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Taking infrastructure engagement to a new level at Level Crossings

Level Crossing project

Establishing a Community Open Space panel facilitated community input on use of new open space on the Caulfield to Dandenong level crossing removal project.

With the Level Crossing Removal Project team.

What does community engagement have to do with removing level crossings, you ask? Well, everything!

In Melbourne, removing level crossings is a big deal, in fact the Level Crossing Removal Project (LXRP) is one of the largest rail infrastructure projects in Victoria’s history.

Those playing along at home will know the numbers: 58 level crossings removed and 27 to go. While we give props to those in hard hats and hi-vis vests for this incredible feat, our engagement with these communities is vital in achieving this once-in-a-generation transformation to the way Melburnians live, work and travel.

Our community stretches the length and breadth of Melbourne and our work touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of people every day, people of all ages, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.

Since the project’s inception in 2015, we have involved local communities in decisions affecting them, guided by the principles of best practice engagement as set out by the IAP2 public participation framework.

In fact, we are so passionate about it that ‘great engagement’ is written into our organisation’s DNA. It forms a key component of LXRP’s vision and our business strategy.

Great engagement is expected of everyone at LXRP. This starts in week one, with new starters attending Community Reference Group sessions, and other important stakeholder interface meetings, to observe and get a greater understanding of the issues and opportunities on the project. They are also given site tours to better visualise the communities in which they’ll be working.

We ensure our Project Directors recognise the importance of effective community engagement, too, and have them play an active role. They meet with key stakeholders to understand their interests, engage with the community through discussions at information sessions and Community Reference Groups and facilitate community-driven outcomes on our projects. Our technical experts, including engineers, architects, and landscape designers attend community information sessions and seek input on project designs, giving them a first-hand understanding of the needs of the community.

While our integrated, hands-on approach to engagement has certainly evolved, we sought input from the community right from the beginning of our project about how they would like to participate, and undertook broad research to better understand community needs, issues and opportunities. Our community engagement is built on three key principles:

  • Engage with local communities and stakeholders in the early stages of each project
  • Draw on local insights, values and knowledge to inform each project
  • Ensure communities and stakeholders have multiple opportunities to meaningfully participate in the planning and delivery of each project

One of the most significant aspects of our engagement is to establish clear parameters around what is negotiable on a project. We are open and transparent about what aspects of the project can be influenced.

This is particularly important as our projects have fixed technical requirements in relation to rail and station aspects, but there is scope to actively collaborate with the community on negotiable elements including open spaces, landscaping, station precincts and public art.

We have worked hard to earn the support and cooperation of communities by involving them in the project’s development, even when a level crossing removal itself may have had differing levels of support among local stakeholders. A great example of this was through our Community Open Space Expert Panel (COSEP), where a group 23 open space experts, community members and representatives from other relevant organisations was convened to advise on the development of 22.5 hectares of open space in Melbourne’s south-east created by elevating the rail line between Caulfield and Dandenong.

The panel influenced decisions around landscape design and planting, pedestrian shared pathways, public spaces and how to incorporate community feedback into the final design. It represented a new model for providing the extensive community feedback to a project team working on a large, complex project and encouraged expanded thinking and exploration for new ideas for open space design. Participants told us that the consultation was a genuine process, resulting in changes to the final design. The COSEP Chair reported that there was a sense of co-design with the project, as “nothing was off the table and all ideas were captured”.

We employed a similar tactic in developing new open space in Preston in Melbourne’s north, convening a Preston Open Space Advisory Panel (POSAP). Selected for their diverse range of interests and views, POSAP members participated in Covid Safe virtual engagement activities including using Mural, Zoom and virtual Q&A sessions.

POSAP was instrumental in refining the final design to include both passive and active recreational spaces, as well as indigenous and native plants, a wetland and several grasslands in response to the desire for more green space. It also included a continuous bicycle and pedestrian link to improve local connectivity, another key aspect identified by POSAP.

Community engagement has come a long way in recent years, global pandemic notwithstanding. It is no longer in the realm of the passive, inviting people to send feedback via snail mail. Meaningful engagement is about being proactive. It’s about asking the community how they would like to be engaged, ensuring that people who might be harder to reach than others are still able to have their voices heard and offering a multitude of ways to contribute.

In pandemic times, this includes virtual meetings and online surveys, but also through the innovation of Augmented Reality via QR codes. Yet, during Melbourne’s lockdowns last year, we have also seen very high levels of engagement through the use of the good old-fashioned telephone.

One thing remains unchanged – great engagement is about connecting with people, seeking their input and showing the impact of their contribution. This is how we are delivering consistently great outcomes for local communities right across Melbourne.