Celebrity tree becomes an icon in the fight for trees

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The Manuka plane tree… an icon for the fight for trees. And at the same time, it is a blight on the road to development. Photo: Paul Costigan

HOW is it that one tree in Manuka has generated so much debate and media coverage? The plane tree, wedged between buildings on the cinema site, has almost achieved celebrity status. It is an icon for the fight for trees. And at the same time, it is a blight on the road to development.

Paul Costigan.

Saving this one English Plane tree will not solve the coming biodiversity disaster, but it sure as hell has taken on an enormous symbolism.

In the one corner jumping up and down are the developers, the Liangis family. The say that the vocal objectors are not representative of the community and the tree conservator and the planning authority have got it wrong. There are some truths in there, but also some inappropriate reactions.

When it comes to how this planning directorate works (the tree conservator sits within it), the logic behind many of the decisions on trees is beyond comprehension. While a hard line stand is being taken over this one plane tree, we are witnessing so many other stupid things.

What about the significant trees cut down behind the Christian School in Lyneham? And what about the significant trees in Downer now listed to make way for the development on the old school site? Almost every community has their tree stories – where a particular tree gets protection (often inappropriately) while so many others disappear.

Do we hear much from this same planning directorate and tree conservator about the hundreds of trees threatened to be lost to the off-this-planet proposals to build on West Basin?

The Canberra community wants the city to remain the bush capital and has concluded that this government does not get this. Any threat to a significant tree or clump of shrubbery becomes a point of contention. Unfortunately for the Liangis family, the Manuka tree has come to represent the front line of this battle.

There’s a better solution waiting to happen here. It requires an intelligent initiative. Sadly, our current planning minister and key staff have a history of not being able to negotiate in such matters.

By contrast, many years ago the Liangis family was flexible and creative in response to an intelligent approach taken by a former planning minister over another development site in Manuka. The Liangis family has also been involved in significant art philanthropy. I suspect that despite the fighting words, that the family could be open to negotiate with an honest broker.

One could imagine that if all involved were prepared to be flexible, that a solution that would benefit the biodiversity of the surrounding suburb could be found. Should this debate be about this one tree or about ensuring that the green canopy for the suburb increases not reduces as a consequence of this and future proposed developments?

There’s enough bad stuff happening in the world right now and so many governments and their agencies are making a mess of things – as we are seeing here in Canberra. Most of the local planning decisions are not based on real evidence and not based on achieving a holistic solution. It is time we moved away from the model whereby ad hoc planning is done behind closed doors at the planning directorate. It needs to become about the environment and about residents; that’s right – the people who live here and love this joint.

Maybe this is an opportunity for the newly elected Federal member for Canberra, Alicia Payne, to make an initiative for her local electorate and show us all that a people and environmental-centered approach could deliver for all involved. Someone needs to step forward as this is consuming far too much time and energy while too many other priorities are being neglected.

Every tree is worth saving – but if that cannot happen, then we need to insist that increasing the urban forests (trees) remains the top priority and through that we may just start to address the biodiversity emergency upon us all.

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