By Stephanie Nestor, Assistant Editor, Council Magazine

In a traditional sense, a cemetery is a place for the dead to rest, but as Australia’s population increases in metropolitan regions, large areas of land cannot be reserved solely for the dead – cemeteries must also be gathering places for the living.

Melbourne’s outer suburbs are growing, particularly the outer west. In 2023, the master plan for the new cemetery at Harkness, which encompasses 128ha in the suburb of Melton, was released after years of development.

The new cemetery at Harkness aims to create a modern cemetery that can be used for funeral, memorial, burial and cremation services, while also creating recreational spaces, such as walkways, gardens and sitting areas. This project not only challenges how communities may view cemeteries, but also how they view open spaces.

As Australia’s population grows, there is an increasing demand for public land and spaces to be used more wisely to cater for growing communities. Additionally, for preserving local ecosystems and mitigating the risks of climate change, city planning involves setting aside land to be designated green spaces.

To create open spaces of the future, local governments must look to designing open spaces with sustainability and multiculturalism in mind, to become shared spaces that reflect changing and diverse communities.

A green vision for Melbourne

Ever since the original plans for Melbourne’s urban green spaces were drawn up in 1929, city planners have known the health, environmental and social benefits of offering people parks to gather in or gardens to observe. Even a hundred years ago, governments knew green infrastructure was integral to creating a livable city.

As Melbourne’s population grew, so did the city, as new suburbs were created to expand the metropolitan region. But often, green spaces were built around the suburbs or retrofitted decades later. Now in a third population boom, new developments are happening on Melbourne’s fringes and these new suburbs will have green infrastructure included right from the planning stage.

Under the Melbourne Metropolitan Open Space for Everyone Strategy, cemeteries are not classified as open space. However, as ‘encumbered’ or restricted’ public land they can be utilised for a secondary purpose – providing areas for local communities, with social, health and wellbeing benefits as well as the environmental, biodiversity and climate change resilience outcomes.

Open Space for Everyone Program Manager at the Victorian Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA), Fran Horsley, is a member of the Design Review Panel for the new cemetery at Harkness. Ms Horsley said that the new cemetery project offers green space for an expanding suburb from the beginning stages of development by creating a cemetery that has multiple purposes.

“Blue and green infrastructure is essential for livable cities and healthy communities, so we want to emphasise the importance of that,” Ms Horsley said. “While not all spaces can be shared, it’s that questioning and challenging of our traditional thinking to say, well, if not, why not?”

The Victorian Government has developed the Open Space for Everyone Strategy, working with 32 councils, State Government agencies and traditional owners to revitalise metropolitan suburbs and create an open space network. Ms Horsley said, “the vision is very much about having a city in nature that’s flourishing”. This new cemetery project exemplifies this idea of a flourishing green space within a growing suburb.

More than just a place to rest

From the design process, the new cemetery at Harkness was intended to be more than just a place for the dead to rest for the Melton community. The Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (GMCT) is responsible for managing 19 cemeteries across Melbourne and developing the new cemetery at Harkness.

GMCT used five themes to guide the project:

  1. Sanctuary: visitors will experience feelings of warmth, comfort and peace in a living and continually developing place
  2. Inclusivity: visitors will feel welcomed into an accessible local park, not just to remember loved ones but as a community centre where they can experience a range of cultural influences that reflect representation and choice. The space will demonstrate the Aboriginal connection to land and the local stories of Traditional Owners
  3. Sustainability: visitors will experience beautifully designed environments with native plants, animals and natural water features. Innovative, sustainable practices will contribute to the growth and development of the natural landscape, and sustainable facilities and processes
  4. Innovation: visitors will be able to see a combination of traditional and new memorialisation choices, making it a modern, regional park that inspires people to keep coming back
  5. Trust: visitors will be constantly reassured Harkness is organised and administered in a commercially and environmentally sustainable way

Different groups and people contributed their ideas to GMCT during consultation, including the Wurundjeri Traditional Owners of the site, local community members, industry experts, cultural and religious community groups, government bodies, and innovative future thinkers in the deathcare sector.

Andrew Eriksen, GMCT Chief Executive Officer, said, “Cemeteries are one of the few places in urban areas that bring so many communities, histories, belief systems and lives together in harmony, to respectfully reflect and meaningfully celebrate what is important to them. “It will be expressed in ways appropriate to that landscape, bringing together the mosaic that is Victoria on the canvas that is Country.

“I’m confident that the needs of Victorians for the next century will be met by the design of this new site, which understands the immutable needs while allowing for the unknown.”

View of cultural smoking ceremony space. Concept image by McGregor Coxall.

Addressing cultural needs

Melton is also an area with a growing multicultural community. Melbourne’s outer west is the fastest growing part of Victoria, with almost 40 per cent of residents born overseas, according to the 2021 census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The master plan process started with an extensive community engagement phase. GMCT and the consortium, which included McGregor Coxall, Architectus, Greenshoot Consulting and Aurecon, actively sought community ideas and feedback on the project via a range of channels to account for the community’s unique needs.

For this multicultural community, it was important to consider various funeral and memorial requirements for different religions and practices, such as burial or cremation. This also meant the areas not used for funeral or memorial services couldn’t disrupt those who are mourning or visiting loved ones.

Ms Horsley said that Melbourne needs more cemeteries and open spaces that accommodate different cultures and religions. “Having worked with the 32 councils as well as other state managers of open space all the way around Melbourne, everyone is saying that one of their biggest needs is revitalising the quality of open space.

It would be beneficial for these designs to be nuanced and considered in terms of differing cultural needs and safety – particularly for women and gender diverse people,” Ms Horsley said. The new cemetery at Harkness will be located on farmland between new housing estates and the Gilgai Woodlands in the City of Melton, on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri People.

In a commitment to Treaty and reconciliation, GMCT and the wider Melton community wanted to ensure the site would preserve Wurundjeri values regarding land and how it is used. Members of the public during consultation mentioned the cultural education opportunities for the site, with the possibility of incorporating storytelling elements into the design.

By considering the varying needs of the community, the master plan made allowances for quiet areas, so people could enjoy unique architecture and landscapes, while still prioritising the primary purpose of the space as a cemetery.

Making room for the environment

Melbourne’s outer west is environmentally unique with basalt plains, shallow volcanic lands and grasslands, and with less canopy, the region is at greater risk of heat islands due to over development and climate change.

Ms Horsley said that creating green spaces is all about understanding the ecological state and needs of a region, instead of assuming all suburbs are homogeneous.

“According to census data, the Western suburbs have higher vulnerabilities of socioeconomic disadvantage and health indicators that may not be reflected the same way as they are in other parts of Melbourne,” Ms Horsley said.

The site at Harkness was previously cleared for farming purposes prior to GMCT acquiring the land, except for a pocket of remnant woodland. The woodlands are of high ecological importance since they are scarce throughout Victoria and act as the habitat for endangered wildlife.

This woodland will form a valuable biodiversity corridor, which connects with Arnolds Creek, while revitalising the creek and woodlands will help support local wildlife and the Werribee River catchment.

During consultation, GMCT heard from groups and members of the public that it was important that the new cemetery be environmentally friendly and protect the native biodiversity of the area.

Alternate view of cultural line walkway. Concept image by McGregor Coxall.

Designing a community space

Despite the innovative approach to open spaces being sites with shared purposes, many people in Australia believe a cemetery should just be a place for funerals and mourning. But in other parts of the world, cemeteries are valuable community spaces.

Ms Horsley said that in Europe, it’s a very different culture. “Cemeteries are tourism sites or local parks because they’re places for socialising and recreation,” Ms Horsley said.

“In Australia, we find it a bit more challenging to think about how we can respect cemeteries for their main purpose, while also ensuring they are still beautiful places to visit and socialise in. Ms Horsley said the new cemetery at Harkness focuses around being a community space.

“The project actually aligns beautifully with the vision, the goals and the objectives of what we’re trying to achieve as part of the Open Space for Everyone Strategy, by putting the community at the centre,” Ms Horsley said. “It’s asking what are the community needs and how can we work together to deliver as many of them within a landscape that still respects the main purpose?”

As part of GMCT’s consultation process, community members requested areas that could memorialise the dead and also celebrate life, with green space, trails, native plants that attract wildlife, spaces for sitting and reflecting, picnic areas and water features.

GMCT also considered facilities that could be included over the project’s life-cycle to provide additional services, such as a community garden, cafes, florists, event spaces, or a dog park. It was also important that all members of the community can access and feel safe within the site, which meant the master plan had to include wayfinding, accessibility and security measures.

Advice for councils

For other councils around metropolitan areas, and even regional areas, the new cemetery at Harkness demonstrates the need to involve the community throughout the whole design and consultation process to understand its unique needs. Ms Horsley said while this approach is about challenging old ways of thinking about open spaces, it’s also about learning from the past.

“It’s not all about the future and learning new things, sometimes it’s about going back and looking at what was working that we left behind,” Ms Horsley said.

“It’s about listening to the community, not barging through. It’s important for these conversations to start happening now and to understand that cultural shifts may take some time.” Learning from this project, GMCT recommends for councils endeavouring to create open spaces that respect culture and prioritise sustainability to:

  • Work with Traditional Owners to understand their vision and aspirations for the site
  • Consult with the community and key stakeholders early and often before planning commences
  • Let landscape and experience lead the design process to drive exceptional place making
  • Make sustainability, biodiversity and improving the local ecology a priority and build it into the design of the site
  • Think of cemeteries (or the open space) as a place to be proud of – they can be places to connect with community

Even if an open space cannot cater to every community need, the principle behind the new cemetery at Harkness and the Open Space for Everyone Strategy is to build a network of green spaces. Putting cultural needs and sustainability at the centre of design is crucial for creating shared spaces that suit the diverse needs of growing communities.

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