Next time you set off for your local shopping mall, ask yourself what you are expecting - the answer probably won’t include a 1,000 square-metre public library, a collaborative business hub housing the cream of your local entrepreneurs with an iconic town square architecture rivalling the world’s most ambitious civic developments. But that is what you will find at Ringwood’s new Town Square and Realm precinct, part of the $665m transformation of the Eastland shopping centre that is helping invigorate the urban centre of Maroondah, a 110,000 strong, 61 square kilometre district to the east of Melbourne.
The project is the product of a fifteen-year planning vision that, for the first time in Australia’s history, has placed a developer, QICGRE, alongside the council and state government in an integrated public-private partnership. Collaboration between a public body and a private firm is rare because their interests so rarely align. But in Ringwood, the project to create a new model of civic, culture and business space, that also accommodates a developed high street retail offering, has them pulling together.
At the project’s heart is The Realm, an impressive modernist design that hosts a range of local community buildings. The new resource library contains more than 45,000 books as well as a feast of new technology, e-books, DVDs and free e-learning programs open to use for everyone. So as school children arrive for their afternoon homework session in the library, an IT outreach officer from the adjacent council buildings is helping a group of local retirees with their first steps into the world of social media.
Next door, and part of the same Centre for Regional Knowledge and Innovation, which has turned heads nationally and benefits from $3 million in Federal funding, is the art space. It will feature a steady roll of exhibitions by leading national and international artists. But given equal emphasis is the work of local creators, including the nearby secondary schools. Current artists-in-residence will be giving classes to aspiring local amateur painters, part of a course that is aimed at local residents. The space hosts regular collaborations and master classes of this type combining educational initiatives with local schools as well as a range of public workshops and quarterly arts incubators.
Setting the library, cultural, knowledge and innovation centre right next to Ringwood’s commercial and retail space and the Maroondah council offices is the first initiative of this kind in Australia. Shaping the project meant consulting locals all the way from inception and ensuring the needs of the community, rather than the commercial offering, lead the project’s development.
Retailers have encouraged the approach, as e-commerce continues to reshape what and how people buy, retailers are shifting the shopping experience from a necessity to an experience sought out in its own right. Integrating a communal or social element and a connection such as The Realm and the Town Square supports this shift from transaction to experience and interaction across generations.
At Ringwood, details like portal archways housing restaurants, plenty of natural lighting, a ready supply public art and generous landscaping around the Town Square blur the line dividing the retail and commercial offering from the cultural and civic one. People who are assembling on the gardens and spilling out of the adjacent al fresco restaurants are part of the community, comfortable in a space where they can relax and engage. Outdoor cinema screening and music concerts help with the draw, over the weekend a night market will draw additional locals for an evening wander, events which elsewhere might compete with the existing retail offering but here complement them.
Gradually these events stitch the new precinct into the daily life of the local community. The memories of ice cream with grandma for today's children may soon be replaced with those of wildlife encounter groups in school. And who knows, maybe in a few more years, the same groups will be enjoying a coffee and a sandwich on the grass, as they take a pause between business meetings framed by this remarkable community space.