In the 1970s, a railway line was built to connect Sydney’s CBD to the eastern suburbs. For many years, the two parks underneath the viaduct that was built at the edge of the city to bridge the valley to Woollooomooloo afforded a dry place for homeless people to sleep.

However, as the number of inhabitants grew, so too did other social problems. Drug use, crime and violence soon became a large part of the Walla Mulla and Bourke Street parks, with both deteriorating in state to become very squalid.

It is in this context that Chris Elliott Architects (CEA) and Terragram were asked by the City of Sydney to refurbish the parks. This included providing new grassed areas, exercise equipment, as well as a community garden for locals to grow vegetables and socialise.

What have resulted are two new parks that score highly in both physical and social sustainability - factors contributing to its Landscape Design win at the 2013 BPN Sustainability Awards.

A key requirement of the brief was to recycle whenever possible, and to ensure that the structures that were erected could themselves be recycled or relocated if necessary in the future.

Furthermore, the structures had to be durable and vandal-proof, which restricted the materials that could be used.

The visual ‘highlight’ of the parks are the toilet facilities. The architects actively avoided creating a dark, gloomy atmosphere that is prevalent in many public parks by creating high floating steel roofs that admit plenty of light air, and even rain.

With its fragmented tiling and custom designed doors, the toilet foundations are set upon concrete block work. Over time, creepers are expected to form a cascading green roof to the toilet block.

While physical sustainability is inherent with this project, social sustainability – a concept hard to define and achieve – is a triumphant element, with the upgrades significantly improving the lives of both the local residents, as well as the homeless occupants.

“While the parks feature physical, landscaping sustainability, the design goes a step further to ensure social sustainability, which works with the principles of environmental criminology,” praised the judges.

“This is a much more difficult task, but the architects have successfully contributed to a sustainable city and community, demonstrating the importance for all architects to also think about sustainability in those terms.”

For instance, stormwater pits were not included in the design for fear of encouraging hideout places for illicit drugs and utensils.

To combat the issue of flooding, the ground surface features an interplay of new and recycled concrete pavers and dividing concrete strips, which at times serve to mediate change of direction in paving, while helping to direct rainwater and pressure cleaning run offs.

In addition, the seats were designed to be ‘boomerang’ like, having widths that enable people to sit facing the tables, or away from them. This was created in response to observations of the behaviour of residents in the park, whom tended to congregate in small groups in different parts of the site.

“While many contemporary urban spaces often boast environmental sustainability, the spaces become ultimately devoid of the essential human element – people,” noted Chris Elliott of CEA in his awards entry.

“Since the parks were opened, observations have shown a transformation in the way they are used by the community. No longer do the parks carry such a foreboding stigma, but rather they have a sense of dignity and comfort, enhancing the mixing of people of various socio-economic and cultural groups.”

Photography by Richard Glover