Many ‘activity centres’ are small shopping strips with some heritage value adjacent to suburban train stations. The public land attached to many of these railway stations presents opportunities for redevelopment and a reinvention of the suburbs. However, they are often nestled inside residential areas that are being fiercely defended against change. The 2030 strategy is languishing somewhat through lack of urban design vision, together with the fear of a voter backlash from the ‘save our suburbs’ movement.
Surrey Hills railway station, in the leafy eastern suburbs of Melbourne, sits on a two hectare site adjacent to a small shopping strip in a valley between Box Hill and Camberwell. The public land is mostly parking lots and the station buildings have no heritage value. The site is in a relatively mature and leafy residential area with a mix of mostly detached housing of 1-2 storeys.
An urban design studio conducted with architecture students at the University of Melbourne was set the task to develop visions for the site incorporating a mix of residential, commercial and retail (min. of 30,000 sq metres) together with a revamped railway station and public open space. There were two main rules: no overlooking or overshadowing of existing private open space.
Beyond this protection of existing amenity students were invited to reinvent the image and identity, of the place. Urban design frameworks were developed and ‘tested’ by different student architects giving form to the vision.
Five schemes were produced by different groups and these visions were presented to a public meeting of residents at the local neighbourhood centre – the discussion was then broadcast on the local radio station. I was struck by the paradox that these entirely fictional visions (hence no real threat) can engender a more realistic debate about the future of the suburbs than the overheated prejudice that so often paralyses real projects.