I doubt that many people take the time to pause and send a vote of thanks to our forbears who had the vision to create city parks and botanic gardens. Our closest city of New Plymouth has its Pukekura Park, 52 hectares of park and gardens about 5 minutes’ walk from the main street. It dates back to the visionaries of 1880 and provides a green heart to the city. It is loved with a passion by locals and attracts large visitor numbers. Other New Zealand cities have their equivalents but most date back to a similar era. Aside from Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens being established in Manurewa, I can’t think of major new ventures from modern times.
It was a second visit to the National Arboretum in Canberra that had me thinking along these lines. This enormous project, encompassing 250 hectares, is a response to the devastating bush fires of 2003 which burned out the area. It is a grand vision, still in its infancy, that will create a legacy for generations to come.
While some areas can look a little … utility, shall I say, at this early stage and the selection of some tree cultivars to be represented en masse may raise a dendrologist’s eyebrows, the large vision will triumph over such doubts with time. The infrastructure is going in with attention to architecture that will blend with the landscape, an attractive educational area and one of the most delightful children’s play areas I have seen in a long time. Everything appears to be done with a view to sustainable growth in the long term and it is an impressive venture. It has an international flavour with involvement from foreign embassies and heads of state. This is Canberra, after all.
Canberra also has the National Botanic Gardens which were not officially opened until as late as 1970 although the first small steps to establishing them were taken in the late 1940s. In that harsh climate of hot, dry summers and cold winters which are often dry, they don’t get the same growth rates that we get here and to my eyes, the gardens still look young. I have been to them several times now. Because the focus is entirely on Australian native plants, they have a very different flavour to anything I see elsewhere and I really enjoy that difference, along with seeing new areas being developed within the site. It is indubitably …Australian. As it should be.
It made me wonder where our courageous new ventures are here. We generally steer clear of publicly criticising the local money being spent by the Taranaki Regional Council on what are described as the ‘regional gardens’. This amounts to many millions of dollars more than I think most ratepayers realise but it also sniffs of the cargo-cult mentality – build it and the crowds will come. It remains to be seen if that will happen but it seems unlikely in the long term. The problem is that the Council took on three existing gardens, all of which suffer from issues including obscure location, difficult access, off-putting terrain, pretty awful micro climates and somewhat anachronistic gardening visions from times past.
With so much spare money sloshing in the budget, we can’t help but think it was a missed opportunity to create a new vision for future generations, getting the location, micro climate and terrain right from the start. The role of public green spaces is so very important and likely to get more so into the future. It would be good to look to the future and to invest in that, rather than resting on the laurels of the visionaries of the distant past.