Catherine StewartSydney Botanic Gardens Trust releases new Master Plan

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The Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust (well not exactly – it’s got a new name) has released its new Master Plan for the Gardens and the Domain. And it’s causing quite a stir.

Ever since the Minister (for Commercialisation of) Environment and Heritage, Robyn Parker and her Office (downgraded by the current government from Department status back in 2011) managed to ‘move on’ the previous Executive Director of the Trust, Professor David Mabberley, last September, there have been worrying rumours about this new Master Plan for the Botanic Gardens and the Domain.

Incorporating a new 5 star hotel, ferry wharf, buildings and a permanent concert sound shell, the Master Plan was released to the Fairfax paper the ‘Sun Herald’ ahead of other media, where it’s (surprise surprise) received a very favourable write up called ‘Paradise Found‘ including a sub piece by journo Linda Morris, ‘Native paradise to public park‘. Please Ms Morris do your research – the Botanic Gardens is a scientific institution that people happen to enjoy visiting. It is NOT a park.

While it’s true that most of the new infrastructure and buildings are in the Domain rather than the Botanic Gardens itself, I think it’s rather like introducing a swathe of virulent weeds to the fringe areas around pristine bushland. Those weeds quickly start to damage the periphery and compromise the quality of the interior.

I think the problem starts with the basic premise that land just ‘sitting there’ not ‘doing’ anything is somehow wasted. Implicit in this plan is the belief that simple open space, that’s not built on or managed or interpreted for us, is somehow inferior, and needs to be enhanced. Perhaps we’re all just too stupid to know what to do with it?

I think that’s faulty, and somewhat insulting logic.

The new Executive Director of ‘Sydney’s Parklands and Botanic Gardens‘ (notice the absence of that inconvenient word ‘Trust’ in the new position), Kim Ellis, comes from a military and airport management background via Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust.  He’s not a scientist, unlike the previous Directors David Mabberley and Tim Entwisle. I’m not saying that means he can’t be a good ED of the Gardens, but maybe it’s a bit odd to have a non-scientist as head of a scientific institution.

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It’s no secret that this (and previous) NSW State Governments have been eying off the popular cultural icons of Sydney as cash cows for the future. In the Master Plan, the Domain will provide most of the juicy new revenue-generating inclusions. But even the Gardens itself will have a new building housing a cafe, shop and orientation centre just inside the QE11 Gate opposite the Opera House which will, according to the Sun Herald “give visitors a better understanding of what the gardens offer”.

There will even be a specially built ‘play space’ for children because otherwise they might not know how to play in the Gardens.

I think visitors, both local and international, are quickly appreciative that for once, they’re not being told what they should see and how to enjoy it. They can see the enormous fig trees, the grass they’re allowed to walk on and the sparkling harbour nearby. They’re happy to wander about and explore the maze of paths throughout the Gardens. I don’t think they need to be told what the Gardens offer. They’re already experiencing it. Why do planners insist on treating us like we’re very young children?

Ian Connolly of Cox Richardson which created the Master Plan says that “Sydney can’t rest. You have got to keep looking to improve the experience not only for visitors but for everybody who lives here as well.” Well, maybe the 4 million visitors to the Gardens each year have said that they needed their experience of it improved. Maybe they really had no idea what to do with themselves when they entered the Gardens.

Screen shot 2014-04-08 at 10.58.01 AMApart from the new buildings in the Gardens itself (and it will be a real shame to lose that lovely rocky area inside the QE11 gate, covered with Australian native plants), I’m worried about the proposed new ‘viewing platform’ around Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. It’s a natural, rocky headland with a spectacular view west towards the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, already much favoured by international bridal couples for that quintessential Sydney wedding photo, which causes a constant influx of noisy coaches and bridal cars around the point. A Master Plan for the Domain dating back several years recommended the phasing out of coach access, but then here we are in 2014 encouraging more of it by building special facilities for them.

However there’s a lovely video with an appropriately life-affirming musical sound track, so it must be good for us, mustn’t it?

You can see the draft Master Plan on display at the Botanic Gardens in the Lion Gate Lodge, or online here, although there’s not really enough detail online to make any informed decision about it. Or you can Have Your Say until 4 May 2014.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

5 thoughts on “Sydney Botanic Gardens Trust releases new Master Plan

  1. Dear Catherine,
    Well said. Please see my letter to the SMH published today. We can not let this tragedy happen! Do listen to Paul Keating’s interview with Linda Mottram on 702 radio today. Very well presented.
    Now to my bit.

    A world-class botanic garden, art gallery, conservatorium of music, library and opera house; all in one city, and all nestled alongside the most beautiful harbour in the world. What a haven of peace and quiet in this modern world. How come we are going to trash it? Where is the vision? How can we let this happen?
    Lyn Morehen Bundanoon

    Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/smh-letters/fund-peoples-park-with-peoples-money-not-development-20140407-zqrt7.html#ixzz2yEvZTqBe

  2. Well said Catherine. Enjoyed Keating’s comments on abc702 today too. He particularly was concerned by what is proposed for Mrs. Macquarie’s Point, including the cafe (and resultant smelly garbage bins etc.). As he said “as if Sydney doesn’t have enough coffee”.

  3. Australia’s ever-expanding city population needs access to simple green spaces with open views – and will need them into the future. Introducing new buildings. walkways, carparks etc into such a space does not necessarily improve the botanic gardens experience for locals and visitors – despite what the master planners say.

  4. Had to laugh at the ‘promenade improvements responding to climate change’ when the current government would have us believe its not a problem.

  5. Excellent comments Catherine! The Master Plan also shows the National Herbarium building as the new ‘Centre for Science & Education’. What they mean by that is that they will be moving the important and enormous Herbarium collection from its central location in the heart of Sydney (where many of its science & history stakeholders are located or have easy access to) and sending it to Mt. Annan, which is a transport wasteland. If the Government wanted to downgrade science being done in the Gardens then that’s one way to do it. Make it difficult for people to access the Herbarium. In addition, the Library will remain where it is, as part of the new ‘Centre’ where it will, apparently, be expanded and made more open to the public. Expanded? How? The Library only has one permanent staff member (reduced from 2 in October 2012), has had access to its rare book collection (collected since 1852) reduced, and subscription to 50 science journals cut without consultation with staff!! There are, of course, ‘good reasons’ given for this. However these reasons don’t stand up to substantial scrutiny. Staff have been told, for example, that the journals cut are available from the State Library for free! How wonderful…….oh but wait, those journals are ‘delayed publication’, meaning that you cannot get the most up to date issues, only material that is between 6-18 months old! So much for a commitment to science. What better way to marginalise the science done by the Gardens than to slowly excise the intellectual ‘fuel’ that it runs on?

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