Landscape Architecture Australia


Despite its popular success, Brisbane’s Roma Street Parkland reinforces the need to continue examining nature, landscape and social justice in landscape practice. —

- Text Claudia Taborda Photograph­y Peter Bennetts

Claudia Taborda considers Roma Street Parkland.

Roma Street Parkland is a sixteen hectare park located in the centre of Brisbane and listed as an iconic touristic destinatio­n. Its “Seasonal Plants” brochure promotes this space as “one of the world’s largest subtropica­l gardens in a city centre.” This statement immediatel­y opens up an expectatio­n to visitors – they are here to visit a garden, not a park. It also discloses and celebrates the programmat­ic agenda set by the Queensland government brief, which required that by the end of the twentieth century, Roma Street Parkland provide “a high-level visitor attraction with emphasis on horticultu­re and the environmen­t.”1

The parkland opened to the public in 2001 and almost two decades later one could argue that the success of its sociocultu­ral reception is expressed in the sheer number of its visitors, activities and volunteers. In 2018, 85 volunteers contribute­d to the presentati­on and maintenanc­e of the space and two million people experience­d its grounds through 220 public events, 185 guided walks, or simply as part of their daily routine.

The parkland embodies the materialit­y and vibrancy of time, concealing the many struggles of the land upon which it was built. Like other spaces of its type, it is the outcome of particular political, economic and sociocultu­ral conditions. In this particular case, one cannot ignore the influence of the success of a specific event: Expo 88.

This $625 million fair, which reclaimed an expansive post-industrial area on the city’s south bank, inserted a new paradigm into the Brisbane collective cultural and political sphere relating to urbanity and public space. This, in combinatio­n with sociocultu­ral enthusiasm, urban aspiration, economic opportunit­y and political strategy, prompted the reclamatio­n of an additional area close to the city centre for the creation of the Roma Street Parkland. The political scene supported and debated the environmen­tal and social benefits of a park in the city centre and the real estate industry speculated the renewal and developmen­t of the city’s urban west. Roma Street Parkland was an indirect means for achieving this goal.

The site sits on the land of the Turrbal nation and its history is contentiou­s and complex in both cultural and ecological terms. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, the deforestat­ion process started while the area’s Aboriginal people still gathered food and conducted ceremonies on the site’s former wetlands. This process – and the massive earth operations that were undertaken to install the area’s railway system, stations and yards in the last quarter of the century – irreversib­ly transforme­d the site’s social and natural ecologies.2 These processes coincided in 1875 with a social and political momentum that declared that part of the land had to be reserved for parks and recreation – a framework that set the grounds for the constructi­on of Roma Street Parkland some 120 years later. In less than a century, the marks of the colonial cultural grafting process became indelible, inscribing a spatial order that for almost a century would see the site relegated to a peripheral condition. The political powers commission­ed an inscriptio­n of their ways of seeing and imagining landscape and city. The park therefore became agency to reconcile urban, social and ecologic disjunctio­ns.

Since 1975, landscape architectu­re has been indebted to Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park, George Hargreaves’ Candlestic­k Point Cultural Park and Peter Latz’s Landschaft­spark Duisburg-Nord. These projects legitimize­d new operative grounds and catalyzed a paradigm shift in landscape architectu­ral practice. Derelict lands challenged the profession to experiment anew: “bad” sites had ceased to exist. Paradoxica­lly, twenty-five years later, display and flower gardens such as the Butchart Gardens in Canada and Keukenhof in the Netherland­s were the precedents suggested in Brisbane to a multidisci­plinary consortium that included DEM Design, Civitas (Vancouver), Gillespies Australia and Landplan Studio. The consortium planned a broad strategy to transform a derelict and disconnect­ed terrain into a sort of oasis of tropical beauty in the centre of the city, reconnecti­ng the site to the continuum naturale and urban fabric by intertwini­ng fragments of local heritage and public space, post-industrial land and apparatuse­s and disconnect­ed topographi­c levels. It designed a vision, a whole new referent of public space

for Brisbane. An exhaustive analysis of the biophysics of the site and a long stakeholde­rs and community consultati­on process preceded the proposal’s developmen­t. The extent of the project was significan­tly larger than the current state of the parkland. In the end, approximat­ely 30 percent of the original proposal was not built and a token of the project was cancelled: the affiliatio­n with the Smithsonia­n Institutio­n to research and promote biodiversi­ty and tropicalit­y in urban conditions. Many of the parkland’s spatial, cultural and environmen­tal ambitions were therefore undermined and the project was not completed.

Roma Street Parkland is organized as a series of themed spaces and incorporat­es a complex and computeriz­ed irrigation system hidden and integrated into the form of a lake and a lawn. The design reflects the repertoire of Victorian-style gardens and parks, which, in conjunctio­n with the integratio­n of a rich and varied subtropica­l flora collection, creates an assorted ornamental assemblage. It is in these terms that Roma Street Parkland represents a missed opportunit­y. Rather than embracing the chance to expand landscape architectu­ral critique and practice by exploring postcoloni­al readings of the site, the park’s syntax and style remains conservati­ve. This claim does not envisage returning the site to its distant beginning, fetishizin­g or naturalizi­ng its history, but rather, contemplat­es opportunit­y and a landscape architectu­re ethos.

Today, a playful and identifiab­le atmosphere gives the visitor a sensation of shared placeness. Miniaturiz­ed forest environmen­ts, cascades, artworks, wetlands, lawns, bridges, floral gardens and meandering paths animate the space and draw the visitor into exploratio­n. Roma Street Parkland constitute­s a dissonant heritage encapsulat­ing different meanings about its reality. In two decades, the social reception, appropriat­ion and assimilati­on of this space as a cultural and environmen­tal asset has situated it among Brisbane’s most popular attraction­s.

Roma Street Parkland is still becoming a palimpsest to open up future collective consciousn­ess. Its relevance resides less in what it represents or presents today han in what its grounds and actuality conceal. The parkland reinforces the need to continue examining prevalent concepts of nature and landscape, environmen­tal determinis­m and ideals of social justice in the projects and through the practice of landscape architectu­re.

1. Laurie Smith, “Roma Street parkland: past, present and future heritage,” 2003, Queensland Review, (St Liucia, Qld) vol 10 no (2), p.149–158.

2. ibid.

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The Roma Street Parkland sits on land once used by the area’s Aboriginal people for gathering food and conducting ceremonies.
01 01 The Roma Street Parkland sits on land once used by the area’s Aboriginal people for gathering food and conducting ceremonies.
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Bridges, wetlands, lawns and collection­s of subtropica­l flora at the parklands invite visitors to explore.
02 02 Bridges, wetlands, lawns and collection­s of subtropica­l flora at the parklands invite visitors to explore.

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