As momentum grows to create a greener Adelaide, it’s important to remember that we’ve been here before – and for much the same reason.

Green Adelaide Presiding Member Chris Daniels looks as what did and didn’t happen about 150 years ago, and what we can learn.
Professor Chris Daniels at Brown Hill Creek in Mitcham

Back in the 1880s, just four decades after the arrival of Europeans, the people took a look at the city they were creating and went “whoops”.

The population had grown rapidly to more than 70,000 and these people needed somewhere to live and work. Intensive agriculture in what are now Klemzig, Marion, Mitcham, Unley and Burnside required more open space to be created.

The floodplain was cleared around the Torrens, and the river itself was dredged to provide materials for roads and other construction. It was a real frenzy, without any thought or planning, and the result was nothing short of devastation. Even the parklands were stripped of trees.

Most people don’t realise that there are only two trees in the parklands that predate European colonisation: a blue gum outside Pulteney Grammar and a river red gum in the Botanic Gardens.

The problems caused by the clearance back then weren’t just aesthetic. The clearance exacerbated flooding, the climate became harsher, and Adelaide was, quite frankly, an unappealing place to live and to start a business. The economy struggled.

The good news is that the people and the authorities together (take note of that phrase) decided to respond.

Some forward thinkers, particularly John Ednie Brown and later Charles Reade in the Adelaide City Council, took the lead in working to bring back the trees. Most notably they called in Augustus Pelzer – a German-born landscape gardener and one of the unsung heroes of our city – who spent 30 years replanting the parklands and creating many of the green spaces in the inner suburbs of Adelaide that we value so greatly today.

August Pelzer
Adelaide City Council city gardener from 1899-1932 August Pelzer. Picture: Adelaide City Council

The bad news is that when, in 1917, Reade came up with an extraordinary and visionary proposal to create even greener spaces to suit the growing city, his ideas were not taken up.

We still have his maps, which show innovative concepts such as linear parks, coastal parks and a second ring of parklands further from the city centre. We’ve come to realise these were not just good ideas, they were great ones.

Reade’s approach was one born from the garden suburb movement that much later became green urbanism, leading to suburbs like Colonel Light Gardens – one of our few heritage suburbs. So, imagine the benefits if more things had happened back then and with more purpose.

So how does then relate to now? The reality is that we are at risk of repeating the same errors. We are changing our development, in particular favouring medium-density living on Greenfields sites, and that’s leading to the disappearance of trees in many areas including ones planted by Pelzer, Reade and others.

Some areas (particularly south of the city) have seen increases in tree canopy. However, the potential impact from a lack of green remains great. And it is harder to address in a modern city of more than a million people.

There are positives. We are now acknowledging Reade’s vision by linking and creating major initiatives such as the Hills Face Zone, coastal parks, northern wetlands areas and Glenthorne National Park. Great work on a smaller scale has also been achieved by the people and the authorities together (that phrase again) in revegetating parks, streets and nature strips.

But we have to do more, and we must grab every opportunity. We cannot allow suburbs to sprawl or urban infill to replace back and front gardens without building in meaningful and usable green areas. If we miss opportunities now, it can be pretty well impossible to retrofit trees.

The period from 1880s to WW1 was phenomenal for recognising the importance of greening. We owe our wonderful green city to the vision, capacity and enthusiasm of a few. It is time to revisit the past with an eye to the future.

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