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Garden Design

Sydney Botanic Gardens Draft Plan

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

May 14, 2014

If you love Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens either as a tourist or a local, you should look at the Draft Master Plan and ‘have your say’. Recently I spent a few hours at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens checking out the new 2014 Master Plan in detail and meeting new Executive Director Kim Ellis. The Plan has some good points but some others still have me troubled.

Kim Ellis, Executive Director Sydney's Parklands and Botanic Gardens

Kim Ellis, Executive Director Sydney’s Parklands and Botanic Gardens

Kim Ellis is now head of a greatly expanded portfolio covering 7 sites, including the 3 botanic gardens of Sydney, Mt Tomah and Mt Annan, plus the Domain and 3 parks – Centennial, Queens and Moore. That makes him custodian of several major Sydney cultural institutions as well as lots of land.

He is impressive in person – a quietly authoritative and articulate speaker and with an avowed interest in reading GardenDrum, including my comments in an earlier GardenDrum News piece about his selection for the the top job, given his lack of scientific background. His talk at the briefing implied that his selection by the NSW Government was appropriate at a time when the Gardens needs an experienced manager to get it back on track. Given recent political events, perhaps he should apply to run the NSW Government itself.

My discussions with him that night were interesting. I tend to a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” way of looking at things and raised the point that the Master Plan and its accompanying (limited) documentation purports to be fixing a whole lot of problems. Except that I and, I suspect, many others, were unaware that anyone perceived several of them as problems. The Master Plan states that there has been “extensive community and stakeholder consultation” but where is the list of specific issues it produced? How can we decide if these are good solutions to the problems, if we don’t know what those problems are? (And I’m always interested to know who’s in the ‘community’.)

Welcome to the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. I love it every time I read those words 'Please walk on the grass'

Welcome to the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. I love it every time I read those words ‘Please walk on the grass’

Kim assures me that there is a list based on research, for example surveys of staff, volunteers and visitors, that became part of the brief to architects Cox Richardson, and agreed that publicising it would explain and support many features included in the Master Plan. There’s a very general list with the RBG Master plan but I can’t find anything on the website about community consultation data, except for a Domain Master plan from 1999-2000. Presumably there’s something more recent than that, but where is it?

Anyway, after a good look at the large boards around the Lion Gate Lodge describing the broad concepts behind the various elements of the RBG Master Plan, I find myself persuaded by some proposals, ambivalent about others and quite opposed to some parts of the plan.

Aerial photography of the Royal Botanic Gardens, SydneyInfrastructure:

botanic-hotelUnlike many louder voices, such as Paul Keating’s, I think the idea of a ‘Domain Hotel’ facing Sir John Young Crescent is a good one. It’s been a horrible eyesore for years – an abandoned petrol station surrounded by rubbish and wire fences and filled most nights with the homeless. The site already has a history of being used commercially, so what’s the biggie about it being a ritzy and valuable revenue-raising hotel? Go forth and reap, I say. (Although I do like the suggestion by someone else at the briefing that a percentage of hotel profits could fund hostels for the homeless).

Sign pointing to the Morshead Fountain Gate....which is where?

Sign pointing to the Morshead Fountain Gate….which is where?

And paths and signage – well, I have to admit that as regular visitor to the gardens, I have myself recently been stopped twice by tourists and asked ”how the hell do I get out of here?” Perhaps it’s kind of fun to let them in and then make it really hard for them to get out again but yes, I think that the path hierarchy and signage around the Gardens could be much improved. Several signs point to gates but don’t tell you where they are. ie a sign to the ‘Morshead Fountain Gate’ isn’t much use unless you also know that it’s on the corner of Bent St, opposite the State Library. The Draft proposes new signs with digital and interactive capability. Oh yes please. (As an aside to this, Kim also promises a new RBG website by the end of this year, thank goodness, as the current one is as much of a maze of confusing pathways as the Gardens itself.)

Now regarding Mrs Macquarie’s Point in the Domain and the plan to replace the container coffee shop with new ‘amenities’ which I think equals building a cafe and toilets, I’m not so keen on this. Unfortunately I can’t find anything in the Draft Plan that shows me either the exact location or scale of this building, so who knows? The rationale seems to be that tourists love coming here in coaches to see the iconic view of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, and there’s no public toilets for them to use. Well, there aren’t any outside Buckingham Palace either but I don’t think they’ll pop up there any time soon.

Those lines of huge, idling buses are awful and a quick spoiler to any quiet enjoyment of the area. And as ugly as the current container coffee shop is, it has potential to be something else entirely with a lot less dollars spent, as Ian Barker showed at this year’s MIFGS (see below). Kim reports that the City of Sydney is in favour of stopping access down the road at about halfway down Mrs Macquaries Rd, which would be an interesting fix. But would tourists walk the last 300m?

Ian Barker's innovative 'container cafe - MIFGS 2014

Ian Barker’s innovative ‘container cafe – MIFGS 2014

I like the proposed expanded and revitalised connection between the Domain, Art Gallery and Gardens. The new children’s gardens? Yes, I can go with some of those ideas but not play areas, like a children’s treehouse “constructed around an existing tree with the opportunity to play and learn about trees and the forest canopy” or “creative informal play areas” near the Palm Grove Centre (which looks suspiciously like another small amphitheatre).

Childrens-gardens-1No to those. I don’t want the gardens to have designated active play areas as I think the RBG should mostly be about passive enjoyment. Nothing should stop kids running about but I don’t like special play zones for them that alienates others. The pounding lunchtime joggers are bad enough.

For me, there are two very contentious proposals. First is the new ‘Orientation Centre’ just inside the QEII gates over near the Opera House. When I asked Phillip Cox why we needed a visitor centre for the gardens he replied, with a mix of weariness and impatience that “all the great botanic gardens of the world have a visitor orientation centre”. That sounds a pretty circular argument to me. They’re not great botanic gardens because they have orientation centres, and where is the evidence that such buildings really enhance a visitor’s experience? I suspect that building a new building is usually an architect’s solution to most things, and maybe not the best one.

QEII Gate Sydney RBG Draft Mater PlanMy memory of visiting the Edinburgh Botanics, certainly among the world’s best botanic gardens and owner of a very large shiny new visitor centre was that it was mostly a restaurant and giant shop. However, Kim Ellis says that a surprisingly large number of people interviewed inside the QEII gate didn’t know that they were now in the Gardens, and it’s not hard to see why as it’s a pretty uneventful, even dismal entry.

Rather dismal entrance to the Sydney RBG through the QEII Gate near the Opera House

Rather dismal entrance to the Sydney RBG through the QEII Gate near the Opera House

But do they need a whole building to be orientated? I see new signs and planting as the solution, rather than a whole visitor centre. I honestly don’t think that most tourists coming into the Sydney RBG either need or would care about having the Gardens interpreted for them.

The second main proposal that concerns me is the adaptive reuse of the Brown building which currently houses most of the Garden’s scientific functions, including the Library and the Herbarium. The plan says that:

“the required relocation of the National Herbarium to a new purpose built facility will free the Brown building for other uses.”

Brown-Building-sectionThose uses seem to be education, functions and yet more orientation, ie retail and revenue raising. And ‘required relocation’ by whom, or what? It doesn’t say where the Herbarium is going, or the scientists, but apparently it’s off to Mt Annan for everyone, which surely separates the Sydney RBG from its scientific core and the scientists from their Library (which it seems, stays at Sydney so it can be opened more to public access). I don’t understand how that works with the Trust, which states the principal objects are (my italics)

(a) to maintain and improve the Trust lands, the National Herbarium and the collections of living and preserved plant life owned by the Trust,
(b) to increase and disseminate knowledge with respect to the plant life of Australia, and of New South Wales in particular, and
(c) to encourage the use and enjoyment of the Trust lands by the public by promoting and increasing the educational, historical, cultural and recreational value of those lands.
(2) When acting in pursuance of its objects, the Trust shall give particular emphasis to encouraging and advancing the study of systematic botany, and to plant conservation.

It was only by looking at the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust Act 1980 No 19 that I noticed that Mt Annan is not included on the list as sites to which the Trust applies. How is the Trust then satisfied if the scientists and their Herbarium are moved away from the Sydney RBG?

Planting and the Draft Master Plan:

Proposed planting themes Draft Master plan Sydney RBG

Proposed planting themes Draft Master plan Sydney RBG

But the plan is not all about buildings and infrastructure, although that seems to be what’s got most people either excited or upset. It’s also about science and, of course, PLANTS. The draft plan identifies the need for new thematic planting:

The botanical collection has, over time through incremental change, lost its clarity and ability to sustain a clear narrative. While the visual experience remains excellent, the scientific structure has been eroded by changing priorities and changes to plantings. Climate change also represents a significant challenge for the collection.

The new thematic planting focusses on 4 key areas: plants and climate change; plants and culture, plants and evolution: and plants and horticulture and also overlays new new broad themes for the whole site: plants and water; and plants and Sydney.

Jimmy L TurnerHaving also met new Director of Horticulture Operations, Jimmy Turner, a quietly spoken Texan with a passion for plants that fairly leaps out of him, I think that there’s going to be some interesting work happening in the plant collection as part of this plan. Jimmy is very excited about the Plan’s recommendation for new place-specific gardens at each entrance to give a much stronger sense of arrival and identity for the Gardens and I say yes, yes, yes to that too.

I’m less enthusiastic about the idea of a tidal pool as part of a water garden axis but I concede the point that at the moment the RBG doesn’t really engage with the Harbour at all – it’s only there as a view behind a seawall, rather than a part of its landscape.

Merlin2525_Draft_Business_Stamp_1One thing that ED Kim Ellis says very clearly is that this is a DRAFT plan. Nothing’s been decided, or even budgeted for. They want everyone’s feedback and opinions. So if you love Sydney Botanic Gardens, either as a local like me or as a tourist who has visited, HAVE YOUR SAY.

You’ll have no right to complain later if you don’t bother to comment before the cut-off date on 31 May 2014.

Read more about the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens Master Plan and then HAVE YOUR SAY.

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9 years ago

Oh dear, a Texan in charge of planting – more boring natives and monocultures on the horizon I suspect!

I think your interpretation of the plan is a good one, I agree with the ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ idea but that approach has never been a big one in Sydney. What jumps out at me is the awful structure near the entry – those beautiful, historic pillars and a cheap glass – box type ‘orientation’ room next to it = no connection or aesthetic value. It will add clutter to the place and not a good idea at all.

9 years ago

….groan…..if it were me…and I was in charge… I would have had every architect that came after the 1920’s shot for crimes against the built environment.

Beware Catherine. They will come quietly in the night with their shiny tropes and classic SAAB collection and kill us all with their ennui.

Carol Griesser
Carol Griesser
9 years ago

Thank you Catherine for your exhaustive and comprehensive study of the Master Plan. As you said. it is only a personal opinion but very welcomed in my regard. The more important part of your comments, in my opinion, is your last paragraph: “You’ll have no right to complain later if you don’t bother to comment before the cut-off date on 31 May 2014.”

Thanks again

Lynda Newnam
Lynda Newnam
9 years ago

Thanks Catherine for making your views available. It’s a pity this isn’t on the RBG website along with other ‘submissions’. Not only does it make the process more transparent but it would generate more debate and potentially lead to a more creative outcome.

I really like this comment: “Perhaps it’s kind of fun to let them in and then make it really hard for them to get out again..” Integrated accessible messaging is key from the static signs to the way business is conducted at the cafe, shop, by gardeners, security personnel and so on.

It’s a pity but I can understand why a state of the art Herbarium at Mt Annan (alongside Plant Bank) is on the list and why the Library should stay (and be more accessible). There is so much that can be done on-line. However I agree that the RBG doesn’t need a structure with staff selling widgets to welcome visitors. Creative signage and other communication tools can be used instead. The staff at the shop and information booth already field enough general questions about Sydney’s Tourist attractions. Any building located near the Opera House would be seen as the premier Tourist Information Centre. The RBG would get no credit for the service it would be obliged to fund. Phillip Cox would not be thinking about the longer term operating costs (I’ve seen that happen before). Let Destination NSW build and staff an unobtrusive information centre opposite the Opera House – it’s their job to provide this not the RBG.

Christopher Owen
Christopher Owen
9 years ago

No structures thanks!
We have a beautiful collection of trees down there but the plantings have lost any sense of “narrative”. So yes to stronger plantings at entry points. Hopefully the thematic plantings drag our RBG out of the victorian era and into the twenty first century.

8 years ago

Get stuck into building the hotel and stop talking about it. Get James Packer involved he is action and no talk. Those who oppose it to do not have to stay there. Development brings money and employment. We could have a large High Rise there as well. Plenty of room to help Sydney Hospital expand as an Emergency Hospital for sick people excluding the drunks, druggies and those involved in fights. Not for the homeless to pitch tents.

Lynda Newnam
Lynda Newnam
3 years ago

Well, interesting to reflect on the past 5+ years …. and to note that in all that time something as basic as the main toilets remained as they were with not even some basic changes to make it more pleasant for visitors and cleaning staff. The Calyx is no substitute for the Tropical Centre and particularly the botanical collection displayed in the Pyramid https://sydneypyramid.wordpress.com/. A number of classic collections and icons have disappeared eg. the proteaceae bed, the heritage Dracaena draco in the Palm Grove. And the site has become less accessible with the closure to wheelchair access (and prams) around the back of the Tropical Centre/Calyx. The focus has been on ‘venues’ not ‘botanics’. Key sustainability measures have not been incorporated into lease agreements. Two high profile employees exited – Clarence Slockee (of Gardening Australia and seen on other programs) & Dr John Martin (Wildlife Officer, Flying Foxes, Ibis, Cockatoo Wingtags and so on). There is no longer a Wildlife position. Instead of bringing all the coalface functions under one umbrella to produce a seamless visitor experience, the shop was outsourced and most of the rangers are contractors – it is difficult to develop the same affinity with the organisation.