|Stephen Scourfield Writing
Perth: A City in the Forest
Tokyo pulses with people and traffic. I went there for that big-city feel, but with a fast, clean, technological skew, and to dip into Japanese culture.
And before that, in London, museums and galleries. Saturated in history. Dine out in slick night spots and shop in the big stores.
New York can be walked in grids. It vibrates slogans and art. Read a book in Central Park, then dive back in.
Cape Town throbs with the pulse of Africa, set against the backdrop of Table Mountain.
In Singapore, I still feel like I am at the crossroads where East met West, and in Hong Kong, it’s just such a pleasure to walk out of your hotel any time of the night and day, and find action going on. Jump jump onto the lacework of public transport and get around easily. Trawling through camera shops.
In Bangkok, its golden Buddhist temples, canals and teeming markets. Seeking out silk.
And in Dubai? The immense buildings, the speed of the place and yes, I admit, snow skiing when it’s over 40C outside.
These cities are all distinctively themselves, with no need to be like anywhere else.
But why do tourists come to Perth?
For nearly 20 years now, I have been listening to the answers, both from tourist organisations and operators, and from visitors themselves.
In the 1990s, I sat in an office in the city and watched an international advertising agency unveil its branding position for Perth. The exercise had started in 1995 and wasn’t cheap.
The agency came up with a whole tourism branding concept for the State, but particularly with “the swoosh” – a blue brush mark that would be the basis of logos.
And why was that?
Because the dominant thing the extensive surveying had revealed – the thing visitors had noticed, remembered and commented on most – was our big, blue sky.
Western Australia’s natural assets would form the basis of a new, nature-driven tourism push, the State government announced at the end of the project, in 1997.
“The diversity and quality of Western Australia's natural environment are an integral part of the Brand WA tourism marketing strategy,” said the Tourism Minister of the day, Norman Moore.
The integration of conservation and tourism was the underlying basis for the new strategy, said then-Environment Minister Cheryl Edwardes.
Much more recently there has been Tourism Western Australia’s push to promote the State’s icons – and those too are ostensibly natural features and phenomena.
Speaking recently to FACET (Forum Advocating Cultural and Ecotourism), Tourism Minister Sheila McHale emphasised WA’s diversity and beauty as key factors in the $5 billion of income and 63,000 jobs tourism it was responsible for last year.
“Natural attractions are the intrinsic reason people want to come to WA.” She also talked about the need to develop a sophisticated city.
This she put alongside the State’s uniqueness and importance of respect for indigenous culture.
The fact is that Perth is unlikely to ever be a massive international tourism venue. It isn’t a hub - like Dubai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok - through which big numbers of tourists have to pass to other places. We are on the way to nowhere.
Our tourism needs to be niche, and another big factor is that, traditionally, more than 70 per cent of the tourist dollars spent in WA come from us.
We love to travel within WA, and it is only our “weekender” money that has made, for example, Margaret River the world-class “product” that the tourism industry says it now is.
And it is no surprise to us, of course, that the climate and spaciousness associated with Perth is its greatest asset.
The blue, cool smudge of the river nestling up to the scarp topped by Kings Park. Its necklace of golden sand, effervescent green spaces and the silver and sage flicker of eucalypt leaves.
Ask for a “vision” and it seems invariably dominated by buildings. And that is what is happening to Perth now and it’s driving me insane. It is not “visionary” to build buildings – everyone does that.
It is a fundamental of the successful, and powerful, National Trust in the UK that the natural setting of a place is as important as the place itself.
A fundamental of the proposed foreshore project is to enable the city to engage better with the river foreshore.
How do high-rise buildings do that?
Do cities cited as examples for their engagement with the river rely on high-rise buildings to do so? Cape Town, Vancouver, Melbourne? You don’t engage with high-rise.
The planners and proposers might also take a closer look at what happened a few weeks ago. A boab tree in the way of Main Roads Department works in the East Kimberley was loaded on a truck and driven south. That the relocation of a 750-year-old tree should spark such spontaneous community interest is an indicator.
Look also at the front of Kings Park now. It is not so many years since the then-CEO of the Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority, Dr Steve Hopper, (who is now head of Kew Gardens in the UK), led the replacement of the non-endemic gardens, particularly at the front of the park, with native flora.
“People don’t come here to see African plants,” he told me then and he was, of course, quite right.
I was driving north up the Kwinana Freeway one day (just after they’d taken the “shutters” down after widening the Narrows Bridge) and rang him on the car’s hands-free. The scarp looked clear-felled.
“I see you’ve been weeding,” I said.
“Oh yes,” he replied.
For a long time, it looked like a brave move, but now it has created a key, sustainable asset, in the modern business-speak vernacular.
Now, that was visionary.
This focus on the foreshore stems from the underlying desire to draw people to the city. To make it a vibrant focus.
But on weekend days when the city is empty, King’s Park is still bustling with picnicking, footy-kicking, grandparents-and-all families.
On warm evenings when the city streets are deserted, there is the murmur of families and lovers, visitors and locals through the musty dark.
This part of our city is vibrant, alive and used.
There are 5.5 million visitors a year to King’s Park – by far our biggest “tourist asset”.
Since opening in 2003, the treetop walkway has had four million visitors.
Develop our strengths or copy others?
As one heritage specialist, with international experience, said to me: “We seem to be looking at everyone else. Why are we copying them?
“For God’s sake, lets do something that’s Perth, not Dubai.”
Is there still that inferiority complex ingrained by our cast-out history and geographical position on the coat tails of the globe?
Those deciding what to do to vitalise Perth foreshore might also remember the political ramifications of the old-growth forest debate a few years back. They should have learnt then that the interest in our forests and natural environment wasn’t about “greenies” – it was about mums with pushchairs and, eventually, businessmen in suits in the Terrace.
And my goodness, the public awareness and mainstreaming of environmental issues has moved on even since then.
In looking for a “vision” for the development of the river foreshore, on what is a Grade 1 reserve, proposers have come up with something, incorporating a high-rise building, that looks Dubai, complete with the “Swan Island”. (A pond created in land reclaimed from the river does, at least, complete a cycle.)
State Government architect Geoffrey London rejects the “Dubai claim”, but says: “Part of my job is to ensure we have a process that ensures real design quality for the buildings going on to that site.”
Professor London agrees the “swan island” is kitsch but says the development needs to be memorable and distinctively Perth.
There are many ways to make yourself memorable.
I wish Professor George Seddon was still alive, to take part in the debate. George – “professor of everything” – in his seminal work “Sense of Place”, which charted his response to the Swan Coastal Plain, exhorted us to understand what is locally distinctive and respect it.
“Wessex is Hardy country, and the Lakes are Wordsworth … ” he wrote. “(In Australia) Heysen invented the gum tree, and Tom Roberts showed us reddish landscapes … Specific qualities of specific landscapes … show us all how to pay homage to the genius loci. This task has barely begun.”
In Roman mythology, genius loci was the protective spirit of a place – often depicted as a snake. Contemporarily, it refers more to the distinctive atmosphere of a place.
What the planners need to realise is that Perth people travel widely and go to Dubai or elsewhere for the big-city building experience. But we don’t want to live there.
Perth’s strengths are still its environment, despite the sprawl and infill going on. And we should build on those strengths.
Look down from the Kings Park to the area of reclaimed land around the freeway junction, and across to the land in front of the Perth Convention Exhibition Centre, along past Alf Curlewis Gardens by the Esplanade, through the Supreme Court Gardens and Langley Park to that strange project by the Causeway bridge, where they’ve spent the last few years turning back into wetland.
Then across Heirisson Island to McCallum Park and down the south since of the river through Taylor Reserve, Sir James Mitchell Park and the South Perth Esplanade to Mill Point Reserve.
We want a vision?
A city in the forest. Something for visitors to behold and residents to enjoy.
An indigenous forest, perhaps of predominantly tuart, and with wildflowers planted to show in carpets in September, when the kangaroo paws flower, too.
A place with a natural, organic integration to the water — with a soft bank and natural sandy edge to the river, as we have at the end of Coogee Street.
With art spaces set in it for exhibitions and performance, with coffee and lunch spots, and integrating indigenous culture, which has become central and fundamental to tourism in Australia. Car-free, with paths and walkways.
Perhaps with the road at Langley Park backed up inland to Terrace Road. What a marvellous area that could be.
It would need multi-storey car parking away from the forested area, and perhaps low-impact through it. Trams or a light rail looping around the city foreshore and the Causeway and Narrows bridges.
Western Australia’s flora is world renowned. The isolation of this trailing edge of the continental plate, which has been largely undisturbed for a very long time, has led to diversity and uniqueness.
Tuarts grow to 40m tall and are restricted to the Swan Coastal Plain. They used to dominate the landscape (I have seen old pictures of the tuart forests of Osborne Park). Trees of stature were found mainly from Yanchep to the Pinjarra Plain, and from sea level to 85 metres.
A city in the forest with perhaps, as contemporary artist Virginia Ward once proposed, winter creeks fed from the catchment of city buildings’ rooves.
It starts to sound as interesting as Anton Gaudi’s crowd-pulling influence on Barcelona.
Anyone interested in how Perth already engages with the Swan River might take a 15-minute stroll form the Trinity School along to Claisebrook Cove, where the river is cut in to the East Perth development.
There is a significant Indigenous presence in the form of standing stones and storytelling plaques, the interest of having the sun’s path plotted from a viewing platform, the walkway, art gallery and a restaurant. There are tuarts and paperbarks. There are morning-sun spots to sit. Borders are planted out with native flora, and kids still slide on cardboard down the grassy hill, as ever they did. Whatever one might think of the residential architecture, the interface with the river is surely there.
A city in the forest might open up new international opportunities. Long-haul travel is being actively talked down in Europe. It’s dirty and pumps out carbon. This could be a significant factor in the future of our inbound tourism.
With a scheme of compulsory, subsidised carbon offsetting on long-haul flights into WA, putting funding into forestry, particularly in fringe-saline areas, we could not only set a world benchmark and tackle another major environmental issue, but have a strong marketing argument.
“Fly to Western Australia and help the planet.”
It might be an interesting proposition to put failing cleared land back under woodland — converting the carbon emitted by the flight into restoration of areas of particular need, and a spin-off from our city in the forest.
A city in the forest. It is a theme we can continue back through our suburbs. Something the world would take notice of, and which is in line with the values which, daily, come to the fore.
And one of our biggest advantages is having the Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority, which has “runs on the board” with Kings Park and Bold Park, and can do this.
It is the very landscape of Western Australia that is the resources boom. It is the State’s wealth. It was just our luck that we landed here, and that the landscape could be dug up and sold.
Perhaps we could learn from that and let the power of the land – this most unusual place – work again, but this time in our city.
The South Australian Government has launched the Million Trees Program, committed to the vision that Adelaide is recognised as a clean and green city leading to ecological sustainability. This urban forests program is dedicated to planting three million local native trees and associated understorey species across the city’s metropolitan area by 2014.
Perth can go a great deal further. As the heritage specialist says: “We should do something keynote, that is us.”
And who am I to say all this? Who am I to come up with a committee-of-one vision for the city? I have been writing about the landscape of Western Australia, and our interaction with it, for more than 20 years, in The West Australian and both non-fiction and fiction books, travelling here incessantly, and been involved with the tourism industry over that time.
Being a Travel Editor gives you an intimate insight into why people travel, where they travel, and what they want from the journey.
And more than that, I live here – not Dubai, London or Tokyo - and I know precisely why. And so do you.