How small infrastructure can make a big difference

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Cameron Smith

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A new hospital or a highway attracts headlines and political headspace in Australia. Institutional investors are increasingly on the hunt for childcare, student accommodation and social housing assets. But other types of social infrastructure are often overlooked, despite being the glue that binds our communities together.

As Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 Audit notes, social infrastructure “helps us to be happy, safe and healthy, to learn, and to enjoy life”. This is the infrastructure that contributes to community identity, inclusion and cohesion – and all that happens at the local level. It’s the scout or soccer hall, the museum housing precious community memories, the men’s sheds and women’s refuges, and the halfway house for young people who need a helping hand.

But in the words of Infrastructure Australia, much of our social infrastructure is “ageing and not fit for purpose”. While governments pour billions into large-scale infrastructure projects, smaller-scale social infrastructure is often left in the hands of community organisations or not-for-profits who are reliant on donations, grants and public goodwill.

How do we revalue social infrastructure so communities can reap the long-term rewards?

As a member of the Property Council of Australia’s newly-established Social Infrastructure Committee in Queensland, this is a question that keeps me up at night. But RLB has a growing portfolio of small projects that illustrate the power of social infrastructure to build community, enhance economic opportunity and create value far beyond the bricks and mortar.

More than 1,100 kilometres and a 14-hour drive from Brisbane, deep in the red earth country of western Queensland, lies the town of Winton and the first museum in the world dedicated to a song. The Waltzing Matilda Centre was named after Banjo Paterson’s 1895 bush ballad and housed the author’s memorabilia and other historical treasures before it was destroyed by fire in 2015.

With only ashes and a blank canvas, the project team led by award-winning Cox Architecture captured the spirit of the song through experiential design. Despite a budget of just $13 million, RLB helped the project team stretch each dollar as far possible – a task made all the more challenging by the constraints of a remote site. But when the new centre opened in 2018, the community was awe-struck by a building that echoes the rock formations and rivers of an ancient land, creates jobs and opportunities for a small community and retells Patterson’s story for a new generation.

About eight hours south of Winton lies Cooper Creek, home to the largest dinosaur discovered in Australia. The length of a basketball court and the height of a two-storey building, Australotitan cooperensis was unearthed by a teenager who tripped over its bones while mustering cattle in 2004.

The 67-tonne titanosaur has sat in boxes stored in a shed for more than a decade. Backed by government grant funding secured with RLB’s assistance, the Eromanga Natural History Museum opened in 2021 with a new visitor’s centre, and a place to display at least part of Cooper’s gigantic skeleton. The museum now supports important scientific investigation, has created a destination for a town further from the sea than any other in Australia and has put Eromanga on the international paleo tourism map. RLB is also assisting the museum, alongside principal consultant Architectus, with cost planning services to package up the next stages of the development in alignment with additional grant funding applications or philanthropic donations. 

Logan Youth Foyer, meanwhile, provides safe and stable accommodation and connections for young people in a socially disadvantaged community just south of Brisbane. In a collaboration between the local council and non-for-profit Wesley Mission Queensland, 40 self-contained studio and one-bedroom units, as well as communal indoor and outdoor spaces, were constructed to a tight budget. RLB and Bark Architects maximised value for money by also maximising usable space. Logan Youth Foyer fills a gap of vulnerability in the community and helps upskill young people who are committed to earning and learning but need extra support to help them achieve independence.

Then there’s the McKinlay Shire’s Smart Hub, which services a community across 41,000 square kilometres at the gateway to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The hub, which reimagined and refurbished an old medical centre, offers digital access, co-working space and meeting rooms that are freely available to the local community. When it opened in February 2021, the hub became an invaluable tool to boost local business capacity, encourage property owners to use digital technology to improve their farming operations and to support students – both young and mature – with their learning and research. RLB’s cost planning approach and option analysis provided the client and principal consultant Vabasis with quick and efficient feedback to support timely decisions.

I’m proud of RLB’s role on each of these projects because each demonstrates how, with a lot of effort and a laser focus on costs, we can deliver the bricks-and-mortar that not only becomes the backbone of communities, but also offers new and diverse driving holiday destinations in western Queensland.

A cornerstone of any successful construction project is robust and reliable cost management. But when it comes to social infrastructure, ensuring that demonstrable value is achieved builds public trust and reduces local community discontent. With skilled early cost planning and forward-thinking fiscal planning, we can empower more governments to invest in social infrastructure and to deliver the small-scale projects that make a big difference to our communities.

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