New Plans for Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney - Designing for public space or commercial events?


Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG), occupies prime waterfront land right next door to the Opera House, and recent news from downunder had landscape architects standing to attention like meerkats when it was announced that Grant Associates (UK), designers of Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, had been invited to develop the landscape component for a new Master Plan defining the future for this harbourside oasis.


Image source Destination NSW - Sydney

It’s a favoured spot for garden weddings, for watching NYE fireworks, holding a corporate event or staging a concert.  But like many public facilities that raise revenue by allocating exclusive usage rights for temporary functions, cries of “crass commercialism” are rife.


Photo courtesy R O’Callahan, Photographer: L Lau

The RGB’s trust management structure is constituted by state law and has three objectives: to maintain the lands, the (attached) National Herbarium and collections of living and preserved plant life, to increase and disseminate knowledge with respect to plant life, and to encourage the use and enjoyment of the lands.


Outdoor public events.  Photo via RBG

Does that include commercial, user-pays enjoyment? On any normal day the 30 hectares (64 acres) of diverse floral habitats and lawns are a great place for visitors to stroll, picnic with friends or read a book.  But user-pays events bring in much needed revenue which complements stretched funding from the New South Wales state government.  Unfortunately these events often exclude members of the public who feel disenfranchised, particularly when prime viewing areas are roped off. 


30 hectares (64 acres) next door to the RBG.  Photo via Wikipedia

Sydney is a whore to 'stimulus'?  Among the crowd of conservationist critics who rail against an increasing tide of private revenue-raising events, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating has been quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“The problem is Sydney is becoming a whore to stimulus. It’s got to have another light show, now every wealthy CEO can bung on a fireworks show for his wife for their birthdays, regardless of the broad public amenity.”


He talked about the adjoining Domain parkland (managed by the same trust) as becoming a “sad, deserted fairground” littered with temporary structures, barricades and kebab stands for much of the year.


Yearly tourist figures are around 7 million domestic and 2.7 million international, with most visiting the Opera House which is virtually on the front door to the gardens. So expect to see some attractive money spinners proposed for the gardens.  The tender proposal document has called for a children’s garden, enhanced theme gardens for “new or alternative uses”, identification of key commercial opportunities , and “to optimise return on investment and enhance the delivery of public enjoyment across the site”.


$20m Biome structure announced in March to attract 70,000 visitors per year.  Photo by Hassell Architecture.


An extensive consultation and review process engaged Sydney City Council, members of the public, corporates and public bodies and an online survey will provide user input to the design process. And all this hot on the heels of an announcement last March that the Tropical Centre, housing three distinct climate regions in a glass pyramid, is to be replaced by a $20 million Biome by 2015.


Gardens by the Bay, Singapore (Photo: Grant Associates/Craig Sheppard)


Whether Grant Associates comes up with a plan as grand as Gardens by the Bay remains to be seen. Funding constraints and maintaining the heritage values of the gardens would suggest not, but Sydney is renowned for it’s love of the spectacular and with RBG bicentennial celebrations looming (2016) we can expect Grant Associates to deliver something outstanding and unique before the year is out. Watch this space.


All images courtesy of Grant Associates unless otherwise noted.

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Comment by Ryland Fox on July 28, 2013 at 7:49am

So Keating is complaining about Sydney becoming a "whore to stimulus" while supporting Packers high roller casino Barangaroo?  

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