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How would you plan Adelaide?

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Colonel Light’s design of Adelaide ignored much of what makes South Australia unique, says landscape architect and urban designer Daniel Bennett in the first of a new InDaily Design series which asks: If you were Light, how would you plan Adelaide?

Colonel Light came to South Australia – then part of the (ahem) convict settlement of New South Wales – and applied for the job of governor. He failed in his bid, and was instead given the job of surveyor-general.

There is no doubt the man had vision: his grand plan to create the Parklands was a genius idea; our parks are now the great democratic spaces of our cities.  With the seeds of the industrial revolution emerging in his native Britain, his appreciation that a city needed green lungs, breathing space and relaxing gardens was indeed his masterstroke.

But what Light did next was something with which I disagree.

To create his grand Adelaide vision, he effectively clear-felled the entire city area inside the boundary of the Parklands.  He knew a clear slate created easy-to-sell land parcels. He seemed to have no real appreciation of the landscape of the Adelaide plains or he simply ignored it.

Despite the lack of landscape appreciation, Light’s plan created wide terraces, linked with wide boulevards, and five new green squares with generous proportions. This included a northern cultural boulevard and several civic boulevards through the squares, all connected to the orbital Parklands.

One of the signposts of a good city is its vibe. In many ways a city talks to you; it provides sensations that range across all the senses. Good cities inspire, excite, relax, depress, challenge, ask questions, seek answers and make you feel good.

In Adelaide we celebrate the squares, our seemingly ubiquitous churches, and the Parklands.

Never mind the about 90km of coast that provides an almost-continuous beach, nor the eastern foothills which provide landscape diversity, topography and aspect, or the Adelaide Hills, which rival the best New England and upstate areas of the US have to offer.

Never mind the diversity of the Barker Inlet wetlands, where much of northern Adelaide drains to, providing internationally significant biodiversity and habitat as well as creating drinking-quality water.

Never mind the heroic River Torrens Linear Park which traverses the Hills to the Gulf, creating a non-stop recreational, environmental and economic asset for all of Adelaide.

Alas, we are mostly fixated on our CBD’s squares, terraces and the Parklands.

While the bones and the skinny flesh, probably lacking some muscle, are in place for Adelaide, there is much latent potential.  So what would I change or recalibrate?

1. We need to create an active, living and breathing CBD.

The city centre is in need of some TLC.  In 1925, the population peaked at around 45,000 living in the CBD. In recent years the figure has been growing, but it is still only half that of 1925, at around 22,000. This figure is, despite what the naysayers would have us believe, far too low. And the authorities seem to be claiming precincts for themselves: consider Victoria Square and Rundle Mall (claimed by the Adelaide City Council) and the Riverbank (by the State Government).  There is still no overall city plan (let alone a singular authority) for the entire CBD and Parklands – yet we have a 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide.  It still makes me scratch my head.

2. We need to respect the Adelaide Plains landscape. 

We need to readjust our approach to the city’s landscapes.  Our trees, shrubs and grasses are more than mere greenery. They filter the dust, they clean the air, they soak up the stormwater, they provide homes for bugs and animals, they provide surprise and delight, they relax us, they protect us from the sun, they provide space for play, they provide food, and they create character and structure.

Too often our decision-makers think “landscaping” is a luxury. They don’t consider the invaluable benefits landscape provides, which far outweigh the cost of putting a tree in the ground.

3. We need to realise we live on the edge of the desert. 

Our climate awareness needs to change. We live on the edge of the desert, and a very dry one at that. Described as having a Mediterranean climate, Adelaide borders on being semi-arid due to its unreliable rainfall patterns, particularly in the northern suburbs.

Adelaide has the lowest annual average rainfall in Australia, and our city and landscapes must reflect this fact. Water is precious. What many don’t realise is that the Torrens didn’t originally drain naturally to the Gulf … we made that happen. Water that does fall on the Adelaide plains needs to be treated and collected at source, and while there are some inroads being made into this area, there is more to be done.

4. We must realise the potential of the Parklands. 

The Parklands perform a great role in Adelaide – they make us feel good just by being there for us to use, as we like, mostly recreationally.  However, I would argue they are mono-functional, providing some green spaces for a very limited few who venture out through them.  This may be harsh, but I have a vision where a diverse range of uses – social, environmental and economic – are considered on merit and as part of a true overall master-plan.

Collecting all of the south and eastern suburbs stormwater is a distinctive possibility; rather than fighting about it, we should consider an old theory called “total catchment management”.  There is also the issue of food security, as the expanding ’burbs eat up the northern suburbs – our Parklands could provide food production far closer to where the people are.

5. Let’s have more people, more activity, more life. 

Increasing the densities of people living and working around the Parklands is something we must consider, and there has been some movement by government to pursue this strategy.  The Parklands are not a museum piece; they need love and attention.  Think about Central Park in New York – it is one of the world’s great city parks and is surrounded by one of the world’s most intensely populated and busy cities. Yet it is an oasis loved by all who use it.

In Sydney, the planning of the Olympics site at Homebush Bay was low on rationale and high on realpolitik. Could the Parklands – which has received little attention, save for some well-intended path upgrades and recycled water – be our Homebush Bay?  Light’s vision saved the space, but the details and uses have not materialised as he envisioned.

The few who berate ideas regarding density of people living around the Parklands in effect promote urban sprawl, and promulgate the “not in my backyard” syndrome which at best is a folksy vision of the past and at worst very toxic to the city’s orderly and sustainable development.

So my vision for Adelaide takes Colonel Light’s vision well into the next century.  Let’s face it, his design has lasted almost 200 years, which is a great legacy. However, the unstoppable march of climate change will catch us out unless we start looking to the Parklands to provide more environmental and social functions.

The economic benefits will follow … and our Parklands will continue to provide Adelaide with Australia’s “most livable city” status for decades to come.

 Daniel Bennett is the National Vice President of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects.

How would you plan Adelaide? Email your ideas to lmannix@solsticemedia.com.au

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