Commercial plans for Sydney parks get flak

The wide parklands spread across Sydney are often considered one of its best attractions, but plans to open them up for more entertainment and commercial activities have sparked a public outcry.

Critics warn that the city risks losing its character - as well as tourists - if a series of future plans for the parks favours fund raising over public enjoyment.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, one of the world's most visited gardens, and Centennial Park are considering setting up new cafes and restaurants, and allowing more concerts and dance parties.

But the proposals, meant to help the parks raise funds for their upkeep, have met with opposition and raised concerns about the impact on tourism.

In a sprawling, fast-paced city of 4.6 million people, the parklands provide a welcome respite for locals and visitors alike.

"Sydney could lose forever many of the reasons it is the world's best city as a destination and home," an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald warned last Monday. "The balance is shifting too far towards self-funding at any cost."

Controversial proposals include a new waterfront urban precinct in the city, named Barangaroo, which was intended to be "people-friendly" and filled with green space.

Early this month, prominent Danish urban designer Jan Gehl quit the project. The site, he said, was being overdeveloped - including plans for a casino resort - and was no longer providing a "people landscape".

The New South Wales government also plans to introduce the first-ever master plan for the site covering the waterfront Royal Botanic Gardens and surrounding parkland known as the Domain. The sprawling 64ha of grassland in the heart of the city receives more than 3.5 million visitors a year.

The proposed plan has also proven controversial, particularly as it aims to explore "commercial opportunities" and to expand the use of the parks for major events. State environment minister Robyn Parker specifically flagged a permanent concert venue, though she insisted the Gardens' character must be preserved.

"The Gardens has never had a master plan to help promote the important scientific and educational role," Ms Parker told The Straits Times. "The master plan will help create an unrivalled experience for locals and tourists, capitalising on its stunning location next to Sydney Harbour."

Former prime minister Paul Keating, who lives in Sydney and takes an active interest in the city's planning, has been a strident critic, lashing out at the growing numbers of stage operas and film events.

Ms Catherine Evans, an expert on landscape architecture from the University of New South Wales, said Sydney is "defined" by its parks, but their uses have changed drastically. The parks are no longer sources of escape and tranquillity, she said, but venues for films, concerts and events.

"Sydney would not be Sydney without the wonderful spaces along the foreshore and these large distinctive parks," she told The Straits Times.

Ms Evans said the state government was failing to provide adequate funding to the parks and should try to map out an overall plan for the parks rather than leaving each to its own devices.

Another major attraction, the 125-year-old Centennial Park, is one of the city's most popular weekend getaways.

A trust which oversees the park has proposed a 25-year plan to ensure that it can cope with a surge in visitors as the area's poor public transport improves with the addition of a light rail.

The trust insists it does not want to destroy the 189ha park's character and has proposed protecting green space by ensuring that any new buildings would require demolishing other buildings. So far, its plans have been more warmly welcomed than those for the other sites.

A residents' group, the Centennial Park Residents Association, said it supported the protection of green space but would oppose any moves to hold more events, festivals and parties.

"I am against any commercialisation of the parklands," said Mr Peter Tzannes, co-chair of the association. "The parkland should be an experience of trees and grass and tranquillity."

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