Not in the public Domain

by Janet Thomson | December 1, 2015
Not in the public Domain

A walk through Sydney’s treasured public spaces

The Domain (October 2015)


Sydney is a fine city. Its central area is edged by the harbour and a green swathe that stretches from Circular Quay to Woolloomooloo Bay. The Botanic Gardens and the Domain, treasured open spaces, which seem to have always been there just a minute or two away from the city centre.

In 2014, a dark shadow passed over the future of these spaces when they became the subject of a draft master plan produced by the Domain and Botanic Gardens Trust. Rather than look at how these areas could be improved by the removal of the myriad of unsympathetic intrusions that had taken place throughout the years, the plan proposed the replacement of some of them with, what the plan authors considered to be, more attractive permanent structures. A hotel to replace the Domain Car Park, a permanent sound stage to replace the temporary one in the Domain, a café at Mrs Macquarie's Chair to replace the ugly mobile structure. At the same time, the Art Gallery presented its plans to extend its buildings further into the open space of the Domain. The buildings will stretch from the land bridge over the Cahill Expressway to Mrs Macquarie's Road covering the present green-grassed areas. I suppose the next step will be a permanent structure to house the opera in the Botanic Gardens.

What does this shift mean for these places in the city which have, over the years, been valuable parts of the environment solely because they were cool green spaces where time could be spent doing nothing in particular? 

There is a walk I like to do through the Domain and the Botanic Gardens. Starting at the corner of Elizabeth and Park Streets I head down William Street, through the middle of Hyde Park to Yurong Parkway. There I turn left and take the Domain walk, a small path through Cook and Phillip Park to Cathedral Street leading to the Domain Car Park. The car park is built into the slope of the park to Sir John Young Crescent where its concrete facade borders the road obstructing the view of the fields above it.

A look at the history of the site of the Domain Car Park shows how things can unfold. Up until the 1950s the expanse of lawn of the Domain sloped down to Sir John Young Crescent with a row of fig trees along the roadway. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, according to articles in the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, there was seen to be a great need for car parks in central Sydney. Of course, in those days, everyone just drove into town to do their shopping and expected to park somewhere. At Xmas time the Council started allowing informal car parking on the Domain to cope with the crowds. After a while, it was suggested that a permanent car park should be built there. The Herald stated that the car park would be underground so not visible, the article concentrating on the marvel of the installation of the hi-tech moving footway to the city as part of the development. The fact that the trees were to be cut down didn't receive a mention until someone complained when the trees were actually removed. Now, the plan is to replace the car park with a hotel as it is claimed this would certainly look better than the car park structure. Of course the hotel wouldn't be underground and the wide expanse of lawn planted over the underground car park would be privatised. There would be no more games of football once a hotel dominated the eastern edge of the Domain.

Once across Art Gallery Road I re-enter the Domain into a wide-open space fringed with giant fig trees that stretches to the edge of the city. As I walk, a wonderful vista unfolds across the grass, of the line of tower buildings that abruptly finish at the open space and define its relationship to the city. Sometimes, in the mornings, the buildings glow as the sun rises and reflects on their glass facades. At lunch times this space is always full of office workers shouting and laughing while playing informal ball games on the grass. The plan is to build a permanent sound stage here. This would forever interrupt the wonderful view of the city towers across the open space of the Domain and the sweep of lawn that separates the city from the fig trees in Art Gallery Road.

Across the Domain I walk up to Macquarie Street, over the scar of the Cahill expressway that forever divided the Domain and the Botanic Gardens, back into the Domain and down to the Opera House. I don't actually see the Opera House until I am practically on top of it, so this view always elicits a feeling of surprise and awe no matter how many times I see it.

At Circular Quay I mingle with all the tourists admiring the Opera House and the views of the Harbour and the Bridge. The presence of a cruise ship at Circular Quay always adds an extra facet to this outlook across the quay to the Museum of Modern Art on the other side.

On entering the Botanic Gardens beside the Opera House I walk along the waters edge all the way to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair on the tip of the peninsula. This is perhaps the most beautiful part of the walk. There is a view across the water to the imposing exposed rock face on the western side of the peninsula. To the right the green lawns slope down from the edge of the city to the water and the trees are scattered throughout providing shady spots to sit, or lie, on the grass. The view of the city tower buildings remains in the distance and there is a satisfying hum from the life of the city. This mixes with the chirps and screeches of the birds in the gardens and the horns of the ferries as they dart in and out of Circular Quay. The site of Mrs Macquarie’s Chair is a great tourist attraction because of the views it offers across the harbour. Here, there are always crowds of tourists taking photos against the rocky outcrops that lead up to the viewing platform. The plan proposes a large café building here, sitting right on the top of the ridge. But there is another threat to the simple beauty of the place; the Opera In the Botanic Gardens. 

Work begins on preparing this venue two months before the performances in March and April. A huge structure emerges on the waterfront and access around this side of the gardens to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair is denied. It all began as a venue for the occasional party, became an outdoor cinema in the summer and now is the opera with its associated bars and restaurants. 

I pass around this outcrop to the grey green waters of Woolloomooloo Bay where I continue back into the Domain and walk along the waterside past the Boy Charlton Swimming Pool. This is a hidden gem on this walk. It is often tempting to stop for a swim in the bright blue water or have lunch or a coffee at the café overlooking the pool. 

Across Woolloomooloo Bay is the Finger Wharf. Once the scene of farewells to soldiers off to world wars or the welcoming of migrants to Australia, it is now home to high-class apartments and trendy restaurants with expensive cruisers and yachts parked in the bay. On a sunny winter’s afternoon lunch at the restaurants can go on till 5pm as the outside areas are bathed in the sun until it sets behind the city’s towers in the west. 

Now I am back in the Domain and the walk finishes at Cook and Phillip Park. 

This walk is about five kilometres in length and for all of this, through parks and open spaces all within one or two kilometres of the city centre. 

Along the way there are many scenes of young people playing games and sport in the open grassed areas of the Domain. Lunchtime runners going around the Opera House to Mrs Macquarie’s chair and back to the city. Some stop for a quick swim at the Boy Charlton along with office workers who just opt to spend an hour in the sun by the pool. There are people having picnics on the grass in the Botanic Gardens, lovers lying under trees and mothers teaching babies to walk on the soft grass. And there are always tourists taking photos of the tranquil scenes. This is a truly beautiful area much loved by Sydney people but rarely appreciated as a whole.

This continuous open space that forms the eastern edge of the Sydney CBD, is the oldest declared parkland in Australia. Originally the Governor reserved it as the Domain soon after the British migrants arrived in Sydney. Its eastern limit was Woolloomooloo Bay and it was partially opened in 1831 when Governor Macquarie built a promenade to Mrs Macquarie’s chair. It got its western edge in the 1840s when Macquarie Street was extended to the waterfront. Governor Macquarie established the Botanic Gardens within the Domain in 1816. You can imagine at the time that these gardens were to be a little piece of England in this far off colony. 

The open space has remained a public area, a space for the people of Sydney to come, relax, play and enjoy nature, until recently. The Domain has, of course, always been a space where crowds could gather to complain or celebrate or just be entertained. But these were always informal, and mostly spontaneous occasions where people could come and go as they pleased, not the fenced off restricted entry occasions which are happening now. 

The sad thing is that the justification for all these new proposals is that well designed permanent structures would look better than the existing temporary ones. But the open space would be gone forever. The peace would be gone, the trees cut down, the birds silenced and the grass would be covered up. The delightful flow of the open space around the city would be interrupted. 

There is a solution that could keep and improve what we have now while at the same time meeting the constant demands for income and entertainment, festivals and concerts. The Premier has recently announced that a great new open space area will be created in Western Sydney. This park will be built over 200hectares in Mount Druitt, Prospect, Seven Hills and Blacktown. Here is an opportunity to provide for the new uses that are slowly eating up the open areas in the Botanic Gardens and the Domain. The Art Gallery could build a new gallery there rather than expand on the present site and the opera and concerts and fairs and festivals could all be designed into the park from the beginning. At the same time public funding must be returned to preserve the Domain and Botanic Gardens. These are precious areas of open space that have been defining Sydney both physically and culturally since the city began. Once gone they can never be replaced. 

If this happened, I could continue with my walk in the secure knowledge that it will be there for future generations to enjoy.

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