Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Turning over a new leaf
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
Centennial Park is at a crossroads, with competing demands set to decide its future, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Of course there’s no reason to compare ourselves with Europe or anywhere else. But nonetheless we do: better climate, worse papers, better beaches, worse cities. Generally we judge ourselves hot in the nature department, not so hot on culture. One most notable difference is that sense in Europe of centuries-long claim and counterclaim over each postage stamp of territory. This is culture’s tangled overlay on nature and it leaves the ground thick with conflict, story and myth; the stuff we put our roots into. Without it – or where, as here, the cultural soil is thin – people act like lost children, unable to commit strongly to a shared future because of an inability to feel properly rooted in a common past.
So perhaps we should be heartened, more than disturbed, by the endless spats over land use that beset our public spaces. Repeat after me: conflict is good, in a cultural humus-building sort of way. It’s no surprise that a focus of such conflict is one of our richest nature-culture layerings, rooted in some of our poorest, thinnest soils: Centennial Park.
The 365-hectare public space of Centennial Parklands covers not just Centennial and Moore parks but also Moore Park Golf Course, the E.S. Marks Athletics Field, Queens Park, the Equestrian Centre and the entire Hordern Pavilion/Entertainment Quarter complex known simply as “Fox” by locals, despite its recent “EQ” rebadging. And the spats will surely intensify in coming months around the formal planning process that is updating the parklands’ plan of management (now open for public comment) and the subsidiary Moore Park masterplan.
The issues are fairly predictable: car parking versus parkland; active recreation versus passive; commerce versus whatever the other thing is, I forget; and a number of design issues (which tend to be uncontroversial since parks, even more than cities, are wrongly seen as God-given). Plus, there’s a tree problem. Simply, they die.
That’s the overview. But God, and bitterness, is in the detail.
Take car parking. Parks exist to be used, and used intensively, but use requires access. Centennial Parklands has both a strong regional role and a local catchment that, however otherwise privileged, is undersupplied with open space compared with the Sydney norm. And that’s without the 30,000 new apartment dwellers expected in Redfern-Green Square. Already, 5.2 million people visit Centennial, Moore and Queens parks each year. Of these, 72 per cent come by car; only 7 per cent by public transport. The footy and cricket add a further 7.8 million visitors. They all have to park somewhere.
Or do they? Some, such as Clover Moore, argue against parking on the parklands at all. But the reality, for Saturday netball or Sunday picnics, is fighting for a park in already crowded Paddington, or staying home.
The Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust argues that event parking in Moore Park has shrunk by 70 per cent – from 10,000 spaces in 1997 to 3000 now. But demand is growing. Centennial Park has been closed due to traffic congestion a dozen times this year and the trust, in response, floated ideas for underground or above-ground parking buildings.
The blindingly obvious answer, though, is not to increase car parking (which produces traffic chaos and compacts tree roots, making both humans and trees more dangerous) but to tunnel the eastern suburbs railway in a loop linking Bondi Junction to Bondi, the University of NSW, the stadia and Centennial Parklands to Central. Tie that around the roads lobby.
This brings us to trees. Trees are to parks as sand is to beaches and we tend, similarly, to see them as permanent fixtures. Until suddenly they’re not, and then there’s trouble, as last year’s Domain figtree furore illustrates. It isn’t only the Domain; most of Sydney’s grand gardenesque parks (Hyde, Parramatta, Centennial and the Botanic Gardens) are Victorian plantings. And while loose, informal layouts such as the Botanic Gardens pose little replanting problem, formal plantings nearing the end of their safe useful life expectancy (SULE) throw up dilemmas. Trees get more difficult, dangerous and costly to keep as they age. So the unavoidable questions are: when to chop and how to replace?
Ian Innes, the Centennial Parklands’ director of park assets, is among the Sydney landscape professionals pushing for an Australia-wide tree charter to do for landscape what the Burra Charter has done for Australia’s heritage industry. ICOMOS is the International Council on Monuments and Sites; the Burra Charter, adopted in 1979 by ICOMOS Australia, is our national heritage policy. And yes, there is a touch of United Nations disease here; the stifling bureaucratisation, the deathly PC-ness, the expansion of “cultural significance” to include everything anyone has ever liked and quite a lot besides. All that is arguable.
The Burra Charter does, though, establish a broad basis for heritage assessment and conservation. And although devoted Icomites – as the heritage industry’s chosen race is known – argue that the Burra is quite adequate for general vegetable matter, Innes disagrees. A tree charter, he says, would give councils and other authorities a rational basis for strategic planning of the “urban forest”, rather than relying on one-off tree preservation orders, and help pre-empt Domain-type furores.
Meanwhile, however, Centennial Parkland’s 10,000-plus trees comprising 115 species prompt some hard decisions. First, in the 1990s, the avenue of nearly 400 century-old Phoenix palms planted by park director Joseph Henry Maiden, and a traditional park symbol, succumbed to the rotten fish-smelling fungus Fusarium wilt. About 340 were destroyed and replaced by the Washingtonia date palms – before the fungus unexpectedly jumped the genus gap and they too died. Now the avenue has been replanted once more, with several hundred exuberant Queensland kauri pines, Agathis robusta, whose serried trunks will give a similar colonnaded effect.
The next big question facing the park is Grand Drive. Planted a century ago, also under Maiden, with a complex contrapuntal rhythm of Port Jackson fig, holm oak and Norfolk pine, the drive will near the end of its SULE in a decade or two. Inter-planting is impossible, since the canopy overshadows and deforms the youngsters. So the plan, tentatively, is to demolish short sections of the drive and replant in bursts. Pity the politician forced into that decision.
The park holds all these layers and more. Most are associated with the great men, the visionaries, of their time: Lachlan Swamps, Busby’s Bore, the Charles Moore era, the J.H. Maiden era. So the question for us becomes: what will our layer comprise? Are we still weaving history? Where are our visionaries? And what are our wild landscape gestures for the future?
What if, instead of (yawn) rose gardens, we held an edgy landscape biennale? Invite the mad, bad and avant-garde of the landscape world to do their worst or best – to delight, appal or scandalise us every couple of years, to make something unimaginable, unforgettable, execrable. Or are we simply, at the decline of empire, playing it safe, preserving what is given, offending no one, risking nothing? Is that what defines Australia now? Or is it perhaps what defines decline – all of us on the metaphorical couch, semi-sedated, remote in hand, idly flicking the switch?
The Centennial Parklands’ draft Plan of Management can be seen at www.cp.nsw.gov.au. Submissions close on September 28.
PHOTO: WADE LAUBE