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Haig Park desperately needs a revamp

This year, I moved to the north of Braddon. Working in the city, I now have the luxury of walking through the historic Haig Park every day. The park is unique and, in its own strange way, beautiful. But as I walk through every day, I can't help but think it's well past its used-by date. Haig Park needs a revamp – desperately.

Stretching from Froggatt Street in Turner to Limestone Avenue in Braddon, the park plays an important role in Canberra's history. It was first planted in 1921, designed as a wind and dust break for the city and new suburbs of Turner and Braddon. To do so, 7000 trees were planted in a unique row formation – different to any park in the country. Haig Park was officially designated a public park in 1987 and since has been classified by the National Trust and the ACT Heritage register.

Canberra's Haig Park was planted with trees in 1921 to act as a wind and dust break.
Canberra's Haig Park was planted with trees in 1921 to act as a wind and dust break. Photo: Melissa Adams

Despite this important history, Haig Park no longer seems fit for purpose.

It has virtually no facilities, with few barbecues or spaces for people to sit, relax or enjoy themselves. The lined trees block off any open space, making sport or even basic games virtually impossible. With the pine trees dropping needles year round, and with huge ant farms all over the place, you can't even sit on the grass.

Whenever I walk through – day or night – the park is all but deserted. It's nothing more than a thoroughfare to the city, or maybe an opportunity to walk your dog. But even then it's not very good at its job. With almost no lighting, Haig Park is considered by many a danger spot. Within my friendship group, it is commonly known as the "rape park".

While this situation was not ideal in the past, as our city develops, it is becoming more concerning. Over recent years, both Turner and Braddon have grown significantly, with Braddon, in particular, being given new life. With the construction of light rail and more development around Northbourne Avenue, these areas are only going to get denser. And rightfully so.

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With this development, open spaces such as Haig Park are more valuable than ever. Denser cities require good open space, allowing people who, like me, don't have backyards to access an outdoor space. In this context, Haig Park has become a huge waste of space – dead land in the heart of a growing city.

This is not a new revelation. In 2012, the ACT government released the draft Haig Park master plan for consultation. The master plan boldly states the value of the park, but also its need for improvement. As it says: "Haig Park's place is at the heart of Canberra's heritage and Canberra in the 21st century. Consistent with its heritage citation, it should be preserved as a marker within the overall landscape but there is scope for adding active uses that will help make it a more interesting, welcoming and vibrant place, more appreciated and enjoyed now and into the future by those who live and work nearby and by the broader community. It should be celebrated, cherished and used."

The master plan proposed new seating and barbecue areas, toilets, path improvements, open spaces and, importantly, new lighting. The plan aimed to do this while maintaining the park's heritage, in particular keeping two dedicated "heritage integrity zones", both of which would maintain the original plan of the park from 1921.

Yet, four years later and the plan has gone nowhere. After consultation, the master plan was never released in full, likely caught up in debates over who has responsibility for managing the space. Haig Park remains as useless and as dangerous as ever.

As our city grows, it's about time we got our act into gear. The master plan is, in reality, a moderate proposal. We could and should go much further. A proper space for our inner city should include open spaces for sport, large barbecue and seating areas and, given the size of the park, could also include the possibilities of basketball courts, fields and even open space for outdoor cafes or restaurants. Areas for events – whether they be markets, sporting competitions, or even concerts – should be developed. On top of this, the exotic trees of the park need to be slowly replaced by natives, connecting the inner sanctuary with our natural environment.

We can do all of this while maintaining the heritage of the park, whether through keeping specific heritage integrity zones or specific lines of trees that match the park's early design. The space is huge, giving us plenty of opportunities for development.

Haig Park is not just one of the biggest parks in the inner city, it is also one of the most accessible – within walking distance for thousands of residents – but these residents are unable to use it. We need to get to work, implementing the recommendations of the master plan at a minimum, but ideally going much further.

As I walk through Haig Park in the future, I hope to see it become a useful space for our city. It has an important history, but that should not hold us back from giving it an important future.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer. Twitter: @SimonCopland