Royal Botanic Gardens and the Domain Draft Master Plan

Royal Botanic Gardens and the Domain Draft Master Plan

(Private Members Statement, 2 July 2013, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

The Royal Botanic Gardens and The Domain play a vital role in providing public open space with green grass and trees to inner-city residents, workers, visitors and tourists. As someone who grew up in the inner city, I know firsthand the vital role that the gardens play for families and residents' health, mental health and sense of space. This role must not be underestimated, as data reveals that more than half a million people occupy the central business district [CBD] each weekday and that significant inner-city residential growth has little or no private open space in new and existing homes. Urban consolidation is sustainable only if residents have easy access to adequate green open space. Local residents use the Royal Botanic Gardens and The Domain for picnics, walking, recreation and quiet contemplation, and must be able to continue to do this into the future.

Central Sydney workers use the precinct during lunch breaks and after work for respite from their jobs and the city, to play informal team sports and to exercise. The Domain and gardens provide an important walking route between work, home and Circular Quay for large numbers of workers. Opportunities to expand green open space in the inner city are dwindling and what remains must be protected and maintained for recreation. A master plan for the Royal Botanic Gardens and The Domain provides a vital opportunity to ensure the community's long-term vision is achieved and that the precinct is protected for future generations. However, the draft plan released earlier this year would impact on the fundamental purpose of these lands and increase commercialisation.

The strong emphasis within the draft plan is on the provision of active and interactive visitor experience and on encouraging commercial activities. Rather, the focus should be on passive recreation, green grass and trees by retaining current levels of open space and increasing the tree canopy. A number of development proposals have sparked community alarm. The Domain often hosts major music festivals, such as Homebake, Field Day and Harvest, to raise revenue in the face of diminishing government funds. While some events benefit the wider community, such as the Sydney Festival, most are commercial and cause noise impacts, damage the grass and soil, and the green open space remains alienated during bump-in and bump-out, when the grass is fenced off for weeks to regenerate following damage from crowds, particularly if rain has fallen.

While building a permanent sound shell could reduce the time needed for setting up and dismantling events, it would create a permanent encroachment on grasslands and could encourage more commercial events in The Domain, resulting in frequent impacts. The proposed viewing platform at Mrs Macquarie's Point is absolutely inappropriate. This location should remain as natural as possible and exclude any built structures. The site already offers ample opportunities for views, which should be kept unstructured and informal. The proposed hotel on The Domain car park along Sir John Young Crescent would be better than the unsightly car park, but this privatises public land and prevents it from being returned to The Domain as open space. Surely other uses should be considered that provide public benefit, such as expanding the Art Gallery NSW.

Building upgrades and extensions must not result in net loss of public open space, and future retail upgrades must remain low key and exist only to support passive activities and the scientific role of the gardens. Trees go to the heart of the precinct, making it special. They create the forest-in-the-city experience, providing a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the CBD. While views are important, they should not take priority over green space and tree canopy, and I share concern about proposals for selective pruning and removal of non-significant trees to increase views. The Royal Botanic Gardens has long played a major role in scientific botany, and the draft master plan has a strong focus on plant innovation, biodiversity, habitat protection, ecology and sustainability. But I am concerned that proposals to create themed gardens and increase way-finding signage risk altering the atmosphere of the gardens and make them akin to a theme park.

A train station and a ferry station could encourage public transport use to the precinct, reducing traffic congestion and the need for parking spaces. These stations could also benefit adjacent Woolloomooloo residents, many of whom are elderly or social housing tenants. This area has expanded dramatically, with high-density developments, but is poorly serviced by buses. Pedestrian access to the stations between Woolloomooloo would also need to be improved. However, new structures for train and ferry stations must not intrude into the gardens and The Domain. The core function of the Royal Botanic Gardens and The Domain is to provide green grass, trees, open space and a refuge for recreation to city residents, workers and visitors, and contribute to the body of botanical science. The draft master plan must be amended to reflect these values and the Government must continue to maintain the precinct without alienation and commercialisation.

Let's work together to celebrate and protect our great city!