Should Councils sell suburban parks to developers?Posted: August 2, 2011
The Age reported on 28 July that Brimbank City Council is proposing to sell 14 parks in the municipality to developers. It followed up next day with an editorial, No walk in the park for Brimbank, lambasting the planned sale.
Selling parks?! I’d never heard of this proposal before, but I was aghast. I was amazed that any Council would sell off parkland, especially in the west, which we know from Melbourne 2030 is under-provided with regional parks relative to other parts of Melbourne. It didn’t surprise me to see that Brimbank is run by a Government-appointed administrator who presumably would be more inclined to put counting beans ahead of counting heads.
These must be significant parks, I figured, if The Age had written an editorial so quickly on the subject and published it alongside such weighty matters as its opinion on the carbon tax. I therefore read The Age’s editorial with great interest so I could see the issues laid out objectively and analysed dispassionately. I wanted to know which parks they were and what they’re like. I wanted to know what on earth Council could be thinking.
I have to say I was greatly disappointed. The editorial doesn’t make much effort to explain both sides of the story or lay out the ‘facts’. It notes Council says it will spend the proceeds to buy or improve more appropriate open spaces, yet it condemns Council’s position outright as selling “to developers in an apparent revenue raising exercise”. It’s made up largely of homilies like “public space belongs to the community”, “good quality public spaces are essential to build civic life and neighbourhood resilience”, “parks are part of the social glue of any suburb”, and so on.
The editorial even brings the spirit of Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Manhattan’s Central Park, to Keilor Downs. Olmstead, it argues, was “part of a movement in the 19th century that argued for parks and public recreation spaces as a means of overcoming isolation and suspicion”. Danish architect Jan Gehl’s claim that “as societies become more privatised with private homes, cars, computers and offices, the public component of our lives is disappearing” is also cited in support of the case.
This combination of blatant one-sidedness and over-reaching hyperbole put me on my guard. Of course it’s true parks are generally a good thing. And of course residents will generally be passionately opposed to losing something they’ve already got. But disposing of open space isn’t necessarily and automatically a bad thing – it depends on the circumstances.
I can think of a number of situations where selling parkland for an alternative use might be a reasonable course of action. For example, if it’s inaccessible, too small or in areas which are relatively well-endowed and the proceeds will be spent in parts of a municipality that are deficient in open space. It could be there’s too little space of one kind (e.g. active) and plenty of another (e.g. passive) – in that situation some careful balancing by a proactive municipality faced with a budget constraint could make sense.
Or it might be that the open space isn’t used, is unattractive, is used as a dump or is inordinately expensive to maintain or develop to an appropriate standard. The area of private yards and the amenity of street space available to residents would also be a relevant consideration.
If the alternative use for such land is housing (which is the same as selling it to “developers” for “revenue”!), then it’s possible it could provide an improvement in social welfare for the city as a whole. Indeed, it’s even possible more residents would be better off if the proceeds of the sale were reinvested in some valuable community service entirely unrelated to parkland. Perhaps the capital tied up in some open space would give a better social return if it were reinvested, say, in better child minding facilities or youth services.
Here’s Council’s version of why it wants to sell the land. It actually has a $38 million Creating Better Parks Policy and Plan, it says, which aims to provide residents with access to a range of high quality open space within 500 metres of any residence. The properties in dispute (there’re evidently seven parcels, not 14 – that appears to be the number of titles) were assessed as surplus for a number of reasons, including “the proximity of better open space areas, poor access for the community and poor location”.
The Local Government Act requires Council to advertise the proposed sales and receive and hear submissions from the public. Council says “any proceeds from the sale will be directed toward the purchase of more appropriate open space locations or the funding of improvements for community open space, including a range of neighbourhood and suburban parks”.
These are the seven properties. It’s fair to say they are mostly relatively small parcels of variable quality. These appear to be neighbourhood parks, not regional or district parks. You might care to copy and paste each one into Google Maps and have a look via Street View:
8 Vasa Place, Keilor Lodge
66 – 70 Nordic Avenue, Keilor Lodge
5 Ulmara Place, Keilor Downs
2 Zagreb Court, Keilor Park
5 McCoubrie Avenue, West Sunshine
8 Cohuna Court, Taylors Lakes
Rear of 21-29 Trickey Ave, Sydenham
I don’t want to be drawn into making a definitive call on the rights and wrongs of such a localised issue. There’s bound to be case-by-case information, like the impact on walking routes, that requires local knowledge. Maybe the Council could’ve managed the process better, I don’t know.
The main point I want to make is that it doesn’t necessarily follow that selling something as sacred as open space makes all residents in a municipality worse off. It’s necessary to look at the existing provision of open space, the quality of what’s proposed for sale, the nature of the alternative use, and the way the proceeds will be used. It’s necessary to look at whose currently winning and losing and who will benefit, or lose, from the change.
I also want to say that whatever happens to these parks, the “social glue” isn’t going to be changed much, no matter what hyperbole The Age resorts to – this is suburban Keilor Downs, it’s not Manhattan or even Carlton. I’m also puzzled by the tone and pitch of The Age’s editorial, which seems out of scale with what’s at stake in this case – if I weren’t the charitable person I am, I might wonder if someone at Fairfax has a personal connection with someone living in the municipality.
BOOK GIVEAWAY: follow this link to enter the competition to win a copy of Sophie Cunningham’s fabulous book, Melbourne. Entries close Saturday 13 August.