Many will mourn the opening of Barangaroo as a lost opportunity. An award winning design that prioritised public access was abandoned for an elite casino open only to those with bulging wallets; the size of the commercial space has doubled in size since it was first approved; there is a serious conflict of interest with the NSW state government being both the approval authority and owner of the site; and the site was hastily named without public consultation.

But there’s no changing that. We’re stuck with it. It’s a sad reality that the best we can hope for now is a precinct that celebrates the area’s Indigenous history and that it be consistent with the character and identity of the rest of the harbour foreshore. Then, at least, the development might be somewhat acceptable. Going by the current landscape design plan, however, even that seems unlikely.

Imminent is the planting of more than a hundred American Honey Locust Shademaster trees to form a grand allée along the foreshore promenade at Baranagaroo Central – the area in between Barangaroo Point and Barangaroo South. The trees are native to North America and were chosen, as the Barangaroo Delivery Authority explained in an email, over native Australian trees because they better suited the design and functional briefs established by world renowned landscape architect Peter Walker. According to their rationale, the trees straight trunks, symmetrical crowns and light green foliage give Central Barangaroo a short-back-and-sides, civic and formal look that provides a favourable contrast to the naturalist vegetation of Barangaroo Point. Also in the Shademaster’s favour is their high salt tolerance and deciduousness, which allows for shade in the summer and sunlight in the winter. That all seems fair enough at first but the decision will have serious consequences for both the environment and the identity of the precinct and Sydney Harbour more broadly.

What the Barangaroo Delivery Authority haven’t been so eager to announce is that this chosen tree is a cultivar of the Gliditsia triacanthos which is listed by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries as a noxious weed. The Department maintains this plant ‘must be fully and continuously suppressed and destroyed and the plant must not be sold, propagated or knowingly distributed’. This parent tree has sharp spines up to five centimetres long on its trunk and is so invasive that it’s threatening a variety of native flora in the Hawksbury-Nepean region of New South Wales.

It is the close relationship of the Shademaster to this classified noxious weed that has elicited much criticism of the design. But this is perhaps secondary to a much deeper problem. ‘Whether it’s a weed or not isn’t so much of an issue,’ explains landscape architect and Sydney Harbour heritage expert Craig Burton. ‘It’s more about the character of the landscape of Sydney for the public.’ Why not instead use native vegetation which celebrates Sydney’s Indigenous heritage and upholds an iconic Australian character which is in harmony with the rest of the harbour?

The form, colour, texture and size of the Shademaster is entirely non-Australian, says Craig Burton. He goes on to add ‘It’s important that our public spaces have a strong Australian character.’ The trees’ formality, he adds, doesn’t sit very well with the informal character of the landscape and edge of Sydney Harbour. Looking at the artist impression of Barangaroo Central, he’s right: it looks like a manicured avenue of trees designed to inject a touch of artificial nature into a concrete jungle akin to Singapore. ‘The Honey Locusts look like they’ve had an electric shock.’ Craig Burton laughs. ‘And they would feel rather shocked being there.’

This plan is even more poignant given the trees will be planted very near the entrance to an Indigenous cultural centre planned for Barangaroo. An exotic tree species like the Shademaster will undermine the impact of such a centre. Visitors will read about and visualise what the harbour foreshore was like before European settlement and then into an environment which is entirely disconnected from the history and heritage of the place.

Craig Burton, James Grant and a host of other Sydney landscape architects are advocating for native Port Jackson figs, Sydney Red Gums (Angophora costata) and a variety of eucalypts to be planted instead. This would create continuity with the headland park which is all native vegetation as well as the rest of the Sydney foreshore. It would also be a visual trigger for visitors to remember and appreciate Australia’s pre-colonial history which would prove the naming of the site after an Aboriginal woman wasn’t a token celebration of the original inhabitants and forever-owners of Australia. There are also more functional reasons why these Australian natives are better suited. ‘The [Port Jackson] figs give good shade and the angophora give’s broken shade and dappled light which would replicate the concept of the Shademaster,’ says Craig Burton. Native flora attracts native fauna which would encourage and support local biodiversity. In addition, the hanging canopy of figs over the water would provide much shelter to the exposed shore from both the blistering summer sun and cold winter winds. The Shademaster cannot do this.

The Barangaroo Delivery Authority claims the development is ‘adding a brilliant new dimension to brilliant Sydney’. Though if the Shademaster is planted, the effect will prove the opposite of this vision; the character of the landscape will be as Sydney-like as the casino at Barangaroo South is ethical. There is a sliver of hope that the Shademaster plan will be uprooted with the Barangaroo Delivery Authority having said they are reviewing the design. Time will tell whether the ribbon cutting ceremony will take place beneath an allée of exotic trees native to America or a wonderful array of native Australian fig trees, red gums and eucalypts.

Drew Rooke

Drew Rooke is a writer and journalist. His work has appeared in The Saturday Paper, Good Weekend, The Guardian, Meanjin, Neighbourhood, and Overland. His debut book, One Last Spin: the power and peril of the pokies, is out now through Scribe Publications.

More by Drew Rooke ›

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