A Melbourne Design Week conversation: New Epping’s journey to celebrate Country

Project Director for New Epping, Ben Rowe, was  joined by Jeremy Gaden from Greenshoot Consulting and Joanne Green from Tract Consultants to host a conversation during Melbourne Design Week to explore how Riverlee is embedding the knowledge of Country at New Epping.

In 2021, Riverlee partnered with Greenshoot Consulting to work with representatives from the Traditional Owners of the land on which New Epping is located, the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung, including Senior Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Joy Murphy-Wandin AO and Uncle Colin Hunter, to establish a reciprocal relationship and include Wurundjeri knowledge and themes into the masterplan for New Epping.

The panel discussion took a deep dive into this consultation process for the  $2 billion mixed-use precinct—transforming a former industrial site into a vibrant city within the suburbs.

Project Director Ben Rowe explained Riverlee’s philosophy of creating meaningful places with a sense of history — embedding the past into the future of a place.

“Key to the process was taking time to build a strong working relationship with Wurundjeri Elders and getting to know them and their stories directly.”

“Traditional Owner knowledge and principles often overlap and strengthen general sustainability and regeneration outcomes, which are key narratives for New Epping. To build a relationship with Aunty Joy and Uncle Colin, we sat down with them, listened, and committed to working together.”

Jeremy Gaden of Greenshoot Consulting, who facilitated the process, said that initiating this partnership authentically involved some tough conversations.

“We had to unpack some big issues, like developers making money from Country. It comes back to the notion of value exchange and reciprocity. What’s in it for Traditional Owners was really a critical question.”

Jeremy also emphasised the importance of deeply researching Traditional Owner histories and stories from the outset.

Following a series of workshops, in which Elders discussed the site and its adjacencies, six cultural narratives were identified that could be used to prompt further conversations in design opportunities. This early work not only uncovered these cultural narratives, but also explored how Riverlee and the Wurundjeri would work together in the future — and what reciprocity would look like in this project.

“Context mapping is the starting point for conversations with Traditional Owners to identify the narratives before you step into the built form.” said Jeremy.

This ground-up approach has informed principles in New Epping’s design, like breaking down indoor-outdoor boundaries and creating communal gathering spaces that align with Indigenous design philosophies.

For Joanne Green, senior principal landscape architect from Tract Consultants who has worked on the New Epping project since 2017, avoiding tokenism was crucial.

“We started by listening to the sessions facilitated by Greenshoot and then talked with Aunty Joy about the design process,’’ she said. “Meaningful cultural inputs emerged, like incorporating children’s artwork and handprints into the first park, woorike jellicka, and incorporating native shrub planting across the streetscape.”

For Joanne, the most powerful impact was repairing and regenerating Country itself.

“Besides the remediation into a mixed-use development itself, we created a ‘green spine’—11 hectares of creek corridor and conservation space.

“A very special element of this is the reintroduction of the native Growling Grass Frog. Designing a habitat with an expanse of ponds and ample grassland became a priority to support the frog population to thrive.”

Additionally, Riverlee has committed to allocating 15 per cent affordable housing and will  work within it’s value chain at New Epping to ensure there are opportunities for a First Nations workforce and opportunities for skills development.

The panellists agreed that there is more to do in caring for Country.

There was a collective understanding that we must recognise the Traditional Owners’ understanding of Country—it’s not just the land, it’s the culture, the people, the sky and what’s under the ground. How might we care for Country by caring for people? How can we strengthen the culture?

For Riverlee, it is an ongoing learning journey, yet the collaborations at New Epping signal a new direction for the way we approach the built environment. By taking time to listen, creating space for Traditional Owners to guide the design narrative from day one, and making concrete commitments to share opportunities, we can celebrate Country, rather than build over it.

With a number of exciting projects on the horizon in collaboration with the site’s Traditional Owners, including the Edgars Creek Corridor, we are committed to sustaining long-term relationships throughout the development phase of New Epping to celebrate Wurundjeri culture for generations to come.

This article features the highlights from Riverlee’s panel discussion “Embedding First Nations culture and knowledge in greenfield projects” which took place as a part of Melbourne Design Week on 30th May.

The panel discussion was moderated by Tina Perinotto, Managing Editor of The Fifth Estate, and was due to include Senior Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Joy Murphy-Wandin AO and Maddison Miller lecturer at the University of Melbourne, both of whom were sadly unable to join us on the evening.


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