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Canberra needs a proper parks strategy not some fancy lighting

Canberra is blessed with an abundance of green spaces; parks playgrounds, playing fields and paddocks within easy access to most Canberrans. However, the city lacks a comprehensive parks and recreation strategy.

Two articles in The Canberra Times ("Government defends lakeside park delays") and "Dramatic lighting proposed for park") shine a spotlight on this problem. They highlight the need for a city-wide strategy for updating and improving the provision of high-quality re-creation spaces for Canberra. The story of these two parks are a case in point.

Haig Park in Canberra.
Haig Park in Canberra.  Photo: Melissa Adams

While the government commits significant resources to building a new lakeside park (be it delayed) to start the City to the Lake development, Haig Park is going to receive "dramatic lighting", to "expose the interior of the park to people looking from the edge".

The installation of lights, while badly needed, only serves to highlight just how inappropriate Haig Park's current planting scheme is for the needs of the rapidly changing population of the inner north. Haig Park is a wind break, it is planted in 14 dense rows of pine trees and cedars; cold, dark and unsuitable for recreation for six months of the year. The Haig Park master plan makes no attempt to fundamentally repurpose the park to meet the recreation needs of the communities, especially east of Northbourne Avenue.

The new lakeside park on the other hand is part of the broader West Basin master plan. Building this park is low hanging fruit for the LDA as a relatively low-cost kick starter to the West Basin project, designed to enthuse the community and inspire developers to get excited about investing in City to the Lake. Economically a clever investment, but not really serving the recreational needs of the emerging residential population of the city; already very well catered by the parks around Central Basin.

Canberra is a greenfield city; it has grown for more than 100 years by expanding into the surrounding landscape. The most recent new town of Molonglo is a testament to our appetite for converting open space into suburbia. We have always been blessed with an abundance of green spaces. However, the city is growing back in on itself as well. The city and gateway urban renewal strategy clearly demonstrates a political will to repopulate the centre.

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What is lacking is a parallel parks and recreation strategy that addresses the need for quality not quantity open space. But here is the catch. The government can barely keep up with the maintenance demand of our existing urban parkland. TAMS is faced with the almost insurmountable task of just keeping the grass in check in our suburban parks. Without the dedicated volunteer park care groups, Canberra nature parks would be in trouble.

Any proposals for new higher quality recreation facilities in parks such as Haig Park are met with nervous apprehension from the city park managers reluctant to add more assets requiring a higher level of care than a six-monthly visit from the ride-on mowers.

In 1984, ecologist and landscape architect George Seddon devised an open space strategy for the city. He argued that a [future] ACT government should adopt a "honey pot" approach to park management and identify a few areas to be intensively used and managed. He believed largely dispersed medium intensity use of green spaces would be damaging both ecologically and economically. Professor Seddon has been proven right; the city has fallen into the trap of a dispersed approach to park management which is economically and ecologically unsustainable.

With so much attention on reimagining how we live in Canberra, effort is also needed to reimagine how we design, manage and fund our parks system. A city-wide park strategy is needed to map our green spaces, creating a hierarchy of parks that match the design and management commitment to the recreation needs of the adjacent communities. The city needs to be able to diversify its funding sources and become less reliant consolidated revenue for ongoing maintenance.

Parks like Haig Park need to be redesigned to meet the needs of the growing inner north community, while some redundant open spaces should be set aside for urban infill with revenue tied to improving the design and management of higher value parks to meet changing recreation needs. The heritage value of our parks system is robust.

Parks around the lake and in our suburbs are integral to the unique planning story of our city, but that doesn't mean they can't be significantly redesigned and repurposed to meet the needs of the population. In the absence of such a strategy no alternative case can be made for Haig Park to be anything more than a slightly modified windbreak with dramatic lighting.

Dr Andrew MacKenzie is the convenor of the landscape architecture program at the University of Canberra and researcher in urban open space planning.