Canberra Parklands declared terra nullius


The ACT Government and its business advisors have adopted a destructive language to justify their negative approach to parklands and open spaces in Canberra.

There are clear indications while the residents place a high priority on Canberra’s green spaces as part of the expected neighbourhood amenity, the government has a different view.

According to one insider, the government development agencies now classify green and open spaces as part of the government’s development agencies’ long term development banks. That is they have been allowed to exist not to be public amenity but as spaces that can be called on any time in the future for development.

This marks a huge change in how the city is being managed. The current ACT government has inherited a legacy courteous of former planners and others who delivered a city famous for its green spaces and urban trees. This legacy is now under attack by the current government.

Many surface car parks in and around the city are also included in this infamous development bank. One is being called in right now.

It has been just announced that the Canberra Centre Mall wishes to expand again to take over the car park next to it so that the cinema can expand. This latest chapter will compound the enormous damage this mall has done in its continued expansions. The rest of Civic has been the casualty.

Open surface car park are not attractive but car parking is required. Creative solutions are not being sought. Instead any sale and redevelopment is the priority. Car parks could be built that include green spaces on top – but this requires a style of planning and thinking that is not present within the agencies now advising our politicians.


Meanwhile the property sector has its eyes on Glebe Park. They simply ignore the fact that this is a cherish green space with its own special heritage. Instead they regard it as the ‘long-forgotten corner of Civic‘ that obviously needs more activities within it. I suspect the residents and the manner visitors to this lovely green space do not see it has ‘long-forgotten’.

The property sector wish to plonk things onto this park to make it more commercial — including major events such as Floriade. The long-term agenda would be to introduce activities into the park and over time parts of the park would then become degraded and then be open to further development. Bingo!

In Dickson there are several open attacks being launched on green spaces and trees despite the well documented opposition to such intrusions into the provision of public amenities in and around Dickson.

The current chief minister and his development advisors have just declared that the Antill and Cowper Streets corner of the Parklands should have some trees removed to allow for car parking. This action is required as the development agency has sold off one of the main car parks for new developments but neglected to plan for this sale.

The agency completely neglected to do pre-planning and to make the obvious provisions to allow the rest of the centre to keep attracting customers.


The only option the agency has come up with is to destroy more green space. So their preferred solution, having sold off a car park and all the numerous trees on that site, is to remove even more trees to justify their lack of forward planning.

For instance it should have occurred to the department that they could have built a multi level car park in front of the Tradies Club. This could have included some underground levels and could have been topped with a green roof – a parkland on the roof. Now there’s a good idea!

But wait – the government traded that car park away to the Tradies Club through a deal that the residents know little about. What a missed opportunity!


Meanwhile the residents had already signalled their clear opposition to the same agency’s wish to allow for maximum residential development on the lager parts of the same site known locally as Dickson Parklands (officially classified as Section 72 Dickson).

The planning minister was written to by locals to clarify matters.

Instead of carrying out his duties as a planning minister, the response has come from the chief minister who oversees development and is constantly engaging in nasty battles with residents across Canberra – hence his informal title as ‘Minister for Urban Destruction’.

The letter declares that the Dickson Parklands is ‘vacant and disused land’ close to the Dickson Shops and therefore would be suitable for apartments.

Again as in previous encounters, the chief minister and his agencies are willfully ignoring that there is already a rapid increase in residential housing across the whole area and that with this increased density there should be the matched enhancement of public amenity.

That’s what any good planner would argue for.

But in this case a normal planning is being willfully ignored in favour of the needs of the development agency to sell of any land it perceives to be part of its development bank. The Dickson Parklands are included in this bank of land open to be sold off and redeveloped.

Part of the reasoning for this sale of the Dickson Parklands is that one corner is to be used for aged people housing. This corner was the site for the Downer Club – but it burnt down one night – leaving the land vacant.


There is in fact support for this proposal. Instead of going ahead with this development, the development agency, with the blessing of the chief minister, is using the development on this corner site as a trojan horse to argue that the whole parklands site should be redeveloped.

Residents have already been very vocal in opposing such massive redevelopment of this site. It has been made clear that residents could be flexible in what could be developed on the site but foremost was the need to enhance parts of the Parklands for cultural and recreation use. There remains the opportunity for some mixed use development, being cultural and community and commercial, but these options are not being explored by the agencies involved.

Instead for some reason unknown to anyone outside the chief minister’s development agencies, there is the declaration that any development, no matter how insensitive or illogical, must go ahead.

As set out in the chief minister’s letter, the government knows best and it is intending to go ahead despite any community needs or aspirations. Is this a case of public bullying?

My sympathy goes out to community councils who get caught up in these unnecessary battles. There is a better way for government to work with their own residents!

All the evidence point to an attitude that open space land can be declared ‘Terra Nullius’ and therefore should be sold and redevelopment. Along the way the government is willfully ignoring needs of the climate (the planet) as well as the obvious on-going needs of the community and their health and well-being.

This chief minister and his agency are yet again displaying an arrogance to any dealings with residents and a lack of understanding of the value of enhancing open spaces as the surrounding suburbs undergo intensification — an increase in residential housing.

Canberra urgently requires a new leadership. Not necessarily a change in government, but that if the labor party is returned it should have a new leader, one who respects residents’ aspirations and does not declare open spaces as being ‘Terra Nullius’ and open for development.

The ACT elections are to be held in 2016.

Whether one votes labor, liberal, green or whatever, a campaign should commence to save the trees, save the planet, take climate change seriously,  to respect the wonderful and envious legacy handed down from past planners  of this city – it is time to vote in a new political leader?


Paul Costigan

PS: here’s some Heart Foundation resources sent through from a reader – maybe the chief minister should read these urgently:

Neighbourhood Walkability Checklist – Heart Foundation

Active Living impact checklist (ACT) – Heart Foundation

Food-sensitive planning and urban design – National Heart Foundation

Creating Healthy Neighbourhoods – National Heart Foundation


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