Keeping our heartbeat strong

Photo of people enjoying the West Footscray Festival of Colours

A thriving community is much like a heart, and as Victorian communities grow and change, ensuring planning and development focus on people is the secret to ensuring they stay strong, SHAREE GRINTER says.

Our communities are changing.

I’m reminded of this as I walk past a fresh demolition site in one of my local streets, where, somehow, just like that, an unkempt pile of rubble breathes in the dust of generations past, taking the place of a perfectly liveable house that stood proudly there just an hour before.

I’m stirred by the sudden loss and have to look away – partly to let go of it now that it can’t be undone, but also to revel in the unshakably adaptive qualities I know my community to possess.

I remain swamped in the glow of our recent ‘West Footscray Festival of Colours’— a celebration of our neighbourhood’s unique socio and cultural diversity, and a triumph of local connection and collaboration despite the rapid changes to our built and social environment in recent years.

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When we think about what a thriving, abundant community looks like, it’s no coincidence it can be likened to a heart. A pulsing, living core connected to an interdependent network of differing capacities and functions.

In a municipality that boasts more than 135 cultural groups, the Footscray region is no stranger to diversity. Our community has shown itself adept at responding time and again to whatever comes our way and there’s every reason to assume we’ll embrace the adjustment to higher density living, and adapt to the inevitable socio-cultural shift currently unfolding, as more people discover the strengths of living ‘westside’ and become our neighbours.

When we think about what a thriving, abundant community looks like, it’s no coincidence it can be likened to a heart. A pulsing, living core connected to an interdependent network of differing capacities and functions. The connecting ‘arterials’, where we come together to transition between spaces, contain the lifeblood of a community, and are alive with possibility.

Unless you’re familiar with the work of neighbourhood houses, you’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like rhetoric, but from the beginning, neighbourhood houses have been the heart of their community – places of welcome, inclusion, safety, advocacy and support.

They exist first and foremost to facilitate opportunities for inclusion and connection; to help communities respond to their own continually evolving needs and aspirations; and to celebrate the particular identity and strengths of their community at every opportunity.

Photo of people dancing at the West Footscray Festival of ColoursAs we look to the future and what we want our community to look like in 2030, West Footscray Neighbourhood House recognises connection, belonging and social equity are integral elements in our community’s capacity to thrive. This makes ‘people-centred’ spaces and considered urban design keystones for the future.

As we see it, our geographic, built, economic, social and creative environments must be equally valued and carefully balanced to help future-proof our neighbourhoods and ensure they are flexible, adaptive, accessible and sustainable.

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‘People-centred’ spaces and considered urban design are keystones for the future.

With loneliness now recognised to be just as significant a factor in poor health and premature death as obesity and smoking, there’s no excuse for not planning our cities with people and place-making principles firmly at the fore. Opportunities for authentic cross-cultural, intergenerational connection and civic engagement are a must.

People need spaces to gather, and those common grounds need to be multifaceted, human-scale, linked and walkable. In developing them, we need the perspectives of a comprehensive coalition of stakeholders who, from the start, intend the spaces to allow for the myriad possible functions of a changing community. People who show no interest now, should be able to recreate the spaces and use them with gusto later on.

There’s no escaping that rapid urban development and gentrification, when not handled well, can contribute to feelings of displacement and community division.

But localised, community-driven organisations such as neighbourhood houses are key players, as trusted community connectors, in understanding the value and inherent individual and collective expertise and strengths present in a community.

They are skilled in honouring existing local heritage and cultural value; supporting communities to not just tolerate change, but welcome it; and recognise possible opportunities as they unfold.

Consciously creating a sense of place, value and belonging for all goes a long way to navigating this journey to our future. So too does coming together to party, seizing the opportunity to celebrate those differences that are our strengths. This is what good communities are made of.

Photos: West Footscray Festival of Colours, by Vicky Palmieri

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