Colonel Light’s Vision: an old chestnut or a model for the future?

Through this exceptionally long, wet winter, I have spent a lot of time immersed in the history of South Australia, researching families and individuals who played a significant part in founding our state.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield, for example, was a key figure in the creation of South Australia. His plan, known as the Wakefield scheme, was to populate the new province of South Australia with a combination of labourers, tradespeople, artisans and capital. The scheme was to be financed by the sale of land to wealthy capitalists, whose payments would fund the migration of skilled workmen and labourers. The migration plan worked brilliantly thanks to early and exceptionally clever marketing along the lines of ‘money for jam.’ And it earned him a street in the new city and a port at the head of Gulf St Vincent, among other nomenclature in his honour.

As eager migrants poured into the new province, the celebrated vision of South Australia’s first Surveyor-General, Colonel William Light and his sidekick George Kingston saw South Australia’s capital city Adelaide rise from the swamps of Holdfast Bay into one of the most beautifully laid out cities in the world.

The first place in Australia to be planned and developed by free settlers, Adelaide was founded on the ideals of religious freedom, diversity and inclusion. As such, it was quickly labelled the City of Churches, not so much for its pious inhabitants – although there were plenty of those too – but due to the many and various religious groups that built spires pointing to the exceptionally blue heavens all over the city. And Colonel Light’s city is the only one in the world encircled by green space. His master plan is now internationally recognised as one of the most important influences on the Garden City Planning movement.

I have always loved our Park Lands. Each area has a different vibe, but as a land moat between city and suburban sprawl, it is a joy to walk or cycle through these broad tracts of open space. There are great picnic spots and the bird life is prolific. Since the inception of its proclamation, town planners, councillors and politicians have nibbled away at its edges to widen roads or build casinos or generally infringe on its glory. Yet still the outline of the original plan is visible, with its six squares (counting Wellington Square in North Adelaide) and its encircling belt of green. Along North Terrace, we have given up much of the original riverbank for public buildings such as the universities of Adelaide and South Australia, the hospitals, new and old, the Festival Centre and the State Library/Museum/Art Gallery cultural precinct. All good, I suppose, when such buildings are open to the public. The Conference Centre and the two – or is it three? – mammoth hotels above the Festival Theatre have less excuse for invading the public space, but according to our current politicians, this is still Park Lands, despite the array of outrageously large and modern constructions.

The Adelaide Park Lands are shaped like a figure eight, encircling the City of Adelaide and North Adelaide and meeting on the broad Adelaide Bridge across the Torrens Lake. Originally, the Park Lands consisted of 2,300 acres, excluding 32 acres for the public cemetery on West Terrace. Soon after the declaration in 1837, 370 acres more were lost to Government Reserves. In 1902, The Herald newspaper noted that 489 acres had been taken from the Park Lands, and by 2018, the loss is about 568 acres. That’s a quarter of the original public land chewed away in less than two hundred years.

In 2008, the Federal Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, announced that the Adelaide Park Lands had been put on the Australian National Heritage List as ‘an enduring treasure for the people of South Australia and the nation as a whole.’ In fact, large areas were excluded from the listing. Now, according to its website, the government want to grab an area the size of 32 tennis courts for a multi-storey car park. Not to mention a little cheeky re-zoning.

Last weekend, we sat with a small gathering of concerned citizens, as the National Trust presented a forum on ‘planning beyond tomorrow.’ The takeaway message? That no one in our current government has any vision for the future beyond the next election, through the age-old adage immortalized by ‘The Grinch’ of biggering and biggering. Building that is, not green spaces. Like Premier Steven Marshall’s threatened re-zoning and his proposed new riverbank stadium to be built on top of the Helen Mayo Park on the southern bank of the Torrens.

Speeches were many and varied. The first, presented by Professor Norman Etherington AM, historian and former National Trust President, was about a 50 year vision he has devised, with reference to Light’s original plan and a stronger focus (read ‘where the government has little interest at all’) on preserving the city’s heritage and keeping our treasures – Ayers House, Martindale Hall, the Park Lands – for the people. Stephanie Johnston, urban and regional planner, spoke about how a World Heritage Listing can be a future-making tool, designed to highlight our historic and environmental advantages. And the President of the Park Lands Association, Shane Shody, spoke vehemently about saving and/or restoring what remains of our precious Park Lands, a blessing to our city living that very few cities can boast.

At this point, feeling overwhelmed and helpless by the accusations that our current government is attempting to destroy our beautiful city through its over-riding greed, I left. The One & Only stayed on to hear how climate change and Covid 19 might dramatically alter the current trajectory for the development of the city, and how best to balance the present drive for urban consolidation, while safe-guarding our heritage buildings.

And yet, there are some positive notes to balance the negativity. The East Park Lands have already had a wonderful makeover, and at the southern end of the old Victoria Park racecourse, they are in the process of being transformed into wetlands. Nearby, the creek that runs through the Southern Park Lands between Hutt Road and Unley Road has been beautifully landscaped. And the horses still frolic in the south-east corner of North Adelaide. And whether or not you admire the new, spaceship shaped Adelaide Oval, it definitely makes an impression on the landscape – and has not blocked the view of St Peters Cathedral to the north.

A further positive for those living at the southern rim of the Adelaide metropolitan area – who may understandably have little interest in the Park Lands but might be quailing before the major new housing developments around the Southern Expressway – is the newly created Glenthorne National Park. Incorporating an old CSIRO site at O’Halloran Hill, the O’Halloran Hill Recreation Park, the Marino Conservation Park, the Hallett Cove Conservation Park, the Happy Valley Reservoir and areas of the Field River Valley, it gallops around those southern suburbs and along the cliffs at Hallett Cove, covering an area of almost 1500 hectares, which is about twice the size of the Belair National Park in the Adelaide Hills. It was officially proclaimed last year by then Governor, His Excellency the Honorable Hieu Van Le AC. Last Friday, the Honorable David Speirs, our Minister for Water & the Environment, opened the park and unveiled a plaque to ‘a thriving environmental and recreational park in our southern suburbs’ – only the day before the National Trust Forum bemoaning our evil government.

So, is it good versus evil, or simply a gargantuan task of checks and balances, compromise and negotiation, from which we must take the best on offer? And do we, the people, have any opportunity to vote against current legislation, and be heard? Signatories to various petitions would suggest we have some power. Current legislation would suggest otherwise.

World issues – which include war and genocide, economic volatility and climatic disasters – may somewhat diminish the importance of such localized, first world issues, but nonetheless I am off to fight for our local beach side café and restaurant, which is under threat from the Powers of the Grinch to dramatically ‘enhance’ the foreshore with a dazzling and completely inappropriate structure. In my humble opinion, anyway.

*With thanks to Google for the pictures above.

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