Building the Albert Park Community Playground
David Robinson – General Co-Ordinator
Published in the Australian Local Government Yearbook – 1994
Last century community projects were commonplace. People from a community would readily band together to build a church, school, bridge or road, to serve the common good. Today such projects are rare. When they occur it is generally on a small scale, with only a few dozen people from a school or club participating. So for thousands of volunteers, drawn largely from three suburbs in the centre of Melbourne, to join in building Australia’s largest playground, is truly an extraordinary achievement.
This is the story of how the Albert Park Community Playground was built. It took three years from concept to completion, with construction taking place over 5 days in May 1993. South Melbourne now has a regional playground which will serve the needs of children for decades to come.
In retrospect, the project was one of daunting proportions. To start with, $150,000 had to be raised to pay for building materials like timber, stone, hardware, steel and wood fibre. The loan of equipment like trucks, front-end loaders, an all terrain fork lift, a crane, tents, power tools and shipping containers in which to store them, had to be secured. A safe power supply, with hundreds of outlets, had to be established in the centre of a park. Thousands of volunteers had to be induced to work one or more 5 hour shifts. The first shift of the day started at 7 am; the last finished at 10 pm. Hundreds of meals had to be prepared each day. Scores of children had to be cared for, as naturally enough, a large proportion of volunteers had small children.
IT STARTED ONE SUNDAY MORNING
The project for me began on a hot Sunday morning in February 1990. Being the father of a 6 year old girl, and a 4 year old boy, Sunday mornings were when dad took the children out for a few hours, so mum could have some time to herself. Visiting playgrounds was always popular on these occasions but we had run out of “new, exciting playgrounds” in South Melbourne. This had forced us to venture further afield each time. Friends had told us about a new playground in Thomas Street, Sandringham, so that was the destination on this day.
Twenty minutes travel time along busy bayside roads on a very hot morning was not a good start to the outing. So it was two somewhat sullen, grumpy children who finally ceased fighting when I announced “we’re here”. Their eyes lit up when they looked out at what was a truly wonderful sight. Car doors were flung open and two captivated children were soon swallowed up by this amazing structure. My own reaction was “wow, this is certainly different” as I wandered in too.
The playground was like a castle. There were turrets, stairs, tunnels, windows, ramps, cubby houses, mazes, slides, swings, balancing boards, rubber bridges, ladders, climbing poles and a sand pit. Dozens of children were playing there at 9 am in the morning. I felt a little uneasy as I lost sight of my two children several times. However as you could actually see into the cavernous parts (all walls were like a picket fence) it wasn’t hard to find them. They were obviously having a wow of a time and so I found a convenient edge to sit on and just observed the scene.
The playground’s design was truly remarkable. It was built of what seemed like a forest of treated pine. But it wasn’t bolted together like those one usually sees with “home made” structures. It was crafted, with every board precisely cut, beautifully smooth, and pieced together like a monkey puzzle. I explored every nook and cranny, marveling at something which had obviously been designed by someone who knew what they were doing. I struck up conversations with other parents who were there, and they, like me, were equally impressed, but knew nothing of who built it. After several hours I finally “recovered” my very tired children and journeyed home for Sunday lunch.
SOMETHING TO DO IN THE EVENINGS
Like many men who discover something truly unique I resolved to find out more about this playground. However also like many men, I did absolutely nothing about it! It was my wife who in June 1990, spotted a small advertisement in the local newspaper. “Anyone wishing to build a playground similar to the one in Thomas Street, Sandringham should attend a meeting at the library at 8 pm Monday evening. Well as everyone knows it’s cold in Melbourne in June. Who wants to go out to a draughty library to hear a lecture? And besides there were good things to watch on TV. Needless to say these arguments did not hold much sway, and I was sent off to “find something to do in the evenings”.
The meeting was actually very interesting. A very enthusiastic woman called Bridie Murphy gave a slide show about how the Sandringham Playground was build. Like the 15 or so others who were there I listened attentively. It was a community project, built by volunteers. The council did not help directly. All materials were donated and they got some money from the government. Yes, it sounded wonderful! Two South Melbourne councillors who had organized the meeting were there and wanted something similar to be done locally. Well, I thought, I certainly wish them luck in doing it. At the end I had my cup of tea, a biscuit, exchanged a few pleasantries with others and beat a hasty retreat at the first opportunity.
It wasn’t until August that I received a letter from the council. Another meeting was being organised to gauge interest in forming a committee to build a playground. Whatever possessed me to go to this meeting in September I cannot recall. I was, at the time, (as you may have already guessed) not very community minded. Only five people turned up. The meeting wore on until the Council Officer running it put the following ultimatum. “The Council will not lead this project. You must form a committee amongst yourselves”. Well the five strangers all scanned each others faces looking for someone to say something.
No-one said anything! It was clear that if nothing was said then that would be the end of it. No playground! Guess who spoke first? Yes, you got it in one! I said “Why don’t the five of us organise a public meeting to drum up more interest? If we did this we could then hand over the management of the project to some better qualified people who would surely come forward”. It was agreed, we exchanged names, addresses and phone numbers and went home.
EUPHORIA AT THE OUTSET
The five of us met twice and organised a Public Meeting. Bridie Murphy was conscripted to address a group of 40 people in a local church hall one hot October night in 1990. A follow up meeting in November was attended by 25 people.
This first meeting of the “committee” was very exciting. Everyone was enthusiastic. People eagerly volunteered for committees like fundraising, volunteers, materials, tools, site, childcare, publicity and food. We needed a business committee to manage incorporation, and others to seek out and secure a suitable site. No problem, people willingly stepped forth. Even when we asked for seed funding to pay for things like incorporation everyone there gave generously. However no-one was keen to take over as leader, so I became General Co-ordinator.
There was heated debate over where the playground should be built. I had borrowed a slide projector from work, and had taken slides of all the likely places in the area. We looked at the projected images of land managed by local councils, and the state government, as if they were ours for the asking. The pros and cons of five likely sites were discussed. A site locally known as “The Gasworks” was favoured by virtually all who were there.
The Gasworks is a lovely, secluded park the size of a small football field. It was once the site of a gasometer. Around the perimeter of the park are a series of red brick buildings which were once gas company workshops. These had been renovated and were now studios for local artists, sculptors and other craft workers. The park was managed by the South Melbourne Council and we assumed it would be a fairly straight forward matter to get permission to build the playground there. The playground would attract lots of people to what, we considered, was an under utilized park. People would learn about the craft workshops and were more likely to join the classes that were conducted there. Yes, everyone would benefit from a playground at “The Gasworks”. But we were very naive in this assumption.
DESIGN DAY COMES QUICKLY
With the first committee meeting being held in November we only just squeezed one more in during early December before we broke up for Christmas. One committee was assigned to secure the site, another to handle incorporation and another to liaise with the architect who designed the Sandringham Playground, Robert Leathers, to make our intentions known.
By January 1991 we were an incorporated association. A letter had been written to the management of the Gasworks to make our intentions known, but there was no reply because they were in recess. Another letter to Robert Leathers (he was based in Ithaca, New York) resulted in the delivery of 500 pages of documentation that described the process of how to build a community playground. Bob then rang me and said he had decided to visit Australia in March for a holiday. “Why not get the project under way”, he said. Things were really moving and it seemed as though nothing would stop us.
March saw Bob Leathers participating in what he called “Design Day”. During “Design Day” Bob visited six schools in the area for a series of 20 minute sessions with class groups. The children were very excited. Most had prepared drawings or made models of what they saw as their ideal playground. Bob generated enthusiasm by asking the children “what is the most marvellous, terrific, fantastic thing you would like in a playground”. Children wanted rocket ships, tree houses, a castle, a pirate ship. Bob wrote these “wishes” down as he went from school to school. By the afternoon a consensus of what the children wanted was apparent and Bob drew a plan of the proposed playground in a large assembly hall in one of the schools. Children filed past and watched “an architect at work”.
Later that evening the completed plan was presented at a meeting at the South Melbourne Town Hall. Over 200 people turned up to see the final design and see the thousands of children’s drawings that were on display around the meeting room.
NOT IN MY BACKYARD
A few days later, with Bob gone back in the USA, we had our first meeting with South Melbourne’s Mayor and several of the Councillors. The idea of a community built playground was laudable, they said, and would receive their support. However the Council thought the Gasworks was not an appropriate site. ”How about building it at Albert Park Lake?”
Albert Park Lake had been rejected very early when we considered possible sites. It was a vast expanse of ovals used mainly by amateur sporting groups. The lake was choked with weed, smelt and was dangerous for small children. Major arterial roads cut through the park. Any playground built there would attract so much attention from passing motorists from other suburbs it would have to be huge to cater for their needs as well as ours. We preferred to build a much smaller (and less expensive) playground in a cosy little suburban park, safely hidden from the sight of passing motorists.
Our next meeting was very fiery (most of them were). Two groups emerged. One group wanted to fight the Council for the Gasworks site. A second felt that ”you can’t fight City Hall” and we should go to Albert Park Lake. A vote was taken and the Gasworks group prevailed. My own thoughts on whether this was a wise decision or not were irrelevant. We needed an active committee if a playground was ever to be built. Though to me it seemed that conflict with a Council, and a group of residents whose homes overlooked the Gasworks, didn’t seem to be in the spirit of a community project.
We decided to resolve the matter at a public meeting set for May 1990. A school adjacent to the Gasworks was selected as the venue. Houses for several blocks around were doorknocked and leaflets were distributed. A petition was taken up. The meeting was advertised far and wide. The public meeting was a disaster.
About 110 people turned up. Of these 100 were opposed to any ”Large, American designed, playground at the Gasworks”. People were angry, people were vocal, people interjected, shouted, abused and disrupted the meeting. No one wanted to engage in rational discussion. People had come with their minds made up and weren’t about to change. Emotional arguments prevailed. Anyone who supported the project was shouted down. It became apparent that even if we could get the Council to change their mind the ”not in my backyard” group would fight us forever.
Our project sought to bring the community together, not divide it. Then, soon afterwards, South Melbourne Council promised us a $50,000 donation if we built at Albert Park Lake. It was decided; Albert Park Lake suddenly seemed much more attractive, and we would seek a site there.
A SITE AT ALBERT PARK LAKE
South Melbourne Council did not control Albert Park Lake. The park was managed by a committee consisting of councillors from adjoining suburbs and some government appointees. Ultimately however, it was the State Government, and the Department of Environment and Conservation, who could give us permission to build there. We had several meetings with some department officers, but they showed little interest in our project. While they never actually said ”no” they never said ”yes” either and we limped on from month to month with no decision. What we didn’t know at the time was that management of the park was going to pass to another authority and no major decisions were being made.
Committee numbers dwindled. Those of us who remained, concentrated on fundraising, spreading the word, and seeking volunteers through street stalls, fetes, and any gathering that attracted large numbers of locals. A successful dinner dance raised $5,000, a fair another $6,000. We then learnt that Melbourne Water would take over management of the park in January 1992. Negotiations with Environment and Conservation were dropped and we moved our attention to Melbourne Water.
A meeting in February 1992 with Melbourne Water was very positive. We were now dealing with practical engineers who could see the benefits a large playground would bring to the park. Over a series of months alternative sites were evaluated and plans for the environs of the preferred area where drawn up by Melbourne Water landscape architects. Grants of $10,000 from the Victorian Government’s Department of Planning and Housing and $48,000 from the Federal Government were also secured. It was beginning to look like it really might happen. By Christmas 1992 we had the money ($120,000 by this time) and the site. All we needed now were several thousand volunteers.
ONE HUNDRED DAYS TO GO
100 days seemed enough time to organise everything, so early in February 1993 we met and decided that Wednesday 5th to Sunday 9th May would be our ”Construction Week”. The final ”rush to the wire” had begun.
We had another stroke of luck. Bob Leathers was visiting Melbourne in February 1993 to attend a conference at Melbourne University. This was an ideal opportunity to have our “Organisation Day”, the only time apart from “Design Day” and “Construction Week” when we actually saw the architect or his representatives.
“Organisation Day” enabled the committee members to meet with the architect to discuss our current position and to receive advice on how best to go about what still had to be done. Our fundraising, publicity, childcare, food, site and business committees were in place, but we had no tools, materials or volunteers committees. But somehow the right people appeared just when they were needed.
“Organisation Day” went well. Bob methodically worked through several checklists and impressed on each coordinator the importance of following his advice. He had, after all, built over 850 community playgrounds over a period of 20 years. In that time he had learnt what worked, and what didn’t. Departure from his advice was done at our own peril.
It is difficult to describe the sheer amount of work that took place during the 100 days before “Construction Week”. Whereas previously tasks could be put off a day, a week or even a month, now tasks had to be done immediately. If we needed special hardware imported from the USA, a leaflet printed, an advertisement in the newspaper, a commitment from a group of volunteers, a restaurant to supply food, a school as a childcare site, or the loan of some tools, then it had to be done NOW. A sense of urgency overtook all the committees’ activities as “Construction Week” drew closer.
Every Wednesday and Thursday there was a meeting at my home. Wednesday was for tools, materials and site committees. These were all men; a council worker, engineers, architects and construction company managers. Meetings were orderly, unemotional, only essential information was communicated people spoke in turn and we finished on time. I would go to bed around 11 pm exhausted.
Thursday was for fundraising publicity, volunteers, food and childcare committees. These were all women; homemakers, a doctor, a biochemist and a company manager. Meetings were chaotic, emotional, all sorts of digressions were tolerated, people spoke simultaneously and in pairs and we always finished late. I would go to bed at midnight exhausted.
Separate meetings were held because there was no way we could get through all the items that needed discussion in a combined meeting. However both methods worked. I am now convinced that both left and right brain approaches are equally valid at getting things done.
WE NEED 3,500 VOLUNTEERS
Perhaps the biggest challenge to building the playground was enticing thousands of people to volunteer. There were 3,500 five hour shifts. While many people would probably work multiple shifts we couldn’t count on it, so 3,500 seemed like a good figure to aim for. With 100 days to go we had only 250 names on our list. Something had to be done!
Our volunteers co-ordinator joined the committee after “Organisation Day”. She threw herself into the task with an almost missionary zeal. She formed her own sub-committee and sent them out to conscript volunteers at the market and in local shopping centres. She approached sporting clubs, church groups, schools, kindergartens, local companies, trade unions, building training schools, people sentenced to community service, government building maintenance departments, builders working on renovations the Army, Navy and Air Force. No one who came within her reach was allowed to escape without making a commitment to help build the playground. When the final count was made over 2,000 volunteers had participated. Many of these people worked several days, and about 50 worked from 7 am to 10 pm five days running. Not one volunteer was paid.
CONSTRUCTION WEEK ARRIVES
On Saturday 1st May “Construction Week” began in earnest. By this time several of us were at the site all day. During the preceding week the site had been surveyed and marker pegs put in place. Port Melbourne Electricity Supply and two local electrical contractors had installed the power supply. Four steel containers had arrived from Wreckair and people began checking in the tools they were lending to the project. On Sunday we had a meeting of all committee members, supervisors and specialist workers (i.e. fork lift and front-end loader drivers), at a Bowling Club adjacent to the playground site. The three Robert Leathers consultants who would manage construction gave us a detailed briefing of how the chain of command would work.
The consultants (who between them had built over 100 playgrounds in the USA) would explain and assign tasks to a team of 10 supervisors. Supervisors in turn would have control over a number of crews, each crew being made up of 3 to 10 volunteers. A crew would have a very specific task, like routing (rounding the edges) boards, painting boards with sealant, cutting boards to specific lengths, building a sub-assembly, spreading stone, or any of hundreds of other tasks. The consultants had detailed plans of the final structure but volunteers were given simplified sketches and verbal instructions for each task through their supervisors. It was the job of the supervisor to ensure a quality job was done, to keep people motivated, ensure safety precautions were observed and to generally have a good time.
On Monday 260 tonnes (26 truckloads) of stone arrived, and 320 cubic meters (about a house full) of wood shavings were delivered. These would form the base of the playground, 30 cm of stone for drainage, 30 cm of wood shavings to cushion the fall of any child. The first of six semi-trailer loads of specially treated pine also arrived. Car loads of tools were delivered from companies like Triton, Hitachi, Makita, Bosch and Ryobi. Our tools committee had been successful in securing the loan of tens of thousands of dollars worth of tools for the project. By Tuesday the site was staked out; 161 wooden pegs marked exactly where each 30 cm thick pole would go. A final inventory of all tools and materials ensured that everything (well just about) was on site ready for the 5 construction days that would begin at 7 am on Wednesday 5th May 1993.
The morning of the 5th was cold, but clear. At 7 am the first of 20 student teachers from the University of Melbourne Craft School arrived. All were women aged 20 and 21 Several of them were to work five consecutive 15 hour days. 40 “BIGS Boys” (Building Industry Group Scheme) arrived. These were unemployed apprentice carpenters who worked on community projects (with instructors) to gain their qualifications. Many worked all day, every day. The Army arrived, 130 men and women from Victoria Barracks and other bases around Melbourne.
By 8 am the site was really buzzing. Two huge boom augers (giant hole drillers) were drilling 2 meter deep holes, poles were being cut with chain saws, Army tents were being erected, timber was being routed, there were people everywhere, all working. Many more volunteers were queuing up at the volunteers tent to sign in and be allocated to a work crew. At noon we stopped briefly for lunch, then back to work. By 2 pm all the holes were dug, and by 5 pm most poles were in place. Everything was going to plan; then disaster struck.
A man who had been working all day stepped backwards into a hole and broke his leg in three places. Our (volunteer) site doctor immediately attended to the man who was later taken by ambulance to hospital. We had a doctor, a nurse, a first aid tent, and several full time safety officers on duty at all times. Everyone was cautioned to take care, but this accident still happened. Volunteers gathered around the injured man. The feeling of elation with what had been achieved in the first day gave way to feelings of depression. People downed tools and went home.
Thursday was a bleak, cold, overcast day. However volunteers still arrived in large numbers, I estimated there were 600 around noon. Framing was now taking place, corner poles were being concreted in, timber was being routed, cut, sealed, drilled, nailed and screwed into place by hundreds of men and women. The feeling was tremendous as the playground began to grow around us.
A Channel 9 TV crew arrived and began interviewing volunteers. Weeks later I viewed this video. One interview with a professional carpenter was particularly informative. He was bewildered by how everything was working, however there seemed to be a pattern to it all, so he had resolved to simply follow orders. Things went right, of course, because the 3 consultants and the team of 50 co-ordinators and supervisors had put months of work into organizing every aspect of the project.
However unknown to the volunteers something went “wrong every 15 minutes”. Each problem was resolved calmly as it arose. Some materials were not as ordered and had to be replaced. Custom made fittings could not be found and had to be re-made. Some pre-built play equipment wouldn’t fit and had to be cut to size. A volunteer would use a tool, then put it down. In no time at all the tools container was empty and the call had to go out to return unused tools to the tools container. A megaphone was invaluable to get “the message” over the noise of scores of power tools.
By 6 pm Thursday night, good progress had been made.
Then it started to rain. Rain, you will appreciate, does not go with building wooden playgrounds. Wet wood cannot be painted or sanded, and it is difficult to cut. Also volunteers don’t like to get wet. Nevertheless we forged on. Lights were strung across the top of the poles. Powerful spotlights were focussed on where work was taking place. Huge tarpaulins were draped across the top of the poles. Inside it was dry (well relatively) and cosy. People worked on. At 9 pm we sent out for pizzas and at 10 pm we finished for the night with beer for all. Both pizzas and beer had been donated by local businesses.
On Friday morning it was still raining and the volunteer turnout was poor. I suspect people looked out the window and reasoned that nobody would be crazy enough to work in the rain. Well we had to! All our planning had been based on working five 15 hour days. This could not be changed, and rain or no rain we had to work on. By Friday afternoon the rain had stopped but we were 8 hours behind schedule by the time we finished for the night.
BUILDING WAS ONLY ONE ACTIVITY
During the first 3 days our publicity committee had been working hard to get TV and radio coverage for the project to encourage more people to volunteer. Channels 2, 7 and 9 featured brief items at the end of the “News” in the “human interest spot”. The items were very brief and it is difficult to measure their effect. All I can say was that a lot of “on-lookers” turned up and generally got in the way. Radio station appeals probably worked a bit better, because they specifically asked for volunteers. Perhaps the 20% of volunteers who came from outside our area found out about it this way, it’s hard to say. It is very difficult to assess the value of media coverage unless you ask every volunteer how they found out about the project.
Children were also involved in construction. Adjacent to the playground we had established a children’s work area. It was surrounded by an orange coloured plastic webbing fence and supervised by volunteers. Here children did real work like sanding wood, sealing tyres and soaping screws. They loved it! Primary school groups were bussed in to “work on the playground”. Older children (over 10) could work on the actual playground providing a parent accompanied them and no power tools were used. Teenagers (over 15) could work without a parent but not with power tools, and anyone over 18 would be assigned to a work crew according to their skills.
Childcare was another activity that ran concurrently with construction. Hundreds of children had to be minded, fed and entertained while mum and dad worked on construction. This was a major operation! A school that had been closed down the year before was the main childcare site. The Army also made one of their nearby buildings available and a kindergarten was used for toddlers and babies. At the peak, 120 children were being cared for at once.
Food was also a major undertaking. For weeks before construction scores of local parents had been engaged in a big “cook up”. Food was donated by stall holders at the South Melbourne Market as well as dozens of local companies and restaurants. Vegetables, meat, fruit, cereals, milk, etc. was made into things like pies, soups, cakes, stews and spaghetti sauce and stored away. Australian Fish Exporters donated the use of their freezers where large quantities of food was stored until it was needed. Thousands of meals were served to the volunteers over the five days. All were free.
THE WEEKEND, WILL WE MAKE IT?
With 8 hours to catch up we needed to get lucky. We did. The weather on Saturday was warm and sunny and volunteers arrived in large numbers. In fact it was often difficult keeping the work up to them. Saturday saw the stone and wood shavings moved into place. Two Melbourne Water front-end loaders easily shifted the stone to the edge of the site but strong men with wheelbarrows had to move it into the tight confines of the central area. Scores of people with rakes then levelled it out. By early evening it was beginning to look like a playground and by the time we knocked-off at 10 pm we were only 4 hours behind.
On Sunday the weather was fine. At 8 am the tops of the towers were lowered into place by a giant crane loaned to us by Crema-Camillo, a local construction company. By now the wooden part of the structure was completed and the play equipment was being installed. Swings, slides, climbing webs, monkey bars, noughts and crosses games, paintings for the haunted castle (done by children), a flying fox, a fireman’s pole, a tube phone system and an abseiling wall were installed. People were packed in so tightly adding the finishing touches, that it was difficult move. At 9 pm all tools were removed from the site and children could play on it for the first time.
Many of us stayed on for the inevitable party that went on for hours. A hundred of us gathered in the central amphitheatre of the playground which was now a reality. We made impromptu speeches, some witty, some weepy. The feeling was wonderful, something like the feeling you have after the birth of a child; elation that the child is born but enormous relief that everything turned out all right. Since then I have had numerous discussions with people who participated. They all speak of the friendship and community spirit that they felt during construction.
Of course this article only gives a brief glimpse of all that happened during the 3 years of the project. It is, by far, the most exciting and emotionally rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. To me, as the initially reluctant leader, it became an all consuming passion. However sometime during the last 100 days, when more and more tasks had to be delegated, I came to realise that the project had developed an existence of its own. The Albert Park Community Playground was simply meant to be and all I had to do was watch the story unfold.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Robinson is now 68 and lives with his wife in a small terrace house in Middle Park.
David’s involvement in building a community playground originated when his wife convinced him he needed a project to keep his evenings occupied. What followed was a three year project that resulted in the playgrounds construction over 5 days in May 1993.
Images and videos of the playground are at http://www.live.org.au/community/playground
The architect who designed our playground, Robert Leathers, has long since retired, but his son, Marc Leathers, continues his father’s work. See http://leathersassociates.com/