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From concept to completion: reinventing Byron Bay’s old railway precinct

Famous for its beaches, backpackers, lighthouse and, nowadays, music festivals, Byron Bay sits at the easternmost point of the Australian mainland.  In 2004, the town’s old railway station was closed and, over the following decade, the adjacent park at Railway Square had become increasingly run-down and underutilised. As part of a broader Town Centre Masterplan, Byron Shire Council drew up ambitious plans to revitalise and activate the public space through the creation of Byron Bay Railway Park. Now open, Fleetwood Urban is proud to have helped deliver the park’s key play structure, collaborating from the early concept and design detailing stages right through to pre-assembly in Sydney and on-site installation in Byron.

I recently sat down with two of the project leads, Dan Plummer from Plummer & Smith Landscape Architects, and Claire McGarry from Byron Shire Council, to explore the vision, process, and outcome of this unique project. Below is an edited summary of our conversation.

ADRIAN TRIMMER (FLEETWOOD URBAN): Thanks for your time. Can we start by getting a little background to the Railway Park project please?

DAN PLUMMER (PLUMMER & SMITH): Well, as the name suggests, the site was at the old railway station in Byron Bay, right in the centre of town. It’s actually one of the oldest public spaces anywhere in Byron, with a lot of heritage significance. That section of railroad closed more than a decade ago, and ever since the area had become quite unloved and almost forgotten by the community, especially families. There was a real desire to encourage locals to use it again and enjoy the experience of being in the heart of their own town. It was all about providing a safe and engaging space people wanted to be in.

CLAIRE MCGARRY (BYRON SHIRE COUNCIL): Revitalising the park was identified by Council as one of the top priorities in the Byron Bay Town Centre Masterplan. That was completed in 2016 with the help of a Masterplan Guidance Group, 22 really active members of the Byron Bay community. Given the history of the site, we knew the whole process would be quite sensitive, and the Guidance Group were a vital sounding board. As Dan says, the aim was really to get the community using the space again and feeling like they had ownership of it. For us it was a really important project in terms of complexity and political sensitivity.

ADRIAN: Plummer & Smith was appointed by Council as the landscape architects for the project. Then during the early concept stages, Dan you recommended involving Fleetwood to help with the park’s all-important play structures – something we did right through to final installation. How did that all come about?

DAN: There are quite a few different elements to the park, including the feature playground as well as elevated walkways, soft-scaping and an amazing old cottonwood tree right in the centre. Overall our key design drive was always to remove physical and visual barriers to the park, draw people into the space, and to activate all edges. A big part of that was the playground which sits towards the back of the park. To transform the area into a loved space again by the community, we knew it had to be very, very good. Council didn’t want off-the-shelf solutions and neither did we. While we’d never partnered with Fleetwood before, we certainly knew of your  play structures. We were very attracted to the quality of your work and your ability to deliver bespoke play structures – which is exactly what this project needed.

CLAIRE: That was so important. Dan made a really strong recommendation that we should engage Fleetwood for the play structure, especially given it was quite a constricted and constrained site with some real challenges. We knew you could firstly design something that would aesthetically match our community’s expectations, but then also had the skills and expertise to actually deliver it, despite the tricky site. For us that was a really big drawcard.

ADRIAN: Obviously a project of this nature has a lot of moving parts, a lot of considerations, a lot of things you need to stay on top of. How did you find the process of actually working with Fleetwood through all this?

DAN: Design-wise, we had an idea of what we wanted for the play structure and during the initial concept phase we had several interactions with the Fleetwood team. We started by talking about our ideas and sketches, but we also looked at some of your other projects that were relevant to ours. From there, your designers came back with their own interpretations of our sketches, and we started to negotiate the finer details and developing 3D drawings. That really helped with the community group consultations to get everyone excited about the playground.

We worked pretty closely in the early stages and set the design direction together, but as things began to progress from concept designs into drafting, engineering and construction, your team knew what had to be done and they got on with doing it. Once we moved into design detailing and beyond, my role was more about review. I had confidence I was dealing with experts and I really just needed to make sure everything was on track. In the end our original design vision was brought to life really well.

CLAIRE: It’s fair to say that Dan, as the design lead, worked a lot more closely with Fleetwood than Council, especially during the design phase. We also engaged an external project manager who oversaw the onsite and logistical details and, again, he had far more direct involvement. That said, we were always very aware of what Fleetwood was doing and your team was always responsive to any questions we had. That was done very well.

ADRIAN: So you felt like you were kept well-informed throughout the project?

CLAIRE: Yes. Internally we had fortnightly project team meetings. The playground was always a standing agenda item, because there were always updates coming through from Fleetwood. It was clear to us that the project manager and Dan were in regular contact with Fleetwood and communicating well, they always knew what was going on.

DAN: You were certainly very diligent in giving us Friday afternoon updates – even in those inevitable weeks on projects when nothing much happened!

ADRIAN: Looking back now, can you pinpoint what the greatest value was that Fleetwood added to the project?

DAN: Expertise and experience. From start to finish it was very helpful to have your expertise in delivering the critical play structure of the overall Railway Park picture, especially because the style of play we were going for. We needed it to be something pretty special, something people hadn’t seen at other parks in the region, perhaps anywhere, and something that really made people want to come back to the space again. That’s where Fleetwood’s expertise and experience really came in. We needed to know we were dealing with people who had the creativity to do it, but even more importantly, that you could deliver on all those nuts and bolts issues of structural integrity, structural design, and then fabrication and installation capabilities on top of that. You had all of it.

CLAIRE: It really goes back to what we were talking about before. Being able to deliver something that’s very bespoke to fit both the space and also community expectations. It wasn’t just an off-the-shelf solution, that was really important to us, really valuable.

ADRIAN: That’s great to hear, because it’s always been something that’s driven our whole business ethos, finding clever ways to deliver on the unique creative visions of our clients.

DAN: That’s actually relatively unusual in my experience. A lot of companies will say they provide ‘custom design’, but often it’s really just customisation of an existing design. We  certainly didn’t want to come up with original sketch ideas only to have them run through the company’s miller and pop out looking, ‘lo and behold’, just like what they normally do off the shelf!

ADRIAN: The Railway Park is now open to the public, so can I just finish by asking how you both feel about the outcome? Has it lived up to your expectations?

DAN: Definitely. People are using the space a lot which has been great to see. Obviously it still has to stand the test of time, but so far the response has been excellent, ‘you little ripper – we love being able to hang out in the centre of our own town again!’ It’s also enjoying community-wide use, which is another really good thing, no one’s been excluded. Before, I think younger families certainly didn’t feel like they could use it.

CLAIRE: Since it opened the play structure has been pumping! It’s certainly a really big and important feature of the park. There have been a few issues that we’re working through, but overall it’s been received really, really well. We’ve actually had a few comments from community members saying they haven’t used that space for over 10 years and now they’re very excited to take their kids and grandkids back there! The Masterplan Guidance Group loves it too, their feedback has been really positive. It’s certainly proved to us the value of having quite intensive community engagement through the design and development phase. That group became project champions for us, which made such a difference.

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