For a city with a large and plentiful selection of recreational areas (and easy access to national parks and nature reserves), Canberra's town or district parks often appear underwhelming. Commonwealth, Weston, Glebe and Telopea Parks stand comparison with the Australia's finest, but the remainder are modest affairs of limited utility. And if University of Canberra landscape architecture professor Andrew MacKenzie is correct in his assessment, they're not being managed according to any long-term strategy.
That's not to suggest they are being starved of money or resources. Far from it, Dr MacKenzie says. However, he argues that the Territory and Municipal Services Directorate has carriage of too many parks and open spaces, and that as a result is almost fully occupied just keeping the grass cut. This imperative has also made TAMS reluctant to look at how existing parks might be improved or modified to accommodate the rapidly expanding populations of the inner north and south. And Dr MacKenzie singles out Haig Park, the ice hockey stick-shaped parcel of land intersecting Northbourne Avenue in Turner and Braddon, as emblematic of this failure.
In 2012, a draft master plan for Haig Park prepared for TAMS noted the park's heritage values, its importance as a park primarily surrounded by residential and commercial developments and the desirability of "enhanced recreational opportunities". To that end, the authors recommended, among other things, that park furniture and pedestrian tracks be upgraded, that art works and commemorative features be installed and that more lighting be erected to improve public safety.
Though the draft master plan has never been formally ratified, the government this month announced it was considering installing "mood" lighting and removing some trees to open up a through path from Braddon. However, Dr MacKenzie says the draft plan's revival is unlikely to ensure Haig Park becomes an engaging public open space – rather it will condemn it as being "frozen in time".
The long line of evergreen plantings within Haig Park testifies to the area's beginnings as a break in 1921. An unwillingness to depart from this layout for heritage reasons, even though it contributes to a forbiddingly cold and dark atmosphere in winter, is one of the draft plan's more fundamental weaknesses. That said, however, Haig Park's shape and size (only 19 hectares) militates against the sort of imaginative design and planning that Dr MacKenzie advocates. Nonetheless, he is correct in arguing that the government can't seem to see the wood for the trees.
With a huge expansion of medium and high density housing planned along the Northbourne Avenue corridor – and relatively little in the way of easily accessible open space nearby – Haig Park's significance seems obvious. And indeed, if the government was truly concerned about the new residents' amenity and recreational needs, it would halt any further development that threatened to nibble away at green public space. Canberra may never boast a large and popular multi-purpose urban parks like Centennial and Moore Parks in Sydney, but there's no reason it can't have some small jewels. The key, though, is expansive, imaginative thinking.