Keating’s wrong about the plans for Sydney’s Botanic Gardens

By releasing its master plan publicly, the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust is allowing a debate to happen. Peter Gawthrop

The current debate led by Paul Keating about the Master Plan for Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens reminds us how patchy and inconsistent our democracy is in regard to the way we make our cities.

The Royal Botanic Gardens & Doman Trust has released a 25-year plan for the Gardens and invited public responses. It includes improvements to the walkways and signage in the Gardens, the creation of a new garden for children, and a reinvigoration of existing collections.

More controversial are plans to build a visitors centre adjacent to the Sydney Opera House, redevelopment, a hotel and soundshell in the Domain, and headland walkways and a ferry terminal at Mrs Macquaries Point.

The former PM says the Master Plan “fundamentally commercialises this historic garden place”. He warned:

If Sydney is prepared to allow itself to fall prey to every trashy tourist and retail lobby, the city will not remain ours to protect or enjoy as we do now.

In Sydney, debates about major redevelopments aren’t always conducted in quite this fashion. See, for example, the unstoppable march of Barangaroo and its casino, protected by the special conditions and limited public involvement afforded projects of “state significance” and the recent decision made by the O'Farrell Government to cruelly evict the residents of Millers Point.

Steve Arnold

As an architect who works across a range of project types and scales, I am a witness with a front-row seat to how democracy and decision-making about cities work at a number of levels.

This can mean listening to a couple who will find an outlet to debate their different world views through the design of a house extension. It can also mean being a spectator to the ballet of soft and hard power being wielded by ministers and public servants. A controversial project tests the limits of our constantly negotiated value systems and the democracy charged with protecting those negotiations.

How the Gardens differ from Barangaroo

Paul Keating’s strident criticism of the Botanic Gardens Master Plan is misplaced both in his comparison of the gardens to Barangaroo in physical terms and in the completely different processes playing out either side of the CBD.

The development of Barangaroo is an important development of high complexity and is being steered by a dedicated public service. Yet much of the decision making early in the process was shrouded in secrecy, and constant complaints were made about the lack of genuine consultation or the potential for the public to meaningfully impact on what was being proposed.

But as far as the Botanic Gardens goes, Keating, with his public proclamations and newspaper commentary is exercising his democratic right to be heard and participate in the development. This was an opportunity not afforded those who disagreed with Keating’s view of Barangaroo.

For architects, one memorable highlight of the process was his labelling of our considered, thoughtful and highly respected Institute of Architects President, Brian Zuilaikha, as a “toady” who should retreat to “toad hall” for disagreeing with his view.

To borrow the former PM’s critique of the process instigated by the Botanic Gardens Trust, Keating’s aggressive stance on Barangaroo left “the concerns of a conscientious citizenry disorganised and dishevelled” – via the utilisation of decision making processes designed specifically to exclude them.

At Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. cherry-blossom1

The future of the Botanic Gardens

There is no doubt that any development in the Botanic Gardens is extremely sensitive in nature and should be subject to the full contest of views played out in public and a transparent processes of negotiating them. That this has already occurred to date should give us faith that a similar process will continue.

The Trust of the Botanic Gardens has some rather vexing problems to deal with: incredible visitation – more than 3.5 million visitors a year – yet declining and at times embarrassing infrastructure to support the visitor experience.

Keating’s claim that the Botanic Gardens works will result in an influx of tourists destroying the gardens is not correct – the tourists are coming already and the gardens are threatened by the lack of management afforded their visits and the lack of quality infrastructure that greets them.

An animated walkthrough of the Royal Botanic Gardens Masterplan.

A visitor centre at the western entrance to the gardens would not only provide a new layer of information for visitors about the gardens and their role, but may, through further development, assist the Opera House with its own dilemmas regarding a visitor centre, for which a competition was held last year.

While nothing has been publicly revealed regarding the winning proposal, it is understood competitors were asked to place a visitor centre on architect Joern Utzon’s forecourt. It is impossible to understand how a proposal so contrary to Utzon’s vision and design principles could even be suggested; it would compromise the Opera House far more than a combined Opera House-Gardens visitor centre at the junction between the two.

This sensitivity regarding the Opera House Visitor Centre reminds us that scale is often not the issue – rather, the appropriateness of what is being proposed in each context. All the complexity and uncertainty and contests around how we would measure that would be a more sophisticated measure.

kara brugman

But that’s also more complex to argue, as it requires a complex and fine-grained debate between highly informed people – not banner headlines and one-liners from Keating and others in the daily press.

The scientific functions of the Botanic Gardens are compromised and in the need of a boost via new state of the art research spaces, all of which should be unremarkable. Bump in and bump out stresses that accompany any event at the Domain could be eliminated with a permanent sound shell, an issue surely without controversy given the regular use of the space for large music events. Lining a car park façade with a new hotel would seem to be quite ingenious.

On the other hand, the proposed works to Mrs Macquaries Point are a real concern and the viewing platform jutting out from the headland appears completely unnecessary and inappropriate.

By releasing the Master Plan and making it public, the Botanic Gardens Trust is now allowing a debate to happen. Keating’s is the loudest voice in the debate currently – but hopefully it will include many others in a public contest of ideas about how this most important asset is enhanced and its key values protected for the future.

I hope the Trust continues with the consultative and transparent process it has commenced and is open to modifications, adjustments and deletions to the plan that balance its sophisticated knowledge of its own requirements and responsibilities and the concerns of a rightly engaged public.

This could be the exemplar of a form of democracy we so desperately need in New South Wales but so rarely experience.