s Road. It is so disadvantaged that it even got an honorable mention in the 2015 Dropping off the Edge report, by Jesuit Social Services. This report outlines persistent community disadvantage throughout Australia. 

Thomastown is an enigma of sorts. Our supermarket trolleys are filled with cheeses, yogurts, dips and hams made in its industrial zone, but that wealth of local manufacturing doesn’t trickle to down to its streets, nor is there a festival celebrating the foods manufactured in Thomastown. 

Thomastown is a badly designed suburb. Main Street contains the library, an aquatic centre, two schools and the only Early Learning Aboriginal Child and Family Centre in Victoria, Bubup Wilam. The shops are a fair distance away from the Main Street ‘hub’ and there are few places to go besides Epping Plaza, which is two suburbs further north, and hardly a top ten tourist destination.

The library and Neighborhood House, where I work in Thomastown, strive to create opportunities to gather. After all, with 43% literacy rates the library is never going to be the place where borrowers lean in and group hug over Miles Franklin short lists. We have created a monthly market with an emphasis in the promotion on the words ‘free’ and ‘family’. Many stall holders I have spoken to don’t care about how much they sell. They simply want to get out of their houses and talk to others.

Besides these markets, there are numerous craft workshops, playgroups and a coffee cart, creating opportunities for people to just chat. This is a suburb with no art galleries, theatres, live performance spaces or movie houses – it doesn’t even have a big chain fast food outlet.

Give or take a few factors, Thomastown is not unlike so many suburbs in Australia. The layout diminishes opportunities to connect, there is a lack of thought about the location of shops and the lack of the aesthetic is omnipresent. 

Then came the Sports and Recreation grant, the consultants were bused in, the sausages began to sizzle and the bunting was raised. it began to feel not unlike the great Shape Your Future consultation of 2012, where residents and stakeholders were consulted within an inch of their lives. In it the Thomastown community said repeatedly that they just wanted places to meet and gather, to share their cultures and to feel a sense of pride and ownership. 

I suspect that few, if any, of those hundreds of people consulted were urban or town planners, but what was proposed was this: a lovely place to gather and meet and share and connect because those that were consulted didn’t want to spend time at home, or in shopping malls. They wanted places outdoors to connect.

Then there was a change of government and the Shape Your Future recommendations were never implemented. Instead the reports, with all of the hundreds of responses, just got filled away in a cupboard, and the consultations went nowhere. 

As the current round of consultations for the Main Street Reserve progressed, the local government engaged outdoor play experts to draw some pictures of what the space could like and architects to nod and say yes that could be done. Representatives from local schools, the aquatic centre, sports groups, the library, Neighborhood House and Bubup Wilam as well as some residents, were all asked to give their opinions once again.

I attended one of the consultations. The room was filled with nametag-wearing council officers all nodding and appeasing the general mood of the room. Throughout the consultation, we, the stakeholders leaned in wearily and chewed bovine-like on the lollies placed in a huge bowl at the center of the table.

As the consultation wore on, Lisa Thorpe, a woman with a steely nerve, and CEO of Bubup Wilam asked: ‘Why don’t we make Main Sreet Reserve a gathering space? A place where people will want to go? A place where Aboriginal people are acknowledged, where the foliage is indigenous to the area. A place that we can boast about, not just a hidden away wind-swept drug dealer’s haven, with a new brightly colored slide to lean on whilst making a deal.’

We all shifted slightly. There were nods of agreement. The energy in the room lifted. Our jaws moved a little quicker over the sugar-laden lollies. People talked over one another to get their point across. We were all in agreement with Lisa: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice? A place to gather. A place to meet. A place that we would all be happy and content to visit.’ Community capacity building high fives all round.

In rural Victoria, many small towns have reinvented themselves and attracted thousands of visitors because of a change in civic pride.

The individual efforts by all of us collectively leads to an improved sense of community, wellbeing and the outward improvement in the appearance of the municipality. Civic pride is based upon an inclusive sense of being…that offers a single shared identity to a diverse population. Events have a key role to play in as they bring people together so that they learn with and from each other. Through this learning and sharing in active citizenship a core of shared civic values can be developed. (2)

Again we, the consulted ones, weren’t urban planners, academics or place makers, but we all knew instinctively that gathering spaces matter and that it’s important to make those spaces interesting, inviting – somewhere beautiful, that momentarily makes us stop in our tracks and want to spend time in.

The opportunity for change was palpable around the consultation table. Main Street Reserve was a place where something good could happen in Thomastown. It was a chance to show the community that what they said mattered and was acted upon. A chance to create somewhere special with opportunities for spontaneous connections in a setting of beauty and function. The money was in the bag, all that needed to happen was for the recommendations to be put into action. 

There is a fabulous book called Public Spaces: How they humanize Cities, that cites so many examples of why good open public spaces matter and outlines the effects of the increase of shopping malls and apartment blocks on parklands: 
The more diluted and scattered the exchange opportunities, the more the city begins to lose the very thing which makes it a city: a concentration of exchange opportunities. Compared with experiencing buildings and other inanimate objects, experiencing people, who speak and move about, offers a wealth of sensual variation… Furthermore, it concerns the most important subject in life: people. (1) 
In the suburb where I live, Preston, a supermarket was knocked down. It was located next to a market, a train station and another supermarket, near a busy intersection where the throb of traffic rarely ceased.

There was an instant as the earth was being moved to make way for the Centrelink building destined to stand in supermarket’s place, where I superimposed my own imagination. 

I talked with friends and neighbours, spoke to local council officers and councilors. ‘Imagine if this space was left open,’ I said. ‘Imagine if there was a piazza built here, a square, a place we could gather on summer evenings, where nanas could sit and chat, where bands could play, and children could run. A place where we could bring a picnic, talk to people who live in the neighbourhood and passers-by, do our shopping, then stop a while in the shade of a tree.’ 

‘Imagine,’ I kept saying as the earthmovers came in and the concrete got poured. ‘Imagine,’ I said, as the sun set on the idea.

There was a power outage on our street a few weeks ago. As I looked up and down the street to see if it was just our house, a man across the road was there too. We smiled as we decided it looked like the whole street was out. Then we chatted a while. 

‘How long have you lived here for?’ he asked.
‘17 years,’ I said.
It was a smack-the-forehead-in-disbelief moment, we’ve both lived there for more than a decade and not said a word to each other.

Since then we always stop say and say hello. Know Your Neighbour Day has become an instrument of government, encouraging street parties with guides and vouchers to pay for BBQ food. It seems insane that we need a government department to assist us to connect with each other.

My children go out trick-or-treating for Halloween every year. They love getting dressed up and donning face paints that transform their faces into ghoulish masks. They especially love the empty pillow cases at the beginning of the night and the laden-down weight of them by the end. 

I make them go out on that last night in October with me, the dog and our nearest neighbors. We bang on doors and shout ‘Trick or treat!.’ It allows us to smile and say hello to our neighbors and see friends on the street. The lollies are secondary.

When we knock on the doors of the old people two doors down, they shrug in a ‘what is this all about?’ kind of a way, but nevertheless shuffle back into their dimly lit hallways, to their kitchens, and return to their front doors offering up sweeties and treats. We always stop a while and chat with them. After all, there is a lot to say – we only see them on Halloween. We chat to connect. Because otherwise we are all heads down, honking our horns in the traffic and sliding into the slipstream.

I’ve stuck at community development work over the last twenty years because I have seen what those moments of connection can do. For the mother who is isolated, then connects with others through a playgroup, a nod, a smile, a friendship made, can be life-changing. For the refugee who volunteers, learns skills, makes friends, there is an opportunity to feel useful, to contribute, to feel part of something. 

I’m a big advocate for Neighbourhood Houses as they offer people places to go and the community development model employed empowers individuals to take control of their lives through lifelong learning opportunities, advocacy and it also encourages community ownership and participation.  

I like the work because it effects a change at a local level. Neighbourhood Houses are responsive to local needs. They are not an instrument of government. They are community-run and owned. There are 400 plus across Victoria, one in every electorate. 

The Multiple Benefits Report produced by the peak body of Neighbourhood Houses compiled data collected over a twelve-month period. The report outlined stats and data on why people attend Neighbourhood Houses and what they do when they attend. On the whole, people attend for social reasons, to find work, for education, to learn a skill, to volunteer, but most of all people attend quite simply because they want to connect with others.

Dean has been a volunteer with the library and Neighborhood House for over a year. He has a multitude of skills, can turn his hand to anything, from making scary scavenger hunts for library Halloween parties, to building mini-golf courses from cardboard boxes and fake turf. He has become an integral and valuable part of the team. I asked him what he thinks about the proposed revamp of Main Street Reserve and why places to meet are important.

‘When I was at my worst with my mental health issues I often tried to find places to be. The best I could find was the library, but that was more a study area at that time. I needed a place just to talk to other people. There was nowhere. 

‘That then led me to re-introducing myself to neighbours. I often thought, “What if there could be a place to be with those neighbours?” then maybe the world wouldn't feel so dangerous or unsafe anymore. 

‘Since getting back out into the community I now make it a habit of going to Epping plaza. It’s full, jam-packed, no matter what day or time I go. Surely we don't do that much shopping and surely we don't spend that much time out shopping. The car parks are full. All the time. The buses are flying by constantly. It sometimes feels as if they're all zombies walking past each other without even a glance. Possibly people looking for a place to be? 

‘I’ve lived in Thomo all my life and even as a kid we never went to Main Street Reserve, we might ride past on our bikes but we’d never stay there.’

Lisa Thorpe and I meet some days after the Main Street Reserve consultation to talk about funding. She has been fronting up to government departments for years stating why the current early years funding model doesn’t fit Bubup Wilam. 

‘There is no pigeon hole that they can easily put us into,’ Lisa said.
‘A funding model for working parents or children with a disability might work, but we need a different model. The children who come to the centre are some of the most vulnerable, and range across the spectrum, but trauma is not listed as a funded disability.  Neither is a strength-based model of care for children’.

We move on to imagining once more what the Main Street Reserve makeover could offer. Lisa has lived in the area for over 30 years and says in that time not much has changed.

We talk extensively about the importance of gathering spaces and why they matter and we imagine what the Main Street Reserve could be.

‘Imagine,’ we say ‘happening upon something of beauty downtown Thomastown. A place of beauty to lift the spirits and give people a sense of hope and joy.’

We don’t imagine that employment rates will change overnight. Or that domestic violence rates or gambling losses will plummet like a Wall Street crash, but we do know that a gathering space that connects and draws people out of their houses can effect a change on a micro-level and decrease that sense of isolation that so many of us feel.

Over the last 20 years I’ve worked in a whole range of settings and on a whole range of projects with people from housing commission estates, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, people with mental health issues, ex-prisoners, victims and survivors of domestic violence. All of my knowledge and expertise on what makes communities tick has been stripped back to something quite simple – opportunities for people to gather is critical if we want to create healthier suburbs.

Months have gone by now. There is no word from the Main Street Reserve consultation.

Maybe Lisa is right. Maybe all that we will get from the consultation is a lolly. 

Under this vast Australian sky it would appear that community consultations will be here for a long time to come and the Dropping Off The Edge Report will keep adding more suburbs to the inventory of disadvantaged places. Many more voices will add to the catalogue of consultations asking for places to gather, but when, I wonder, will anyone listen? 


(1) Efroymson D, Kieu TT, Pham TH, Ha T, 2009, 
Public Spaces How they humanize cities, retrieved from http://healthbridge.ca/images/uploads/library/Public_Spaces_How_they_Humanize_Cities.pdf

(2) Rentschler R, Bridson K, Evans J, 2015,
Civic Pride and Community Identity, The Impact of Arts in Regional Victoria, retrieved from