Canberra's open spaces not sacred, but there to flower

Foreshore development is not counter to Burley Griffin's vision, Andrew Mackenzie writes.

Congratulations Canberra. On the occasion of the centenary of the founding of the city, we as a community are prepared to dip our toe in the lake.

Regardless of the merits of the individual components of the plan, the very gesture presented by the government deserves praise as a decisive step in redefining our relationship to Canberra's iconic lake and its parks and open spaces.

It would come as a surprise to many non-Canberrans that it has taken this long for us to finally turn towards the lake as a source of urban vitality, but we have had a landscape legacy with which to come to terms.

In 1912 the Griffins astutely and consciously sanctioned the hills and ridges surrounding the city from development, in my view the masterpiece of their design.

In the 1925 gazetted plan, and again in 1964 with the federal recognition of what is now known as the National Capital Open Space System and numerous times since, the conservation of the landscape spaces has become the cornerstone of the metropolitan plan for the city. These large tracts of undeveloped landscapes thread the city and the towns together.

However, this no-development approach to preserving heritage values has crept into other parts of the city and in particular, around the lake. By this I suggest we have determined that landscapes of significance must be preserved in a park-like undeveloped state to maintain their heritage value, and this has placed an undue constraint on the city - without justification.


There is no doubt that many of the parks and open spaces around the city, and especially around the lake, should be kept park-like and development-free, but not all.

Despite the initial grumblings about Kingston foreshore, the development demonstrated that such spaces can be meaningful to the community and the city.

They can be something other than a picturesque setting of trees and lawn. Indeed, there are numerous other parcels of land that could be rezoned without destroying the integrity of the lake. Think of the northern shore of East Basin.

This ''all or nothing'' approach to landscape conservation in Canberra is often argued on the basis of the Griffin legacy: ''It is what Walter would have wanted''. However, a visit to the National Archives exhibition of the competition drawings, including entry 29 by the Griffins, demonstrates proposals such as planned for West Basin are entirely in keeping with the spirit of their plan.

So why are landscapes so vigorously protected in this park-like state? I think it was to do with our relative youth (at least in city terms). While some of the inner northern and southern suburbs have undergone significant renewal and change, the city as a whole is celebrating its centenary year and only just moving past the first chapter of it existence.

Many of those advocating for things to stay the same have literally seen the city take shape around them, part of their personal history.

Yet if you ask a visitor, or a couple with young kids, about how they navigate between the city and the lake you will appreciate that the city needs to change to be relevant to everybody, not just to those with sentimental attachments to landscapes they probably never visit (who's tried to walk between Acton and the museum via the lake's edge lately?). Canberra's landscape setting is protected in legislation; the National Capital Plan protects those large landscapes as part of the National Capital Open Space System.

Recent research by the National Capital Authority showed an overwhelming preference from both the community and the development industry to protect the undeveloped hills and ridges surrounding the city and separating the towns.

So there is room for us as a city to give over some landscapes to other forms of development, including new types of open space such as an urban beach. I know the surfboat rowers training on the lake won't feel so out of place. It comes as no surprise that an announcement of this nature happens during our most significant anniversary.

It is often these sorts of proposals that give the community reason to debate and reflect on how such grand schemes project our collective sense of self as we enter a new century.

We need the debate but we also need to hear the advocates as well as the objectors.

So give the government your feedback, good and bad.

Dr Andrew MacKenzie is a landscape architect and assistant professor of design at the University of Canberra.


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