Thursday, 30 August 2012

Priorities (Warning this Post Contains Utter Small Town Parochialism)

I remember a friend coming back from Moscow after
experiencing the heady days of change and the installation of Yeltsin there. Unlike me she hadn't had a wise father to warn her, as mine did, before we headed off on the first of several postings, ' The one important thing to realise is that no-one will be interested when you come back. No matter where you've been, who you've met or what you've seen, no-one will really want to know.'

As a result, she was fuming. 'No-one cares a bit about what's happening over there','she told me, 'no-one's interested at all. The only thing anyone wants to talk about is whether the local government should put fluoride in the water or not.' To which I replied, 'Well, the fluoride issue is pretty important, actually,' proceeding to bore her with details of possible health risks to young children and other utterly idiotic drivel.

This is all my way of trying to indicate that there are times when I can get as blinkered and enraged about local Canberra issues as anyone and completely forget that they are of no interest to most people in the world - in fact even most people in Australia. Today is one of those days; I've devoted a lot of energy and angry thought to the subject of parking in the Parliamentary Triangle and I don't expect anyone to give a damn.

I could try to dignify the story with an attempt to point out that it has many levels (what doesn't?) I could say it's really a question of individual creative vision versus the needs of the many and, in that context, I suppose I might point out that I've always thought the ideal insurance against a conflict between these two factors would be the insertion of a clause in any contract made with anyone designing a place or a building that is to be lived in by people rather than, let's say, farm animals (and hasn't it been a cow of a day, by the way? [local reference to a political storm in a Canberra teacup]). The clause would not necessarily be enforced, but it would be possible to enforce it and it would say, simply, that the person responsible for the design would also have to agree to live in his or her design for at least five years. I bet that would have given pause for thought to the people hunched over their drawing boards in the late fifties and early sixties creating those lovely cement 'streets in the sky'.

I could say all that but really this is just me letting off steam. Today I went to the National Library and discovered the planners have decided that, although they want more tourists to visit the National Capital's attractions, although they disapprove of lawn on environmental grounds, although they provide an inadequate public transport system, they've decided to make it hugely more difficult to park anywhere near the library or its neighbouring museums, because they've recognised that what the citizens of Australia need is not 400 car park places (which could be hidden behind attractive hedges, if the objection is that they look tacky [and personally I think a bit of tacky would be quite a relief, providing evidence that this is an actual place rather than simply a three-dimensional architect's impression of what their plan might look like]) but a stretch of lawn named after a famous writer. Yes, that's what this post is about - parking. Unbelievable, I know. Please don't bother to read it. Just move along there while I get on with getting this off my chest:

I suppose it's damning the place with faint praise to say that whenever I've lived in another city, one of the things I've missed about Canberra is its uncongested traffic and the lack of difficulty in getting a parking space (I wonder if I'm distantly related to Sandy Stone). It's a planned 'garden city' and at the time it was designed no-one seems to have given a thought to the possibility that the best solution to moving people about might not necessarily be expecting everyone to have their own car. The place was laid out in about as spread out a manner as anyone could conceive and the plan was based on a peculiar system of satellite so-called cities, with great chunks of bush in between them. The way things were set out, the population was never going to be either very dense or really enormous. In such circumstances, a truly comprehensive public transport system was never going to be an economically viable option.

At the time, perhaps, such things were not at the top of the list of anyone's priorities. A magnificent expression of the Australian character or dream or something was what was wanted. It was the look of the place that was the thing that mattered. The most striking evidence of this fact was the decision to place a manmade lake right in the new capital's centre. While it looked very pretty, it was scarcely practical, instantly restricting access between the two sides of the town to two routes, dictated by the placement of the only two bridges built across the new watery expanse.

Never mind, on a spring morning the sparkling water looked lovely and the trees planted around it soon grew, and behind them, on one shore, set back behind a generous spread of lawn, the National Library, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Science Centre were built and were soon attracting visitors from all over the country, which was what they were there for. Unfortunately, perhaps because everyone had only been thinking about beauty, provision for parking all the cars that were the only means most of the visitors could use to visit all these great institutions was not thought of, until too late.

All was well for a long time though - few people lived in Canberra and few visited. However, with the expansion of the place and efforts by the government to encourage tourism, numbers began to swell. Luckily, a section of lawn beside the National Library was then somehow ruined ( it had a circus tent put on it, I think, and, as a result, the grass was destroyed). For about eight years thereafter that section provided a makeshift carpark with places for hundreds of vehicles. Thus, people arriving from Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, keen to see what exactly their taxes had been used for, were able to visit the national collections without any difficulty.

But then one day, someone somewhere took a look at the original plan and remembered that the square now covered by cars was supposed to be lawn. Forgetting that lawn in all other circumstances was being denounced on a practically hourly basis by the Green Party coalition members of the town's government as shamefully ungreen and water greedy and the domain of those whom a representative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade once described to me as 'Europhile Pissants', they decreed that the current muddy carpark must forthwith be returned to its verdant swardy state.

Thus, if you go to the National Library or the National Portrait Gallery or Questacon (the science museum) these days, you will become acquainted with the outsides of the buildings but you may never get inside them, unless you are lucky enough to beat one of the many other prowling drivers to any spots that may from time to time (not often) be vacated. The piece of ground that was the makeshift carpark was not beautiful, it has to be said. However, it was also not particularly noticeable. From the National Library itself, it wasn't visible as you looked over the lake, because the building has very high foundations, so the area where the cars were was beneath the sight line. From the lake, the thing was screened off by the trees along the water's edge. In any case, isn't there something a bit dishonest about trying to erase cars while not actually making it possible not to use them to reach a place?

I'm confused by this development because I worry that my reaction is partly due to the fact that I don't really respect the architecture of the buildings along our lake's shoreline (although in fact, if I admire any building in Canberra, it is the National Library). If it were a question of removing a carpark from right beside Castle Howard, I'd have no objections. On the other hand, Castle Howard was never intended for mass visitation nor was it built within the age of the car. Perhaps though what I really believe is that Canberra's original plan was based on shortsighted concepts and should therefore not be slavishly followed. Originally, the place was funded lavishly by the federal government whereas now it is supposed to be kept looking lovely while in the main being paid for out of the residents' rates. Originally, the design incorporated great stretches of golf course standard grass. Now, maintaining and watering such areas is practically 'unAustralian' (there is no greater sin). Originally, driving a car everywhere was an act that had no moral dilemma - and much more limited fuel cost - attached to it. Now, it feels self-indulgent and lazy, while still being quite unavoidable, given the city's design.

Anyway, essentially, in this particular instance, I think at the very least someone is going to have to consider building - no doubt at great expense - an underground carpark, if they really want people to go on using the museums that have been put in that inaccessible spot. Less expensively, of course, and more sensibly, they could make a minimal aesthetic sacrifice and stop wasting time and money returning the carpark to its pristine state in the name of Patrick White (yes, the area is going to be called the Patrick White Lawns - and goodness only knows what the old curmudgeon would have thought of that dubious honour) and let people park on that little patch of land again. It's not pretty. It's a pity people need to use their cars but there is no real alternative for most of them. Doing otherwise means the people who run the city have a sort of toy town mentality which places the need to follow the demands of the original planner higher up the list of priorities than the need to follow the imperatives of the benighted souls who are faced with using the place the planner came up with.

(Next week: why there is a shortage of rental accommodation in Canberra, and why the cost of it is so high [because the local government gouges landlords with an absurdly high land tax, making it uneconomic to bother buying places to rent out]) Yes, the breathless excitement continues (actually, no, I'm not really going to write that blog, I just thought I'd air that gripe of mine as well and be done with it. Blog as therapy - I feel so much better.)


  1. One very Canberra trait I've noticed is what the Germans call the 'Geheimtip' of closely guarded information about where you will always find a parking spot, especially thrilling to Canberrans, one of the richest peoples on earth, if it allows them to avoid having to pay $2 an hour. Possibly the only thing more thrilling than that to a Canberran is access to a government car which then allows you to use usually empty parking spots all over Canberra including next to the National Library you mention.
    I am a bit disappointed, ZMKC, that you haven't reflected on another key current issue in Canberra - the Opposition Liberals' commitment to supply every household with a third bin for recycling 'green waste', as apparently occurs over the border in Queanbeyan, if they get elected at the 30 October election. This strikes me as a ridiculous policy. Most of our garden waste ends up either as compost or goes up the chimney. The only time of the year when there's more than we can cope with is autumn when vast amounts of leaves have to be disposed of - the proposed bins would be too small to be of any use and a visit to one of the green recycling centres would still be necessary. Why can't the silly local Liberals come up with some sensible policies e.g. surveillance cameras over charity bins to stop them turning into dumping grounds or public floggings of graffiti vandals?

    1. Public floggings eh - well, given that Canberrans flocked to see an exploding hospital, I reckon that would definitely be an extremely popular initiative.

    2. Graffiti vandals.... Aren't they also known in some quarters as journos?

    3. Oi, some of my relatives are journos