Tim Flan­nery

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Tim Flan­nery

The cre­ation of an ex­pan­sive, charm­ing pub­lic space at the heart of a great com­mer­cial city is a rare event. Syd­ney’s Baranga­roo Re­serve, which opened in Au­gust 2015, joined New York’s High Line and Lon­don’s East End Olympic rede­vel­op­ment as a land­mark pub­lic park that helps de­fine a ma­jor me­trop­o­lis’s sense of place. Baranga­roo forms the north­west­ern sec­tion of Syd­ney’s main busi­ness dis­trict and was pre­vi­ously part of the Port of Syd­ney. The re­lo­ca­tion of in­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties to nearby Botany Bay cre­ated the op­por­tu­nity for re­de­vel­op­ing an area of a lit­tle over fifty-four acres in the down­town of a city with a pop­u­la­tion of 4.3 mil­lion.

About fif­teen acres of this site went to the cre­ation of Baranga­roo Re­serve. The park in­cludes an enor­mous sub­ter­ranean arts space and a sub­stan­tial grassy sum­mit as well as an ur­ban for­est. Its chief de­signer, Pe­ter Walker of PWP Land­scape Ar­chi­tec­ture, who also worked on New York’s Na­tional Septem­ber 11 Memo­rial, faced a dif­fi­cult task in bal­anc­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of the lo­cal com­mu­nity, gov­ern­ments, and de­vel­op­ers. The all-too-con­tentious bat­tles that fol­lowed have left a residue of dis­con­tent. Aus­tralia’s for­mer prime min­is­ter Paul Keat­ing, who cham­pi­oned the con­cept from the be­gin­ning, is a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure. But with­out his con­stant over­sight, short­cuts would doubt­less have di­min­ished the qual­ity of the fi­nal prod­uct.

Baranga­roo Re­serve is best un­der­stood as an act of resti­tu­tion as ex­pressed in Syd­ney’s unique Hawkes­bury sand­stone. The rock, which out­crops only within a 160-mile ra­dius of Syd­ney, sup­ports a unique flora and fauna of ex­cep­tional di­ver­sity. It sup­ports more tree species, for ex­am­ple, than can be found in all of Europe, and more species of a sin­gle lizard fam­ily, Scin­ci­dae, than all the rep­tile and am­phib­ian species of the Bri­tish Isles. Tri­as­sic in ori­gin—be­tween 251 and 199 mil­lion years old—the sand­stone dates to a time when the first di­nosaurs were evolv­ing, and when Aus­tralia was joined with Antarc­tica.

The sand form­ing the rock was laid down by a Ganges-sized river whose head­wa­ters lay in the Transantarc­tic Moun­tains, and whose mouth emp­tied into the sea hun­dreds of miles north of the mod­ern lo­ca­tion of Syd­ney. Hard­ened, raised, and cracked over 200 mil­lion years, it has come to de­ter­mine the to­pog­ra­phy of the re­gion. Syd­ney Har­bor, for ex­am­ple, is de­fined by joints of weak­ness in the sand­stone, while the head­lands and bluffs mark lay­ers of harder, more durable rock.

Abun­dant, easy to cut, hon­ey­col­ored, and marked at­trac­tively with bands of brown, white, and pink, Hawkes­bury sand­stone was the builder’s nat­u­ral choice. In the decades fol­low­ing Syd­ney’s foun­da­tion in 1788, the city grew into a glo­ri­ous Ge­or­gian sand­stone me­trop­o­lis, much of which per­sisted un­til af­ter World War II. But by the 1960s the easy avail­abil­ity of con­crete and the need for rapid ex­pan­sion of in­fra­struc­ture saw the spread of a bru­tal­ist, func­tional ar­chi­tec­ture of ubiq­ui­tous style. Much bush­land and sand­stone her­itage was lost, and Syd­ney was on the verge of be­com­ing just an­other cos­mopoli­tan city of char­ac­ter­less high-rises lin­ing boule­vards of im­ported Lon­don plane trees.

In­evitably, goug­ing into bedrock is a bru­tal act. But at Baranga­roo Re­serve, ex­ca­va­tion has be­come an act of rev­e­la­tion. The late-eigh­teenth-cen­tury shore­line of the har­bor (which was much al­tered by twen­ti­eth-cen­tury de­vel­op­ment) has been re­stored, and the re­moval of the port in­fra­struc­ture has opened a view of the har­bor that had been lost to the pub­lic for a cen­tury. Most im­por­tantly, the rede­vel­op­ment re­stores the sand­stone to the promi­nence it de­serves.

All of the more than 10,000 large sand­stone blocks that form the park were sourced from the site it­self, and they have been placed with care and at­ten­tion to de­tail to re­ca­pit­u­late and make read­able the his­tory and pre­his­tory of the head­land. The steep west­ern shore­line of the park, for ex­am­ple, tells in stone of the area’s colo­nial his­tory. It is paved with blocks shaped by hand us­ing picks and marked with chan­nels and cir­cles that were the foot­ings of early in­dus­trial or port struc­tures. Many of the sand­stone blocks re­main en­crusted with oys­ter shells from their long im­mer­sion in the wa­ters of the har­bor.

The rock of Baranga­roo Re­serve is ex­cep­tion­ally rich in fas­ci­nat­ing and beau­ti­ful sed­i­men­tary types. Blocks placed along the wa­ter’s edge re­veal sed­i­ments laid down in an­cient wa­ter­ways, bil­l­abongs, and sand­banks. Sparkling peb­bles of quartzite and green schist punc­tu­ate the sand­stone, ly­ing just as they came to rest in an an­cient pool 200 mil­lion years ago. Any one of them might be the last, durable rem­nant of an Uluru-sized Antarc­ti­can mono­lith or a long-van­ished moun­tain range. Other rocks re­veal a del­i­cate fos­silized leaf or a frag­ment of drift­wood now black­ened to coal, but which was once part of a bush or tree grow­ing be­side a great river in­hab­ited by pro­todi­nosaurs and the ear­li­est mam­mals. The park’s ma­jor walk­ways are edged with sim­i­lar blocks placed to re­veal the sed­i­ments in sec­tion. Here one can see a string of pur­plish peb­bles van­ish un­der a se­ries of slop­ing lines, which were formed by rip­ples in the sand that moved with the cur­rent. If you know how to read these an­cient rip­ple marks, you will never get lost in Syd­ney as long as you can see the stone—even in un­der­ground cut­tings—for the rip­ple lines in­vari­ably point north, fol­low­ing the down­stream di­rec­tion of the an­cient river.

The over 70,000 trees, shrubs, and other plants of Baranga­roo Re­serve are all na­tive to the area, and they are laid out in a way dic­tated by the to­pog­ra­phy. The south-fac­ing ter­races are a riot of tree ferns, palms, and other shade­lov­ing species, while the north­ern ter­races are graced with hardier trees in­clud­ing the smooth-barked ap­ple. Ar­guably Syd­ney’s most char­ac­ter­is­tic tree, the smooth-barked ap­ple is a mem­ber of the eu­ca­lyp­tus fam­ily whose dense canopy and pro­fuse, creamy flow­ers in sum­mer pro­vide a haven for na­tive birds. Grow­ing as high as one hun­dred feet, it sheds its bark an­nu­ally in the same way other trees shed their leaves. In Jan­uary the old bark abruptly falls away, re­veal­ing a silken-smooth sal­mon-pink coat that grad­u­ally fades to white over the length of the year. Baranga­roo Re­serve is named for an Abo­rig­i­nal woman who served as an in­ter­locu­tor be­tween Syd­ney’s first Euro­pean set­tlers and the Abo­rig­ines. Baranga­roo was of in­de­pen­dent tem­per­a­ment: she re­fused to be shamed into wear­ing clothes, and long af­ter other Abo­rig­ines donned cast-off rags to en­ter the set­tle­ment, she strode about in her naked glory. She was also hor­ri­fied at the brutality of the pe­nal sys­tem. Once, when a con­vict was be­ing flogged for steal­ing from the Abo­rig­ines, Baranga­roo in­ter­vened, threat­en­ing the flog­ger with a stick. By nam­ing the new park in her honor, Syd­ney has gone some way to re­dress­ing the many wrongs done to the Abo­rig­ines since Euro­pean set­tle­ment.

The estab­lish­ment of Baranga­roo Re­serve marks a turn­ing point in the re­la­tion of Syd­ney’s peo­ple with its past, both pre­his­toric and colo­nial. Re­plac­ing an in­dus­trial mass of con­crete with such a glo­ri­ous and sto­ried pub­lic space, it seeks to draw into the pub­lic gaze the long and com­plex his­tory of the city. In ear­lier times, that his­tory might have been smoth­ered un­der yet more con­crete, man­i­cured lawns, Euro­pean flower beds, and in­tro­duced trees. In Baranga­roo Re­serve, Syd­ney has found an en­dur­ing state­ment of what it is, and what makes it so spe­cial.

The sand­stone blocks at the Baranga­roo Re­serve, Syd­ney’s new water­front park, which opened in Au­gust 2015

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