Costigan / Someone save these trees from the developers

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MORE than a decade ago Downer residents were dealing with the government’s questionable proposal to sell the former school site for a 300-unit apartment block.

This proposed complex included social housing, private apartments, commercial outlets, a childcare centre and kept the cherished courtyard with a much-loved sculpture. The commitment was that the heritage trees around the edges of this part of the park were under no threat.

Paul Costigan.

Then around 2011 the Community Housing Canberra (CHC) bought the site through a direct sale given their community-housing brief.

The CHC reduced the number of units and the scale of the development. Its plans included social housing (what they do), private apartments, some independent living apartments (for aged people), childcare centre, the courtyard (sadly, the sculpture went missing) and all the surrounding trees, the birds and the biodiversity.

In 2019 almost none of the above applies except that CHC is still the developer.

The courtyard has gone, there is no social housing and the trees along Bradfield Street are to go (some gone already) and the trees alongside the site on Melba Street are in danger.

Despite former rhetoric about how this development complex was to be integrated into the community and deliver a range of benefits back to the residents who gave up their school and this part of the Downer parklands, there are to be now no identifiable community benefits plus there will be the loss of all the previously heritage listed greenery.

Some are satisfied that the trees will be replaced. But they fail to comprehend that new plantings will most likely suffer a similar fate of others in Canberra. That is, given the way this government looks after trees, the maintenance will be minimal resulting in no significant growth in the lifetime of anyone alive today.

Then there is the role of the CHC – which is supposed to be delivering community housing. In this case it is simply acting as any other commercial developer and within that seems to little care for the character and heritage of the suburb.

While the CHC has worthy intent and has suffered from the mean hand of this government in having monies withdrawn from it, none of that justifies how it is going about this development and how it is the agency overseeing the destruction of this suburb’s heritage.

Other developers are forced to work around such significant trees. Why not the CHC? The story is complex and too long for this short opinion piece. But having carried out research in the time available, there is nothing obvious to why the CHC has not taken more steps to retain these trees and possibly seen to it that a long-term strategy was in place to see a timed replacement of any trees that may be in a bad way. There is no reason for the complete and simultaneous removal of all these trees. None.

Recently, there has been advocacy about trees and a new emphasis on heritage. However, despite the political speeches, constant consultations, petitions, the voices from lobby and residents’ groups, the many worthy green, eco-friendly associations and heritage groups, few are raising strong objections to the imminent removal of these magnificent heritage trees that are part of the historic character of Downer.

This serious loss of trees is a very perverse outcome to a long history of planning and development, time-consuming consultations and deals on this Downer site.

Is everyone too busy to notice? When the trees on Bradfield Street and part of Melba Street are all gone, maybe then locals will start to ask questions.

Anyone on the CHC executive or board and those of all colours within this government with an interest in the environment, heritage, planning, urban development, housing and the list goes on, they need to do a serious rethink about how they are sitting on the fence watching this heritage disaster unfold. Any of these people could change this outcome.

Paul Costigan is an independent commentator and consultant on the visual arts, photography, urban design, environmental issues and everyday matters.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. “While the CHC has worthy intent and has suffered from the mean hand of this government in having monies withdrawn from it, none of that justifies how it is going about this development and how it is the agency overseeing the destruction of this suburb’s heritage.”

    As usual, your spin is clear to see. The CHC was set up with a loan facility, which it was expected it would need to pay back at some stage. And guess what, the Govenrment decided it was about time it should start paying it back….. how is that the mean hand of Government – appears to me to one of very few instances of good governance from Government.

  2. Thank you for your article on ‘The Neglect and shame of our mistreated trees’ (Feb 14-20,2019). I do not usually respond to news articles however in this instance I was so pleased to read your article as you drew attention to this ongoing issue.
    I have lived over 60 years in Canberra and when I was a child growing up here Canberra was referred to as ‘the City of Trees’. The expression ‘the Bush Capital’ seemed to creep in much later. I have to say that I am appalled by the way the ACT Government has no respect for public opinion let alone Canberra public trees. Over the years I have seen contempt for our trees within the government. I have seen trees in public carparks eg,the Treasury Building, Parkes, where they laid bitumen right up and around the trunks of the beautiful big old trees that were far older than me, and then cut them down as diseased, some years later when the poor old trees were succumbing to dehydration from a lack of water that they so required for survival. I did let the Stanhope government know at the time that the bitumen needed to be cut back from the base of the tree trunks to allow rain to penetrate to the roots for the trees to survive, however nothing happened and the trees succumbed to being chopped down. I also ventured at that time to let them know also that some large old trees at the side of the Treasury Building and across the road from the National Library were in strife because the ground around the big tree trunks was being trampled and compacted and the surface roots damaged by the general public as they got on and off the buses to cross the road to come and go to the library. I suggested putting a circular metal grid around the base of the trees as is done in so many cities around the world to protect their tree roots and allow for water to penetrate the soil, however it was never done.
    It seems that here in Canberra our public trees can only be seen to live 25years maximum before they are removed. In large and small cities the world over they have trees that have been respected and live anywhere up to 200 years.
    So sad that the ACT government here has said that they want Canberra to be just like the major cities of the world, however, how they are thinking is of big unplanned concrete jungles, and not of the beautiful planned city of trees that we have or should I say had. Luckily in the past we had government figures and contractors who had the foresight to keep our city as a clean garden city, a legacy for us. This current ACT government seems to want to destroy our legacy quickly and without much foresight as they walk hand in hand accommodating themselves and the developers.

  3. Paul,
    If you were truly concerned and informed regarding these trees you would have been following the Development Application and the Tree Assessment documentation submitted with the DA.
    In there you would have found expert advice that these trees whilst having heritage significance as the trees along the driveway to the CSIRO they are now at an age where they have reached their SULE (Safe Useful Life Expectancy). This means it is time to pull them down and plant replacements. Unfortunately the maximum benefit from trees (height canopy habitat) is very adjacent to decay, deterioration and death. The beauty of trees is that they are easily replaced in anticipation of a large healthy tree in time. We are very protective of trees when we have been the immediate recipients of someones forethought from 60 years ago. Value the process and the commitment to the ‘urban forest’ beyond embracing a few old trees. It is the tree planters of today that know that the benefit of our labors is the enjoyment of a generation not yet born. And the enjoyment of the trees today is because of someone similar who is long gone.
    Michael Reeves
    Landscape Architect

  4. Dear Michael Reeves

    Thank you for your learned advice – but in this case your are not quite correct.

    The Downer residents are well informed and are very aware that trees come and go and that we benefit from the actions of those before us. But that does not mean we have to be disrespectful of those who enjoy the trees today – as well as the biodiversity they encourage. They are also aware of other expert advice that does not line up with the one you refer to.

    People know about the development application and the requirement put on the developer (CHC) to remove the trees on Banfield Street – based on the ACT Government preferred advice. Other voices and learned experts state that while some trees are not in good condition, that rather than a wholesale removal of the trees, why not do something far more intelligent and community-focussed and put in a tree management plan to see the trees gradually replaced over time – and maintain the biodiversity and ambience of the street. Such a tree management plan should also include the maintenance of the trees to remain and the new plantings.

    The trees on Banfield street have suffered because of neglect by the ACT Government over the last decade or more and again now because the workers are allowed to park under them and are causing the earth to be compacted. This compacting will hinder future plantings.

    Residents are asking the government and the developer (CHC) to take more care of this cherished urban environment and put a thoughtful tree management plan into place.

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