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The Matagarup Bridge lit up in purple at night.

How the Matagarup Bridge was built – with the community

Like a lot of people in Perth, when I see the Matagarup Bridge lit up at night, I feel a tremendous sense of pride.

With its stunning and towering height, the bridge is a magnificent entry statement to the precinct around Optus Stadium – 72 metres above Perth’s Swan River and 400 metres bank-to-bank, with more than 900 linear metres of LED strip lighting.

It also recognises the contribution of local Aboriginal people. The Whadjuk Working Party named the bridge “Matagarup”, the local language name for the area in East Perth and around Heirisson Island, meaning a place where the river was only knee deep and able to be crossed.

But I’m most proud of the bridge because I know the huge amount of work (genuine teamwork!) that was needed for it to carry an estimated 14,000 people into their stadium seats each game.

Much of the work was physical. More than 3000 workers were involved in the steel fabrication, supply and construction on site by the York Rizzani Joint Venture. Some of the statistics behind it are mind-boggling: nearly 6000 cubic metres of concrete, 2200 tonnes of steel and some 34,000 bolts across the arches and decks.

But there was also an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work which was just as vital in establishing Matagarup Bridge.

Working alongside my colleague Miranda Nikolich, from JAC Communications, we led and delivered the community and stakeholder engagement for the joint venture partners and Main Roads WA.

To say it was a complex project impacting a wide range of stakeholders would be a big understatement.  Consultation activities involved everyone from local resident groups to local governments, regulators, commercial river users, neighbouring enterprises, institutions, schools and special interest groups, and, of course, the Whadjuk traditional owners.

A 600-metre section of the Swan River had to be closed for more than two months, an impact which had to be explained, approved, notified, and negotiated with all recreational and commercial users.

The engagement challenges sometimes seemed insurmountable, but we worked collaboratively and in a highly adaptive way to tackle every obstacle that came our way.

While the scheduled delays for the bridge were not the best for the stadium and Perth sporting and entertainment fans, we used the time to build strong and genuine relationships with our stakeholders, particularly those who would be most impacted by the unavoidable river closure.

We responded to community and stakeholder queries quickly and transparently – even if that meant being honest when we just couldn’t answer all the questions.

When there were difficult conversations to be had, we made sure the appropriate decision makers were in the room.

If things weren’t going to plan, we monitored the situation and adjusted what we were doing to fit the circumstances.

It wasn’t always easy. There were some very long days (and nights). Things changed constantly. Ultimately, though, we are proud to regard our work as successful.

While commercial operators would have preferred the river remained open during construction, they ultimately appreciated the project team’s honesty, openness and willingness to collaborate. They understood we did all we could to minimise and manage the impacts on their businesses.

It has taken a pronounced cultural shift for Perth crowds to adapt to visiting a stadium with nowhere to park the car.  But the community has quickly embraced Matagarup Bridge as a key access route for getting to events and a space for recreation and exercise in its own right.

A common mistake on major infrastructure projects is to keep the scope for stakeholder engagement too narrow and start conversations with stakeholders too late.

We were determined to avoid those pitfalls on Matagarup and our dual clients (the joint venture and Main Roads) fully supported our preferred approach. The fact we had only a handful of complaints, despite two-and-a-half-years of construction work (sometimes ramping up to 24/7), suggests we managed to do so.

With its eye-catching architecture, Whadjuk narrative and audio art installation sharing cultural stories, the Matagarup Bridge is already much more than a walkway to and from the footy.

Its nightly appearance behind newsreaders on the ABC’s 7pm bulletin hints at something else: how, in a little more than a year, it has already come to symbolise Perth.

We can all be proud of that.

Charlie Wilson-Clark is Director of Cannings Purple’s Stakeholder Engagement team and a community and stakeholder engagement specialist, with more than 20 years’ experience and a passion for Indigenous affairs. Contact Charlie.

The consultation and engagement program for Matagarup Bridge was highly commended in the Construction category at the IAP2 Core Values Awards in Sydney.

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Main Photo: Light Application PTY LTD / Main Roads