Hop on a boat for an hour from Cairns or the Whitsundays in Tropical Northern Queensland and you can access the world’s largest coral reef system which stretches for around 344,000 square kilometres, is made up of more than 2,900 individual reefs and contains around 900 islands.

Walk across Swanson Street from Flinders Street Station in the heart of Melbourne, by contrast, and you see something different.

Covering an area of 3.2 hectares and sitting above large city railway lines, Federation Square (Fed Square) (pictured above) incorporates major cultural institutions such as the Ian Potter CentreAustralian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and the Koorie Heritage Trust as well as cafes and bars.

Having catered for more than 100 million visitors since opening in 2002, it is arranged in a series of buildings centred around a large paved square and a glass walled atrium.

In addition to providing an exciting venue for entertainment, the Square represents Melbourne as a leading city for arts, innovation, creativity and cultural expression; communicates the City’s leadership in contemporary ideas and expression; and provides a focal point for arts, cultural festivals and activities and civic commemorations.

The above contrast highlights what Heath Gledhill, Global Capability Leader Integrated Design and Capability Leader Precincts ANZ at Aurecon as well as Immediate Past Chapter President and current Chapter Executive member of the Victorian Chapter of the Australia Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA), describes as two broad types of landscape which are relevant to creating and maintaining successful tourism sites and destinations.

In a recent interview with Sourceable, Gledhill spoke about the importance of bringing landscape architects in during early phases of planning for projects, townships and precincts. Landscape architects, Gledhill says, can help to determine the critical features which townships and precincts need to attract people and drive tourism along with how best to respond to a unique, natural setting.

When it comes to landscapes, Gledhill speaks of two categories.

First, there are natural landscapes such as the GBR.

With these, he says the challenge is to construct or insert ‘moments’ into the landscape which enable people to experience the natural beauty whilst simultaneously protecting the space and minimising any human impact upon it.

Beyond that, there are constructed landscapes. When dealing with these, Gledhill says it is important not only to deliver function but also to invoke or convey a sense of theme, story or meaning.

One example is Fed Square. This Gledhill says, has become a known space with a rich history in terms of the story which the design communicates about the country of Australia.

Features which help to achieve this include:

  • The layout of the square which is made up of a series of interlocking and cascading spaces which open at various angles into the city and create unexpected connections and vistas. This denotes the concept of federation in bringing disparate parts together to form a coherent whole.
  • A maze of laneways that weave in and out of the major landmarks and resemble the laneways of Melbourne which were prevalent in the nineteenth century.
  • Use of bluestone for the majority of the paving in the Atrium and St Paul’s Court (matching footpaths elsewhere in central Melbourne) combined with use of 470,000 ochre-coloured sandstone blocks which cover the main square. These are from Western Australia and invoke images of the Australian outback.

Another example is Yagan Square in Perth.

Named after the Noongar leader Yagan, this is a transit recreational and commercial hub which occupies 1.1 hectares and is situated between the Perth Railway Station, Horseshoe Bridge and the Perth Busport. It was completed in 2018 as part of the Perth City Link urban renewal project.

Designed as a place where people can not only transit but where locals and visitors can meet and connect with and celebrate the history and culture of Western Australia, the area offers green spaces for relaxation and play, cafes and restaurants, a market hall, digital media, native gardens and public art.

Specific features pay homage to both the natural landscape and to Noongar culture. The design incorporates stories from the Wadjuk people – the traditional owners of the land – and explores themes of place, people, animals, birds and landscape.

These features include:

  • A digital tower which symbolises reeds which were once found in the location along with the fourteen Noongar language groups.
  • Canopies which symbolise lakes that once occupied the site.
  • Landscaping involving native trees and plants which symbolise the sites history
  • A WA wildflower garden
  • Landscaping features which showcase a variety of materials found throughout the site
  • Tracks which acknowledge the area’s history as a place of hunting and gathering
  • Immersive public art: and
  • The ability to enjoy the state’s fresh produce in markets, cafes and restaurants.

Yangan Square

As well as in Australia, Gledhill says there are examples elsewhere.

In the US, one example is the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York. Whilst this is a sombre location, Gledhill says the landscape which has been created on site is such that visitors cannot help but be immersed in the space and what it resembles.

At Millenium Park in Chicago, Gledhill talks of wildflower meadows which are planted and a vegetable/community garden which creates a working component within an urban environment.

In New Zealand, many spaces have a strong connection to traditional owners and thus invoke a sense of cultural richness.

Overall, Gledhill says Australia does well at creating landscapes which inspire and draw people in.

Australia has also developed a unique set of design approaches which have a quintessential Aussie style to them.

Despite having lagged in this are in the past, Australia has come a long way in designing landscapes which connect to place and our history of traditional indigenous owners.

On the flip side, he says there have been cases where designers have tried to do too much.

Across established suburbs in Melbourne, Gledhill says there are many garden spaces which are straightforward and offer large open lawn areas with rings of trees and park bench spaces. Rather than being highly programmed or completely paved, these spaces provide areas in which people can relax, reflect and immerse themselves within their environment.

In a drive to create ‘wow’ spaces, he says it is important to avoid compromising the sense of botanic nature which is associated with rolling lawns and trees.

Asked about strategies which are needed to create landscapes that help to create destinations and deliver value for tourism and other purposes, Gledhill says there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

In his own case, Gledhill’s team at Aurecon has worked projects ranging from large infrastructure developments such as Airport Rail Link and Suburban Rail Loop to places such as Jindabyne near the Snowy Mountains and the Thredbo alpine village.

In the former case, he says the focus involves moving and connecting people with places.

With the latter, it is important to identify what is there along with features that those places require to sustain the quality and quantity of tourism that they need. An important consideration involves provision of services such as water, power and sewers. It also involves creation of destination moments. These include lookouts perched on top of high rock planes that allow views back across the valley.

9/11 memorial

Gledhill says the role of landscape architecture has extended beyond simple functions such as gardening and creating public plazas and parks. Nowadays, landscape architects work with economists, engineers, government agencies and others and are a core part of the project planning team.

He says the value of landscape architects in project planning should not be underestimated.

“Landscape architects have an innate ability to understand and appreciate the multiple layers that go into a place,” Gledhill said.

“A civil engineer or drainage engineer might be interested in making sure that there is a water function and that it meets requirements. We will say, ‘great, is there another way that we could actually utilise that water and bring it to the surface?’

“Equally, if we have a developer who wants to develop a site, our first question is ‘that’s great but we have to think about who is coming here, how they are getting here and the experience they have had on their way’. If by the time they get here, they have had to cross three rail lines, people are often frustrated. You need to be able to understand how people are feeling when they arrive at a place.

“Rather than saying we are putting in apartments and it’s going to have x number of shops, it’s about asking questions, doing the research and understanding that no project can be delivered by a singular profession”.

“You need to bring your best and bring those layers to a project to make it succeed”.

“Landscape architects are well versed in being able to drive those conversations.”