A vibrant carpet of lush and leggy sunflowers, up to two metres high, stands tall and pretty on a wedge of land in central Morwell.
Their bright yellow heads, almost the size of dinner plates, are slightly cocked – as if they are quietly listening to the sporadic, excited chatter about their presence.
This block of land, at the corner of Church and Buckley streets, was a petrol station long ago but for years has been a vacant eyesore, chocked high with weeds, rubbish and junk.
Now it literally stops traffic. The sunflowers are intoxicating. People stop to take photos.
Carloads of locals – both young and old – pull up to admire this unexpected, dazzling sea of yellow right in the centre of town. Others simply smile as they walk past.
The sunflowers were planted here and at four other sites across the Latrobe Valley in Gippsland, Victoria, as part of an innovative RMIT project to rejuvenate vacant land and unite struggling regional communities.
The idea grew out of a living sunflower art installation that Ben Morieson, an RMIT alumnus, planted in North Melbourne last year.
It was just over a year ago that Morwell residents wore masks to protect themselves from the toxic smoke and ash blowing in a nearby coalmine fire that burnt for 45 days.
For a region already grappling with high levels of youth unemployment and continuing job cuts, it was yet another blow.
This project, known as Get Sunflowered, is community engagement at its best – fostering goodwill and empowerment while creating something to be proud of.
Led by RMIT’s Office of Urban Transformations Research Lab as part of the Reactivate Latrobe Valley initiative, it saw 100,000 sunflower seeds strategically planted across three hectares in Moe, Traralgon and Morwell.
About 150 local volunteers were involved in the sunflower seeding process, from the initial grooming and levelling of the sites to the sowing.
Thousands of sturdy, healthy flowers perched on thick stems created a striking vista in the most unlikely places – from the old Moe hospital site to an overgrown tennis court in Traralgon.
However, this is much more than an art installation. It is helping a range of disconnected groups engage with their local community.
“The sunflowers are the happy by-product of what the project is really about – making connections across the community and helping people understand that they can transform their own city,” says ReActivate Latrobe Valley co-director Craig Douglas, a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture and Design.
Douglas says the project drew support from a range of local industry and government including Gippsland Water, Nuseed, Regional Development Victoria and Latrobe City Council.
Latrobe City Mayor Dale Harriman says that the community welcomes the bright displays. “Seeing these previously empty spaces transformed into mass plantings of sunflowers has brought such cheer to our city.
“It is such a simple concept that has far-reaching outcomes in terms of community pride, connections and social networking.”
This rejuvenation project in the Valley has been incredibly successful in connecting the community with each other, says Re-Activate co-director, Associate Professor Rosalea Monacella.
“Historically, this area has gone through an incredible amount of change that has led to fragmentation. By bringing life back to these neglected sites with sunflowers we are acknowledging that there are a whole range of qualities that already exist,” she says.
Story: Elisabeth Tarica
Photo: Peter Clarke
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.