This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.
“Been gardening?” the Greens campaigner asks. I’ve stopped to chat, knees and hands grubby from the morning’s activity.
“Yeah—just in the park back there, next to the oval!” I point behind her. “We’re planting a food forest.”
“I hope you’re putting a fence around it,” she says. “Otherwise drunks will get in there and wreck everything.”
“Nope, no fence,” I say, “it’s for everyone, drunks included. Anyway, don’t you think Canberra has enough exclusionary spaces already?” She looks at me in polite bafflement, but her co-campaigner nods and smiles. He gets it.
Back at the Lyneham Commons food forest site, we’ve been preparing the ground for this little community project for weeks. On a brilliant sunny Saturday, with cameras rolling and the lone Green on the legislative assembly grinning as he puts the first tree in, we finally get to start planting the site. We put in seven trees: a white mulberry, two hazelnuts, an apple, a pomegranate, a couple of plums. And that’s all, folks. The local authority that has lent the land to this project wants to keep the site limited to these seven trees to see if they succeed in thriving and not being stolen. In a year’s time, if our spindly pioneers have survived, we’ll get to plant the rest of the food forest. In principle, this is supposed to mimic the ecological makeup of an actual forest, with ground cover, shrubs and trees all “cooperating” to foil pests, retain water, and exchange nutrients pulled out of the air and the soil through a mycorrhizal network, the Internet of the plant world. Seven trees do not a forest make, but it’s a start, and evidently as much as the council can bear to contemplate at this stage. At a later design meeting we are told we can’t plant anything with thorns, or trees that anyone might be tempted to climb. Heaven forfend that the tender-skinned folk of the capital should run afoul of the food forest and mount a lawsuit. Even the idea of a forest, unruly and unpredictable, may be too much for relentlessly planned Canberra to bear.
Later, a friend remarks in response to this story, “You won’t find any group of people more craven, rule-abiding, and risk-averse than Australian progressives.” He’s a transplant to Canberra like me, but he’s only come from Melbourne. I came from the other side of the world, dropped into the midst of this 20th-century utopian fantasy by a caprice of the academic job market. I rely heavily on my colleagues to explain the ways of Terra Australis. But almost nobody is able to adequately account for Canberra, where even the hipster neighborhood, with its craft brewery, churro stands, and burger trucks, was designated, planned, and built by a business conglomerate in consultation with the Australian Capital Territory authorities.
Even the idea of a forest, unruly and unpredictable, may be too much for relentlessly planned Canberra to bear.
Another colleague, here for a conference, once said: “This place looks like it was designed by an autistic child.” This was an unkindness to the actual designers of Australia’s “bush capital,” but you could see his point. Canberra’s component parts don’t touch. The Parliamentary Triangle is down here, the Civic business district is up here, the military and intelligence departments are over in that corner, the universities are as far away from them as possible, and the embassies trail off into the leafy southern suburbs, removed from the workaday life of the capital. As for leafy, Canberra’s suburbs wind and wander through the carefully cordoned-off nature reserves which lend it its non-human citizenry: the sulphur-crested cockatoos whose giddy skronking wakes me up in the morning, the eastern grey kangaroos that I sometimes meet in the streets at night as they venture into the gardens of civil servants to graze. But the parks within Canberra are as regimented as its buildings: trees are planted in serried ranks, running in compulsive parallel with the roads alongside them. Canberra is all angles, hexagons, and concentric circles described in glass, concrete, and brick, filled with completely paved plazas through which the voices of people and birds bounce, disembodied. The city even has an artificial water feature, Lake Burley Griffin, to divide the political from the commercial zones, itself almost entirely surrounded by a broad paved walkway.
The lake is named after the people whose fault this isn’t, or at least not entirely. Canberra was dreamed up by two Americans, Walter and Marion Griffin, who won an international contest to design the capital of the recently-federated Commonwealth of Australia at the beginning of the 20th century. The Griffins were products of Chicago’s Prairie School of architecture, and also influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement, and ideas even more esoteric in origin, such as the “anthroposophy” of Rudolf Steiner. Their winning design, an extravaganza of geometric perfection, dropped American manifest destiny and European romanticism on Australian bushland inhabited by a few white sheep graziers and by Ngunnawal people who may or may not have had any idea what was about to hit them. It was a gorgeous, improbable design, almost steampunk in flavor to the 21st-century eye. The most famous quote attributed to Walter Burley Griffin with regard to his and his wife’s design turned out to be prescient: “I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any government authorities in the world would accept. I have planned an ideal city—a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future.”
And he was right; the government authorities of the day turned out not to be so keen on realizing his ideal city. World War I broke out just as the new capital was being built, and funds dried up. Walter Griffin had one dispute after another with federal bureaucrats until at last he quit the project entirely, and it was placed in the hands of a Federal Capital Advisory Committee. The result was exactly what you’d imagine a city designed by committee would look like. Neither the canals and tramways, nor any of the buildings designed by the Griffins went up, and the business and political districts have instead grown into concrete gardens of 1960s brutalism between which a thoroughly car-dependent population shuttles during the working week. On the weekends, nearly the entire city decamps for the southern coast of New South Wales, or for the actual metropoles of Sydney and Melbourne, whose squabble over which would be the capital of the Commonwealth produced this bizarre compromise in the first place.
But there are corners of this autistic city where real gardens flourish, and Canberrans resist the aesthetic of bureaucracy. I count among them the unbuttoned Anglophiles on McCaughey Street with the red telephone box and double-decker Routemaster bus in front of their house. Sly Fox, the renegade barista whose unlicensed coffee stall pops up at various points along the bike path from the suburbs to Civic, accompanied by his faithful pug. Whoever made the labyrinth of deadwood and stones in the Mt. Majura nature reserve, and placed a box of childlike treasures at its center. And the spot in the future forest garden where someone tucked a sprouting apple seed into the ground to keep our seven lonely trees company.