Arboretum will prove radical
It's always easy to spot Canberra from the window of a high-flying aircraft in the summer months. In a sea of beige, the Territory stands out as a dark patch of green, striking evidence of the millions of trees and shrubs planted from 1910 onwards when the development of Canberra as the national capital began in earnest.
Because of the vision, intellect and hard work of men such as Walter Burley Griffin, T. C. G Weston and Lindsay Pryor, Canberra can lay fair claim to being perhaps Australia's leafiest, most verdant capital city. The capital's impressive botanical foundations, visible in parks and streetscapes across the territory, never fail to impress visitors and are a constant source of delight and comfort to residents. Practically nowhere else in Australia has the selection, cultivation and planting of trees and shrubs been conducted as assiduously as it has in Canberra over the past 100 years.
The decision by planners to forbid development of the territory's hills and ridges led to Canberra being dubbed the ''Bush Capital'', a now hackneyed phrase, but one that still rings true. Few other cities offer Canberra's ease of access to natural bushland and to the surrounding regions, and the urban forest provides it with unparalleled amenity and proximity to the natural world. In that sense, the new National Arboretum is a natural and logical step in the city's evolution as ''curator'' of one of the nation's largest collection of exotic and native plantings. There is another, perhaps more compelling reason to salute the arboretum, and that is that it represents a visible sign of Canberra's recovery from the devastating fires of 2001 and January 2003, and its belief in a bright and confident future.
Some of those people who take our urban forest for granted may be unaware that at the time of European settlement and the first expansion into the NSW hinterland, much of what is now Canberra was grassland. That was what attracted it to sheep graziers. Continued sheep grazing ensured that what trees there were, mostly eucalypts such as ribbon gum, candlebark, yellow box and red gum, were prevented from regenerating. The other reason that trees did not prosper here was that the soils are poor, the summers hot, dry and windy, and the winters long and frosty. Identifying the exotic species that would survive the harsh Canberra climate and the relatively low annual rainfall was not an easy task for arborists like Thomas Weston and Lindsay Pryor. Many species native to the cooler and wetter regions of Europe could not be considered, and even some of those thought to be suitable for large-scale planting in Canberra either struggled or proved to be much shorter-lived than their northern hemisphere counterparts. With its focus on exotics, and its location on windswept Dairy Farmers Hill, the horticulturists in charge of the National Arboretum will face challenges of their own, although the installation of extensive irrigation systems should alleviate some.
The decision to concentrate on exotics - knowing them to be largely unsuited to the local climate and at a time when the emphasis on home and street plantings has tended towards Australian plants - was one of the initial talking points of the arboretum. Former chief minister Jon Stanhope, who can take much of the credit for nurturing and driving the project, has openly expressed a preference for traditional English landscape-style gardens.
Given that Canberra's own Botanical Gardens is filled nearly entirely with natives, it would have made little sense to set aside yet another enclave for Australian plants. The alternative, of course, was to allow the area, burned out after the 2001 bushfires, to regenerate naturally, and to be kept clear of pines and large gum trees so as to reduce future bushfire threats from the west. Rather than allowing the area to become what he termed a ''blackberry patch'', Mr Stanhope began pursuing the idea of building a new nature park there to replace some of the reserves and forests lost in the 2003 fires.
Mr Stanhope's close personal involvement in the arboretum's creation ensured it became a lightning rod for criticism of him and his government. In retrospect, much of this seems partisan. The outlay for the project - $70 million and counting - has been considerable, but it's an investment for which future generations of Canberrans, and indeed Australians, will be thankful. A world-class arboretum will be a fillip for the tourism industry and serve as a reminder of the resilience, bravery and foresight of Canberrans. Truly a good reason to let a hundred forests flourish.