Most people you speak to these days will agree that the Latrobe Valley is going through a fundamental transition. What fewer people will agree on is how long this has been happening and what the turning point was.
Was it the Hazelwood mine fire in 2014 that put this community on the political map? Was it the release of the film An Inconvenient Truth that made climate change a dinner table conversation topic? Was it the privatisation of the SECV in the 1990s?
But after reviewing the aforementioned inflexion points, what’s the next step? How can we move beyond the situation we currently face?
Another way to look at it is that the transition in the Latrobe Valley is just one tip of a much bigger iceberg. This iceberg has been bobbing up and down, hissing and wheezing and reshaping numerous local economies and landscapes for decades. It’s called globalisation, and for forty years it has been changing how local communities operate, especially those communities that relied on a diminishing industry. One of these places bears some remarkable parallels to the Latrobe Valley and provides some timely inspiration: Germany.
Two regions in Germany that have undergone a significant industrial transition in the past 30 years are the Ruhr and Lusatia. Both of these are traditional coal mining regions and were in a similar situation to the Latrobe Valley given that:
(1) a booming coal industry drives a vibrant local economy and a strong, proud community;
(2) economic restructuring disrupts the status quo and the coal industry suddenly contributes much less to local prosperity;
(3) the local economy struggles to adapt to the new way of things, resulting in hardship and a general crisis of identity.
While the details and pace of these steps have been very different in each case, there is much to be learnt from the German approach to their transition via their IBA program.
Translating to ‘International Building Exhibition’, IBAs are a model for enacting exemplary urban and regional development solutions in exceptional circumstances. Since 1901 there have been fourteen IBAs — six are underway right now — each aiming to shift the paradigm of the day. (1) The architects of these intensive transition programs understand that the kinds of challenges they face demand courage, leadership and ambition. They also understand that the scale and complexity of their circumstances cannot be addressed with a snap of the fingers and a splash of cash.
IBA programs in the Ruhr (IBA Emscher Park, 1989–99) and Lusatia (IBA Fürst-Pückler-Land, 2000–10) each required coordination, commitment and vision from an astounding number of players, including the local community. Though their direct impact is difficult to measure, it’s worth noting that Essen, a former industrial town of the Ruhr, was named Germany’s Cultural Capital just 10 years after the IBA officially finished. (2) The IBA Fürst-Pückler-Land celebrated the completion of 30 unique projects across the region with an artistic program called Paradise 2. Seven events were staged in, on and around the ‘wounded landscapes’ of Lusatia’s brown coal mines, bringing together over 7000 locals as artists and over 10,000 visitors from Germany and beyond. (3) Not bad.
In a recent visit to these regions, I witnessed the results firsthand. While there is no post-industrial ‘abracadabra’ that makes the challenges go away, there are strategies that were visible in both places. As a landscape architect from Queensland who has been active in the Latrobe Valley community for the past four years, I observed the German interventions with keen interest. Acknowledging that an outsider’s perspective is often different from born-and-bred locals’, these are what I believe is lacking in the conversations and efforts driving the transition in the Valley.
Building pride in industrial heritage.
An industrial transition should not be seen as an ‘out with old, in with the new’ process. The IBA Lusatia offers a prescription: “The legacy of mining, land, buildings and infrastructures are industrial heritage resources for sustainable development. The preservation and reuse of typical components create special places that shape the look of a region and bridge the past and the future”. (5)
Engaging with the passage of time.
This is a long game, and it’s been playing out for decades already. The passage of time, if celebrated and curated, can create a ‘region in flux’ that offers something different every time people come back. At key moments, physical changes can become public events that connect people to a place in motion. For example, in Lusatia, a public ceremony was held when the first flow of water was allowed into a network of former brown coal mines.
Connecting remediation to future economies.
Remediation of mines should be about more than simply achieving a ‘safe and stable’ landform. This is an absolute necessity, but only because it enables unrestricted use of the ground afterwards. In Lusatia, local groups are holding outdoor film festivals in open-cut pits, music festivals next to decommissioned dredging machinery and establishing vineyards on mine batters during their rehabilitation. What else could be done in the Valley?
Enabling recreation through adaptation.
Existing assets should be seen as opportunities for unique recreational experiences. We can design safety into post-industrial spaces as an adaptive improvement, so why dismiss exciting possibilities for future use based on fear of perceived risk? Demolishing and removing industrial remnants may seem like the quickest and easiest solution providing short-term jobs, but this is short-sighted and erases unimaginable future potential forever.
Capitalising on unique spaces.
Redundant industrial infrastructure can spark creative ideas for new spaces. By forgetting what these monumental things were built for and thinking fresh about new uses, we can create some striking landscapes. An industrial object that was originally designed to do one thing at maximum efficiency can become the backdrop for lots of different threads of activity, infrastructural performance and ecological biodiversity.
Remember, this is a long game for the Latrobe Valley and a ‘safe and stable landform’ is just the beginning. As a country with over 60,000 unrehabilitated mines nationwide (9), it’s time we started producing some exemplary solutions to these exceptional circumstances across Australia.
Latrobe Valley could be the leader. All that’s needed is some vision, some patience and an optimistic perspective on the resources at your fingertips.
Industrial-grade play — Former mineral silo walls become the springboard for a slide like you’ve never seen. Infrastructures for play are scattered throughout the enormous Duisburg Nord site, embedding an element of discovery and exploration at every turn.
Organic growth — A former steel manufacturing facility called Duisburg Nord is now a public park that puts the natural process of ecological succession on display. Highly manicured gardens coexist with more organic moments like this one, where nature is visibly reclaiming its environment. (6)
Out of plumb — A striking water feature snakes its way through kilometres of park, buildings and other repurposed heritage infrastructures at Duisburg Nord (this image shows a rock-climbing wall in the background). When it rains, the flow of water creates spectacular moments along the exposed ‘plumbing’, revealing what is typically a hidden function of buildings and public spaces — drainage.
The ‘Horizontal Eiffel Tower’ — F60, the largest piece of mining equipment ever constructed, measures 500 metres long and 90 metres high. It’s now a monument to an industrial legacy sitting within a new outdoor event space amongst solar farms, a community-owned nature reserve on an overburden deposit, and the new Lake Bergheide. A light and sound installation was installed in the structure in 2015, and both day and night tours are on offer year-round, operated by former mining industry employees. (4)
Double shot? — The cafes and restaurants at Zollverein Industrial Complex put the industrial chic of Melbourne’s cafe scene to shame. The hulking, iron-clad volumes of decommissioned coal and steel facilities bring the industrial heritage right to your table as you peer out of the factory windows to the post-industrial expanse beyond. (8)
Slow build — The IBA Visitors Centre in Großräschen is an event space, playground, cultural centre, historical archive, harbour, public garden and agricultural operation rolled into one (yes, that’s a vineyard!). Over the past 15 years, as the edge of the water has been slowly rising, “the biggest construction site in the world” has been reshaping the local landscape, culture and economy while maintaining the basics of a safe and stable landform. (7)
1–Internationale Bauausstellung, website, accessed at https://www.open-iba.de/en/
2–The Independent (2009), Essen 2010: from industrial to cultural capital, access at https://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/essen-2010-from-industrial-to-culturalcapital-5513390.html
3–IBA Lausitz 2010, Online PDF accessed at http://www.ibasee2010.de/downloads/1001/IBA_Lausitz_2010.pdf
4–Besucherbergwerk F60, website, accessed at www.f60.de
5–Baida, M. (2012), Healing Wounded Landscapes: The Role of Landscape Architects in Achieving Post-Mining Sustainability, accessed at https://www.churchilltrust.com.au/media/fellows/Landscape_architecture_to_achieve_post_mining_sustainability_M_Baida_2012_1.pdf
6–Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, website, accessed at www.landschaftspark.de/en/
7–IBA Start Site Grossräschen, website, access at http://www.iba-see2010.de/en/verstehen/projekte/projekt1
8–Stiftung Zollverein, website, accessed at www.zollverein.de
9–ABC Lateline (2017), Mining report finds 60,000 abandoned sites, lack of rehabilitation and unreliable data, accessed at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-15/australia-institutereport-raises-concerns-on-mine-rehab/8270558