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.
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.
Apart 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.