On the (re)design of indigenous sites and community participation outcomes
St. Kilda is an inner suburb of Melbourne located directly on Port Phillip Bay and within the City of Port Phillip Council’s jurisdiction. Cleve Gardens is a small, highly contested, triangular site within a major tourist area in St Kilda. Bordered by The Esplanade and Fitzroy Streets, Cleve Gardens overlooks Catani Gardens and Port Phillip Bay. It is highly visible from the weekend tourist market stalls along The Esplanade as well as from the trendy cafes on Fitzroy Street. Prior to its redesign it was deemed an Aboriginal meeting ground equipped with a toilet block decorated by Aboriginal murals and an area for gathering, sleeping, and open fires. Obviously Cleave Gardens was not in a pre-white settlement state, it had layers of municipal interventions, however they created a framework for occupation. It was registered as an Aboriginal place of significance under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Heritage Protection Act in 1992 and was heavily used up until its redesign in 1996. This is a story of how this site became an appropriation or gesture to Aboriginal culture while displacing its inhabitants.
In the early 1990’s the local council decided to redevelop the site due to complaints from traders and property owners that the site’s inhabitants exhibited offensive and threatening behavior, public drunkenness, littering, loitering, and numerous other offenses. Kerkin 1998 Several studies and reports were undertaken to assess both the Aboriginal communities’ needs as well as the other stakeholders, (traders, property owners, tourism promoters, residents etc.) A steering committee was appointed to oversee the redesign because of the conflicting interests concerning Cleve Gardens. The committee recommended shelters, a fireplace, children’s play areas, tables, seating, a stage and refurbishment of the toilet block. However, there was a change in Council’s attitude as Kerkin notes, according to Council files they ‘questioned the suitability of Cleve Gardens as place for formal gatherings and… the extent of redevelopment design. Council’s response at this time, then, continued the process of redefining the site and Council began to refer to Cleve Gardens as nothing more than a “traffic island”’.’1 Hence the toilet block was demolished. The Aboriginal community contested further actions through legal means and as a result a member of the Wurundjeri Tribe Council was appointed to a Task Group, which was now responsible for the redesign of the site. Again the needs of the Aboriginal inhabitants were noted but the Task Group also rejected their suggestions.2 In 1996 the final design was approved. It included an area of native grasses and a Wurundjeri cultural marker on The Esplanade side of the site; and special mosaic pavement along Fitzroy Street with seating areas, market stalls, as well as turf. The redesign implies an economic uplift and therefore a helping gesture, a strategy that reduces cultural artifacts to tourist mementos and demands that indigenous cultures adopt a capitalist or Western notion to find value in their cultural practices. The reality of this situation is that this public space is only for the right public. Design limiting access to public spaces is seen in a poor light; re-design makes it difficult for the ‘ugliness’ to exist within it. Indigenous plants and totem poles only offer appropriated symbols of Aboriginal culture and simulated landscapes as a substitute for humans and a landscape of occupation.
The resulting space does not offer much meaning or reference to deeper issues concerning Aboriginal people nor is it a place where they can just hang out. The removal of the toilet block was pivotal in displacing Cleve Gardens’ inhabitants and was the most obvious strategy in doing so. This is a reflection of lingering Australian attitudes towards those who do not conform. n this case it is racist indictment of Aboriginal people and their use of public space. In other cases it is a reaction against junkies on public streets, skate boarders in corporate plazas, and sex workers in parks. Community consultative processes are often used as a device for displacement and placation. Designers need to re-think and call for a re-design of these processes.
As an outsider, I believe that most of the Australian public do not want to see Aboriginal people… especially drunk, loud, and confrontational ones. These actions go beyond western or European notions of appropriate behavior in public space. The ideal of democratic or egalitarian value of public space does not allow for behavior outside of the normative culture to exist. This attitude about public space is not new. When describing the historic evolution of Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens Georgina Whitehead reports, ‘Visitors, however, were not allowed to enjoy themselves indiscriminately. The Lands Department endeavored to regulate behavior and activities so that an acceptable middle class standard prevailed. Decorous behavior demanded that no one be allowed to lie on seats Or the grass, let alone be drunk or disorderly, and small children and dogs were only allowed in under supervision’.3
The outcome for Cleve Gardens is bleak. A 2000 Post Occupancy Evaluation Report found the new Cleve Gardens virtually uninhabited. The politics of redevelopment have been revealed after the event and are ascribed to the staging of an International Grand Prix Event and economic of revitalization of Fitzroy Street. This has lead to lack of trust for future projects.
The City of Port Phillip Council convened the necessary consultative processes that supposedly would ensure an equal outcome to all of those concerned. Cleve Gardens is physical evidence that community consultation can act to placate the disempowered and fulfill the political agendas of those with economic and political advantage. It would seem that in a framework where social agendas seem to be privileged, the outcome would be a true compromise. However, in Cleve Gardens the Aboriginal influence is reduced to objects and symbols4. Community consultation can offer a false sense of hope for designers with social agendas as well as the various stakeholder communities. The majority of Councils within Melbourne and throughout Victoria require consultation in a variety of forms. Cleve Gardens may be just one example of consultation failing; as I continue to read success stories published by colleagues I do have some glimmer of hope. However, a very similar scenario is about to be played out in the year 2002 with the much-anticipated opening of Federation Square. Within Melbourne’s CBD a large group of Aboriginal people gather reularly at St. Paul’s Cathedral just across Flinders Street from the unfinished Federation Square. It’s very easy to be skeptical and speculate who will be displaced but perhaps the City of Melbourne can learn from Cleve Gardens.
Kerkin. K. 1998. ‘Contested Ground: Cleve Gardens, St Kilda.’ Kerb: Journal of Landscape Architecture Issue#5 pp 40-46. ↩
Fincher, R and Jacobs, J.M. (Eds.) 1998. ‘Staging Differences: Aestheticization and Politics of Difference in Contemporary Cities’ Jacobs, J.M. in Cities of Difference. New York: The Gilford Press. ↩
Whitehead, G. 1997. Civilising the City. Melbourne: The City of Melbourne. ↩
Taylor, K. 1998. *Cleve Gardens: The Process and Politics of Design.’ Kerb:Journal of Landscape Architecture Issue#5p 47. ↩