Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra – public parklands being traded for apartments


… by Anne Claoue-Long

Historians like time. It is central to our business. Heritage landscapes, be they natural or created by humans, are forged by the passage of time. Historians can read that effect in the physical landscape just as they can read a book.

Canberra is a famous example of a designed heritage landscape. It is significant for the way the surrounding mountains and nearby hills (many with Aboriginal significance) together with the centrally created Lake Burley Griffin are connected by long vista spaces.  This cultural use of natural landscape has matured over time. It has acquired both symbolic meaning in relation to our understandings of democracy and  social value from its open spaces.

Planning for ornamental waters was a prerequisite for Australia’s National Capital.  In the winning entry to the capital’s design competition a substantial lake system was planned by Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin in 1911 and amended by W B Griffin in 1913 with some further modification in 1918.  The design was again refined by the Menzies Government’s National Capital Development Commission in the light of technical research on waterflows.

Around the lake the parliamentary, administrative and cultural institutions were spatially set out in the landscape.  Surrounding this core are the celebrated garden suburbs whose beginnings came from the two urban planning philosophies of the early 20th century – the ‘Garden City’ and ‘City Beautiful’ movements, which campaigned against the industrialised city ugliness and consequential poor physical and social health of rapidly urbanising populations.  The interconnection of the historic form of the designed landscape with the presence of nature and open space is integral to Canberra and not coincidental.

By the 1960s the completed lake and parklands were a stunning masterwork of landscape design and engineering that successfully kept the spirit of Griffin’s 1911 plan but achieved a functioning and modern attractive expression.  From the moment the lake filled in 1963 it became a major recreation feature of the fledgling city with people enjoying both the natural lake environment as well as the structured environments on the foreshore.

The heritage significance of the entire Lake Burley Griffin and Lakeshore Landscape remains officially unlisted. This is despite considerable professional research on the history and value of the lake and its designed landscape setting, as well as several heritage nominations to the Federal Government, accompanied by continued lobbying in the face of inactivity to process them.  The public open space of the lake waters and parkland shores therefore lack official heritage protection.

‘Space’ is an increasingly important landscape value. It is greedily sought after and mined for profit by governments and developers.  Both may believe and even say that open space is wasted space, as it is not contributing to overall progress and the development of the economy.  Any open areas in urban areas that are not a manicured park designed for ease of maintenance with hardscape walkways and simplistic easy-care plantings are in danger of being termed wasteland. They become ripe for building development.  This is the threat to Lake Burley Griffin and its surrounding parklands in West Basin where the important cultural landscape is being reshaped by human intervention that is disregarding history and heritage concerns.

The piecemeal profit-driven development will result in loss of open public green space and view lines. Not only is green space at risk.  Also proposed is the redrawing of the lakeshore and reclaiming part of the lakebed and adjoining parklands.

The proposal is to take 2.8 hectares of West Basin’s lakebed to create a sizeable estate of private 4-6 storey apartment buildings. The current informal open public parkland and vistas will be privatised.  A promenade frontage with concrete boardwalk will replace the natural soft lake edge. This will damage the three-basin lake form carefully researched and constructed in the 1960s.  The alteration of current natural earth lake edges with small beaches to hard form walls will result in a loss of a wildlife environment for platypus, water rat and waterfowl and loss of around 100 mature trees. The public too will lose the opportunity to connect with nature. In addition, vistas, including those experienced from Commonwealth Avenue, the major route to Parliament House, will be disturbed.

Dense urban development can often be unattractive and unhealthy – the Garden City and City Beautiful movements were a reaction to such ugliness.  Open space once built on is gone.  The impact of that loss is felt ever after.  A further consequence of such building on open space is that a rise in development land values closely follows, inevitably leading to further development for private use and encouraging even denser infill.

The Lake Burley Griffin Guardians, a local community group together with  Australia ICOMOS and the Australian Garden History Society have taken their concerns to the local ACT and Federal Governments, but development proposals are continuing.

What will future historians read in the proposed privatisation and development of Lake Burley Griffin’s West Basin?  Only time will tell but on the record will be the objections from this generation of historians and community members.


4 thoughts on “Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra – public parklands being traded for apartments”

  1. Good to hear from you Anne. I fear that Canberra is succumbing to the same water frontage madness that has gripped Sydney where developers argue their vision of cutting it off to the public is somehow in the greater good.

    • Hi Peter – yes views across the lake are both important and precious. Many of Canberra’s surrounding hills have heritage significance for both Aboriginal people and the rest of us more recent arrivals. Plus the hills and the lake form a beautiful setting for the city. What a shame to loose that to high rise development cutting out the views.

    • Hi Mark -Yes, like in many other places Canberra is suffering from transfer of public assets to the private realm. First the views go with the resulting shade from high rise … I wonder when it will be the light and air that we loose? Maybe history will repeat itself with the window tax? Now there is a thought for historians!

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