by Jason Haigh
By putting aside the current forms of a suburb, first principles can offer alternatives on what locations offer a natural fit as focal points within a community. Their current condition can either illustrate the skill with the suburb makes use of its assets, or the lost potential for making the places that create a sense of identity and enrich our daily lives through the way they reconcile the social, constructed and natural realms.
One idea for locations that could be celebrated are the intersections of the constructed and natural lines that help subdivide the city. The north of Brisbane is crossed from west to east by a few creek systems: Breakfast Creek running towards the Brisbane River, Kedron Brook which finishes at Nudgee Beach, and Downfall Creek and Cabbage Tree Creek which converge at Cabbage Tree Point adjacent to the Boondall Wetlands. Their equivalent in the flow of people are the major roads running north – south: Gympie Rd, Sandgate Rd, and the Gateway Motorway. I have given consideration to the intersection of Gympie Rd with Little Cabbage Tree Creek at Aspley, due to living adjacent to their crossing.
Gympie Road plays host both to masses of commuters between the city and the northern suburbs and beyond, as well as being one of the key linkages for local pedestrians, cyclists and drivers going about their daily life. For any of these groups, there is nothing other than the generic black on white sign to say the creek crossing is a place of any significance. For commuters, there could be something less prosaic either along the sides or even spanning the road that makes a celebratory gesture.
For local pedestrians, paths that follow the creek corridor allow them to understand the creek corridor, but the character of this experience is actually lost at the centre of the suburb amongst concrete culverts and the bitumen of carparks and roads. Another thing usually given limited consideration is what is an appropriate manner that a major road should pass over a creek. The concrete culverts seen here are an engineering exercise that offers no consideration for qualitative character. Most people could however think of examples of old structures such as low bridges and underpasses that handle such tasks with charm and grace.
On one western side of Gympie Rd, the creek travels for approximately 75m alongside a busy road before disappearing into a concrete culvert entombed beneath 250m of carpark. The creeks recent condition could not be described as scenic, but the banks did have regrowth vegetation that did at least provide some respite from the bitumen, and where I often saw water birds and other wildlife. Recently the vegetation has been cleared out, reducing the amount of the birdlife and reducing further any resemblance to a natural waterway.
The clearing of the creek bank vegetation has however exposed the big box electrical store that was previously Clive Peeters, and recently become Harvey Norman. A blank tilt-up wall painted half beige and half blue presents an 80m long billboard. Architecture tells us about the values of its occupants and designers. This building makes no visual claim to any character other than expedience, and shows disinterest for its location alongside the creek and the central area of the community.
The pedestrian realm at this section of Little Cabbage Tree Creek is used by many people in order to get to shopping facilities, bus transport and other locations. There is limited consideration apparent to the character of this pedestrian realm. In its current state, there is no reason why someone might stop to enjoy the area, nor are there any facilities for a pedestrian to do anything other than walk straight past the area. By rehabilitating the creek area to the west of Gympie Road, an area that is currently an eyesore could offer opportunities to make something that has value to the community. Pedestrian circulation ways can be designed with skill and purpose to acknowledge the creek and consider how pedestrians in a commercial precinct might engage with it. This is a heavily trafficked area, so landscape buffers are both practical and beneficial to the character. With these basic measures in place would create a setting upon which could be created a few spots where people could pause to enjoy the setting, perhaps even take in some interpretive information or a responsive piece of public art.
To the eastern side of Gympie Road, the character is different but some of the same problems remain. Here the creek corridor is instead a marked by a green ribbon that is very evident in aerial photographs, yet to drivers through the suburb, would barely be noticed. Both sides of the creek bank are tree lined, with one side residential, and the other side a pedestrian shortcut with grass areas abutting the carparks of Hungry Jacks and the suburbs original Harvey Norman. Beyond these to the east is a characterless park that acts as a walking route adjacent the creek, which has no seating along its 400m length, and is not a place where anybody lingers. The creek corridor has moments of great character, despite in many areas only receiving cursory maintenance. However, eastern water dragons and a rich variety of birdlife bring a lot of charm to the area and those who look hard might see turtles sunning themselves.
Aside from a picnic shelter adjacent the driveway to the loading dock of Harvey Norman, there are no facilities that any enjoyment of this area. Despite this, my house position on the opposite creek bank from Hungry Jacks has shown me many examples of people who want to take advantage of the environment of the creek corridor. Pedestrians and visitors to the carpark are regularly seen opposite my backyard looking down to the creek and beyond to dense backdrop of vegetation. Sometimes people take their fast food and set up a picnic on the grass under a tree in the left over space beyond the carpark. Perhaps my favourite make-do effort is when nearby employees bring upturned milk crates beneath a gnarled tree trunk to create their own seating area looking down to the bend in the creek. It is a good spot for someone to take time out and turn their back on the sea of asphalt and beige tilt-up walls.
Within settings like the Little Cabbage Tree Creek corridor, there are opportunities to promote a sense of community identity and belonging through site responsive provision of shelter to occupy, places to learn and play, of considered endemic vegetation, and settings that support native fauna. Places that have been treated with indifference often have a potential for great things if we can just convince the people that control these spaces that improving the quality of the suburban public realm is a worthwhile exercise.