What Makes Australian Christmas Park Celebrations Unique? 1

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015
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During the Christmas and New Year break, the urban open spaces of Australia’s cities act as ‘centre stage’ for our celebrating and recreation.

Our seasonal break is given a uniquely Australian character and life on our beaches and cricket fields, but even more so in our parks and reserves. I was reminded of this last weekend when I passed my local park and saw a ‘tent city’ established by a large group of families intent on making the most of the beachside location. I felt a strange force urging me to join them for a snag, and if I had mustered the courage, I am sure they would have obliged. They may have even given me a slice of pavlova if I agreed to make up the fielding numbers in their cricket match. The ‘silly season’ is now in full swing, so what could this mean for your local park?

My observation is that, even with heightened awareness of the importance of quality open space in our cities, we are still promoting density without breaking the open-space mould and radically changing how we cater for the growing reliance we will have on parks for our future outdoor needs. The basics are relatively simple – seating, shade, options for play, water and access – but the extras revolve around the more active aspects of the space. Will you be playing cricket, basketball or soccer, or will your children be entertained for hours in well-choreographed play spaces? There are emerging open-space trends in hyper-dense cities like Manhattan that have transformed open space even beyond the extras I note above.

New York’s most famous Borough is an extreme example where there is virtually no outdoor private open space, with millions of residents and visitors instead relying on the parks and promenades to get some much needed vitamin D, a people-watching fix and, of course, aerobic fitness. So what is New York doing that Australia can learn from? Firstly, there is an acceptance that the provision of well-programmed intensive-use open space needn’t be the sole responsibility of the City. Benefactors, not-for-profit organisations and, in some cases, private operators have all emerged over the last few decades to provide open space services.

A prominent example is Bryant Park on Fifth Avenue, which was transformed from a site of frequent crime to a modern urban oasis through the formation of the Bryant Park Corporation – a not-for-profit that now funds, operates and manages all aspects of the open space. Like the city that surrounds it, this operating structure has allowed the park’s use to become ‘hyper-intensive’ with carousel rides, chess games, cafes and ice skating rinks existing alongside manicured gardens and outdoor reading rooms.

Bryant Park, Fifth Avenue

Bryant Park, Fifth Avenue

Of course, there is a flip side to the transformation of open space in this manner. With private investment inevitably comes some aspects of corporate sponsorship. There are rules, too, and I am guessing my friends camped out for the day in the ‘tent city’ wouldn’t be welcome, but on the other hand, I am sure they would equally like to have the option of taking a seat and watching a performance in a park amphitheatre.

With all of this in mind, open space and parks within our cities will need greater programming, operation and curatorship as their use and demand intensifies. Perhaps our new Minister for Cities will establish a policy that sees all new open spaces fit for a Christmas lunch? Will our new Minister for Innovation, Industry and Science part-fund a start-up to develop a crowd-funded platform to manage and operate local parks, or will our open spaces themselves become fertile testing ground for science and innovation?

Whatever the case, I encourage you to imagine you and your family celebrating our long summer break in Australian Parks of the future. We are not Europe, America, or Asia, and the enjoyment of accessible and abundant open space is uniquely Australian. How will we design our open spaces to cater for increasing demand and pressure?

One thing is for sure: we can’t compromise on the barbeque or on the time-honoured tradition of playing park or beach cricket with the esky for stumps.

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  1. Jonathan

    Hi James – while I agree wholeheartedly that the spaces in our cities will become increasingly more important as cities become denser, I have a number of issues with this article.

    It is important to make the distinction between 'open space' and 'public space’. Open space is not necessarily public, as it can include all forms of space in our cities, including privately owned and managed spaces that are open to the public (or at least those who are deemed acceptable). Actual public space is rapidly disappearing from our cities – see Saskia Sassen here https://goo.gl/lOkPKZ for a more detailed commentary on this issue.

    The second, and closely related issue, is the idea that public / open space needs “greater programming, operation and curatorship as their use and demand intensifies.” This is a fallacy. Cities have always had vibrant public spaces without having to be “curated”. Unfortunately we have a hangover from the modernist era that everything needs ordered, controlled and managed. Public space just needs to be public. When it is, people will make it vibrant. We don't need to programme it for them. Otherwise we end up with theme parks.

    My final issue relates to what I consider a tired old cliche about Australian culture, i.e. BBQs and cricket. Australian cities, like most western cities, are increasingly experiencing more cultural diversity and difference. What you are proposing is a very narrow, and frankly monocultural, view of how Australians current use public space and how they will use it in the future. Australia is a collection of different cultures. It is european, asian etc. It is still evolving in this respect. Its what makes it an exiting place to live.