By Katie Johnson
A range of new protections and facilities for Carlton Gardens have been proposed by the City of Melbourne in a major heritage review.
The Carlton Gardens Master Plan sets out a number of proposals to improve access, safety and amenity for the UNESCO-listed space in the years to come.
Cr Rohan Leppert said the City of Melbourne was seeking community feedback on the plans to improve the gardens.
“The City of Melbourne has the rare honour of managing a World Heritage site, and we take our responsibility to protect the cultural, historic and environmental values of the Carlton Gardens seriously,” Cr Leppert said.
“The gardens are a living, vital public meeting place, treasured by so many and we are keen to hear what the community thinks about the draft plan.”
Under the new plans the gardens will receive new toilet facilities and lighting, and pathways will be upgraded.
New garden beds will also be installed to provide more natural shade with a range of exotic tree species that are consistent with the 19th century layout of the gardens.
Carlton Gardens Tennis Club vice president Stuart Speirs said that he was “chuffed” that the council was improving the lighting as it was an important safety measure.
“We have been quite focused on the lighting of the pathway that goes around Carlton and Nicholson streets as we’re conscious of the safety element,” Mr Speirs said.
“After Eurydice Dixon was killed in Princes Park, we made it clear to the council that we were keen to do whatever we could to help light up the gardens, whether it be keeping the clubhouse lights on or lighting up the courts.”
“We were quite forward in talking about the club being lit up and being a place at night for women to gravitate towards if that scenario is presented to them.”
The plans also seek to update guidelines for large events held at the gardens – including the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show (MIFGS) and White Night.
Although 72 per cent of respondents to Engage Victoria’s 2020 survey about Carlton Gardens said the events were appropriate, some heritage advocates disagree.
Carlton resident and Friends of the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens member Margaret O’Brien said the heritage protections were set at a “low standard”.
“There would no disagreement that Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, while appreciated locally, has the lowest profile of any of Australia’s World Heritage-listed sites,” Ms O’Brien said.
“Along with a low profile, it has arguably, the weakest governance and planning controls of all Australia’s World Heritage sites.”
Ms O’Brien said that the review would “lift the lid on problems” for the first time since the World Heritage listing in 2004 – particularly in relation to the damage caused by MIFGS.
“It is the position of the group that the controls have been set to a low standard compared to what the world might expect of us,” Ms O’Brien said.
“We believe, and there is a track record, that MIFGS has had a long list of consequences and impacts for the gardens which we would like to take the opportunity to have reviewed.”
Deputy president of Protectors of Public Lands Victoria Fiona Bell was also vehemently against MIFGS being held in Carlton Gardens.
Ms Bell said that the use of heavy machinery and instillation of numerous tents and temporary buildings on the grass has caused considerable damage to the gardens and tree roots.
“We believe numerous established trees have been lost from the southern Carlton Gardens in recent years compared to a much smaller loss in the northern gardens with their beautiful largely intact massive trees in avenues,” Ms Bell said.
“In order to have greater protections we’re suggesting that any events, including the flower show, not to be held on the soft surfaces of the Carlton Gardens.”
“The trees and ground are too delicate for that and that fencing it off from the general population is not desirable, considering that it occurs for weeks on end.”
Ms Bell had an independent arborist report commissioned to assess the damage from the show which hosts up to 100,000 visitors, which found the damage was “considerable”.
“Earlier this year, three old elms, all 120 years old, in the southern Carlton Gardens, were lost due to rotting of their trunks,” Ms Bell said.
“An interesting fact is that for years during the MIFGS public toilets were placed under the canopies of these trees.”
“I am reliably informed that in France the public are never permitted to trample over the World Heritage gardens of Versailles or other Royal Palaces.”
The draft masterplan was hotly debated among members of the EastEnders Association during a Zoom meeting in October, with one resident expressing concern the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show had caused “considerable damage” in previous years to the Carlton Gardens and surrounding areas.
“We really do have to make sure we honour this heritage site, and treat it that way,” resident Jim Dixon said.
“I’m most disappointed that the council is treating it or overriding that with a commercial consideration for the International Flower Show.”
According to Mr Dixon, locals were also “disgusted” that the City of Melbourne had not provided “full and open disclosure” of the “recovery of the full costs of the damage done to any major event”.
“Council hasn’t [for] over more than a decade got the point that it must control the situation when someone’s using it. When you look at the financial statements over the years there hasn’t been adequate disclosure of the use of that heritage site,” he said.
Cr Elizabeth Doidge said that while MIFGS provided an obstacle for those trying to walk through the gardens, it was an important event for Melbourne.
“For 15 years I’ve walked through that park on my way to university or work so the impact of the Flower and Garden Show is something I’m very familiar with,” Cr Doidge said.
“But that being said the show is one of the many important events that have brought people to the park and to our city.”
Other changes outlined in the report include replacing two avenues of white poplar trees with a hardier species that is more resistant to climate change.
The plan doesn’t specify what trees should replace the poplars but suggests planting a species with similar characteristics that are better equipped for hot and dry conditions.
Cr Leppert said a huge amount of work had been done to ensure the heritage character of the gardens was maintained while preparing for climate change.
“As some tree species in these gardens will die in warmer weather, we want to make sure all those heritage characteristics are kept with climate-ready species going forward,” Cr Leppert said.
By mid to late November, a pop-up session in the gardens will be held, including a specific session with children also planned.
People will be able to access the plan and complete a questionnaire by November 21 using the Participate Melbourne website or a QR code at the gardens.
Cr Olivia Ball described herself as a “passionate Carlton local” and urged the community to get involved in the future of the important space.
“We know from evidence, that it’s good for us and essential to get out into nature,” Cr Ball said.
“I have walked through the gardens daily and kept thinking how lucky and blessed we are to have this amazing space.” •
Main photo: Murray Enders.