North East Link: infrastructure with Indigenous principles

This is the story of how a major infrastructure project could rehabilitate a city’s nature and biodiversity. It may also help heal Australia’s relationship with our First Nations people.

North East Link (NEL) is on Country of the Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung people. Fundamental aspects of its design grow from their living knowledge and history.

The 25km transport corridor in suburban Melbourne is not all engineering. BKK collaborated with Warren and Mahoney Architects, landscape architects TCL and Indigenous design experts Greenaway Architects and Greenshoot Consulting to design it for the Spark Consortium.

For our team of urban designers, architects and landscape architects (UDALA), the project is the places surrounding the road. It’s about the social and ecological restoration of the neighbourhoods it traverses.

The Yarra Bridge rests on slim forked columns.

We adopted three Wurundjeri pillars to guide the design:

  • Connection to Country
  • Caring for Country
  • Connecting People

They guided all areas of environmental and social sustainability for the project.

Inherent in them is the principle of touching the earth lightly. For example, NEL has nine footbridges. Caring for Country, the UDALA team and project engineers have minimised the bridges’ impact, using smarter engineering to achieve structural integrity without masses of steel. The Yarra Bridge rests on slim forked columns extending from the landscape below. It literally and spiritually elevates people (Connecting People), leaving bikes and pedestrians to move freely over traffic.

Southern Landbridge

The Southern Landbridge is another special site. It has new planting (NEL has over 30,000 new trees) and rehabilitates Koonung Creek, which was desperately polluted from being redirected into underground pipes in the 1970s. UDALA’s scheme daylights Koonung (returns it to the surface), and hopefully it will support rare platypus and the aquatic insects they eat. There are also wetlands sized to process stormwater and lawns replaced with native plants to attract wildlife.

Nearby is the landmark Southern Vent Outlet, clad in photovoltaic cells. Caring for Country demands sustainable energy, and NEL generates 25% of its power needs (17 GWh generated annually) through solar harvesting at various sites including photovoltaic-panelled noise walls.

The Vent Outlet shares a landbridge with pedestrian trails and parklands alive with native plants that repair the local ecology. For the Wurundjeri people, the landbridge reconnects a fractured gathering place where clans came together at eel harvesting season.

The Victorian Government is currently working with First Nations people towards a treaty – a constitutionally enshrined recognition of their status, rights, cultures and histories.

NEL has coincided with this work. For UDALA, it’s been a privileged opportunity to offer a step towards Reconciliation.

Read more about North East Link here.

Southern Vent Outlet