Community facilities as catalysts for change

Great community facilities are more than just a space to get together and deliver services – they can be catalysts for change, for new connections, and for collaboration to create many levels of community benefit. We visited three new facilities achieving this in high growth areas in Melbourne - here’s just some of what we learned.

Epping Community Services Hub, City of Whittlesea

Providing office space for services and a hub for the community, after just over a year of operations the Epping Community Services Hub is looking like a very successful model for collaboration between services, rather than just co-location. Key to the success of the project has been a detailed understanding of community needs, a common vision between Council and the lead tenant, and an action learning process with careful design to encourage service collaboration and make a great space for the community.

When the opportunity came up to buy an old Centrelink building at a reduced rate, the City of Whittlesea was ready to go. Through their existing background research and strategic planning, Council had a clear understanding of the needs of their community – including a need for space to house services, and for new services to address increasing demand. This meant that Council could respond quickly, knowing it was a step towards meeting identified community needs.

The building was purchased with the goal of becoming a community services hub, facilitating opportunities to provide more services in the area and encouraging collaboration and innovation between services. The Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL) came on as a lead tenant and the backbone organisation to what is, after just over a year, well on the way to becoming a very successful model. Key to the success of the project has been the common vision between Council and BSL for a space that catalyses collaboration rather than just co-location.  

The service model recognises three communities: the “collaborative community” of services and staff working from the building; the “engaged community” of participants in programs run from the hub; and the “connected community” of all City of Whittlesea residents. Everything is very intentionally set up to facilitate collaboration between services and with the community, and to deliver great programs.

Collaborative community: There are 110 desks in the hub, with around 19 services offering over 40 programs. Most of the services weren’t previously operating in the Whittlesea area. There are no individual offices and design features encourage people to meet each other: the communal lunch room is a welcoming space with natural light; there are events and training sessions; and a “meet the hubsters” board with photos of every worker – which is helpful to remember first names! Currently, the innovation and collaboration leadership group is working on data sharing between services – a big challenge but a way to better understand impact and make collaboration easier. A favourite space is “Tarnuk,” a wellbeing room set aside for staff reflection, prayer, meditation and relaxation.

Engaged community: The hub has six service rooms, including family rooms and mediation rooms. There is also a training room – when we visited it was being used for a women’s small business training session, with child care provided in the adjacent room. While the staff say that in a purpose built facility they would include more service rooms, currently they are encouraging more out of hours use of the rooms, providing both a better service for the community and freeing up capacity. Everything is designed to be family friendly, with play stations in the hallways and in each room, including activities encouraging parents to play with their children.

Connected community – There are many soft entry points for the community including a social enterprise café with the best coffee in Epping (including free coffees) and computers for community use. The front desk staff know all the services provided in the hub and can “triage” people when they arrive. The bright pink exterior wall means people walking past are well aware of the hub’s existence, and there are community events like an arts festival held over a recent weekend.

Brimbank Community & Civic Centre, Brimbank City Council

 The Community and Civic Centre was conceived as a catalyst project to attract development and investment in the Sunshine town centre. It’s working: VicRoads now has a building going up down the road, and the adjacent shopping plaza is in the early stages of reorienting to the street to connect with the library, starting with a pop up park over last summer.

Despite the initial cost of $55 million (mostly funded by Council as no one else wanted to “invest in the West”), the building has generated many operational savings – reduced energy and water bills through green design, reduced upkeep and sales of other Council buildings, and savings from having staff all in one place rather than driving to and from meetings around the LGA.

The building has driven a cultural change at the organisation as well: moving to a digital office; carefully considering the office layout to put the right people together; and including design features to encourage people to connect. Highlights are a fourth storey, naturally lit staff kitchen and outdoor area with city views, plenty of stairs connecting levels, and every desk is a standing desk.

Importantly, moving staff into one building and out of other suburbs hasn’t meant that other areas have lost out. The building where half Council’s staff were previously located (in Kelior, a fairly well-off suburb at the other end of the LGA) has been converted into a new library, and part is rented as office space for the Department of Education, bringing a new community facility, keeping a workforce in the area to patronage the local shops, and providing income to Council.

The library itself is successful by any measure – 2,000 people visit a day, in an area with otherwise low digital access. There were 800 new library members in the first two weeks, with 28,000 visitors in the same time period. There’s been an increase in the number of items borrowed where the trend is for a decrease. The library is double the size of the previous space, and there are over 400 seating options. However, it could still be bigger, with seating at a premium during exam time. Some design highlights are the double height reading room, the heated outdoor children’s play space, and that all of the furniture is on castor wheels allowing for maximum flexibility in configuration.

Melton Library and Learning Hub

Melton Library and Learning Hub must be one of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. A green building with connected outdoor spaces, the building is leading the revitalisation of the Melton town centre as the area experiences massive growth. New open space and a car park that can be used for markets has just been completed across the road, as well as new connections through the town centre. The library has spaces of many shapes and sizes to suit every need - loads of bookable training rooms; maternal and child health rooms connected to the children’s space which also has an outdoor playground; a recording room; PlayStation bar; quiet reading spaces; event spaces; a café; and a small co-working space for local services including a legal service. After five years, the library is still in great condition and the programming is starting to make the most of the space.