Anticipating Municipal Parks
London to Adelaide to Garden City
by Donald Leslie Johnson
In Anticipating Municipal Parks, Johnson traces the philosophical beginnings of what became an international municipal-park movement to create park lands for the well-being and recreation of city people. He investigates the role and influence of John Arthur Roebuck and John Claudius Loudon on the course of town planning theory, and the political and theoretical influences leading to the economic and social ideas of Ebenezer Howard and his Garden City.
In 1788 Captain Gother Mann of the Royal Engineers in Canada prepared a plan for Toronto Harbour, with a proposed town and part of the settlement of one square mile, like future Adelaide. Twenty years later in England William Pitt stated that parks were the lungs of London.
Around 1828 Roebuck offered reasonable thoughts about town planning and pleaded for tree lined boulevards and for open spaces in towns and common lands outside towns. In 1830 TJ Maslen, who also felt that a park should surround every town, proposed a plan for such a town in Australia.
As an active reformer Roebuck argued for many years, in and out of parliament, for new poor laws, against private land enclosures and pleaded for the introduction into cities of public parks and gardens, grass, flowers and trees and land reserves outside the towns for health and recreation purposes.
As this movement gathered strength the English House of Commons created a select committee in February 1833 to consider the best means of securing ‘Open Spaces in the vicinity of Populous Towns, as Public Walks and Places of Exercise for the middle and humble classes, calculated to promote the Health and Comfort of the Inhabitants’.
Adelaide’s park lands have been central to this movement, their development set during the social, political and intellectual uncertainties of early nineteenth-century philosophical development and emigration debates in England.
Johnson also contests the accepted understanding that Colonel William Light was the sole architect of the city of Adelaide, revealing the often ignored role of Light’s Deputy Surveyor, George Strickland Kingston. There has been some doubt about this, especially during the last ten years, but this is the first time that someone has presented the whole issue and argued most convincingly and backed it up with irrefutable evidence.
It is just as well that Johnson reminds us of Voltaire who said, ‘It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong’, as he sets out to prove that our long held believes about Light, the design and layout of Adelaide and its parklands are erroneous, to say the least.
South Australia’s foundation arose out of propaganda, learned debates and financial ambition of private individuals in England in the early years of the 1830s. Europeans had settled South Australia’s shores well before colonisation of it was discussed in London. Shortly after English and French discoveries in 1802 sealers operated on Kangaroo Island.
The principle and practical planner to settle South Australia, according to Johnson, was George Strickland Kingston. He began volunteer work with the fledgling South Australian Association that had been formed by Gouger in 1833.
Kingston was an intelligent, blunt, arrogant antimonarchist but also a social and political reformer, the major force in founding the South Australian Literary Association, and the designer of the Adelaide town plan. King William IV would have preferred the name New Windsor.
Lieutenant Colonel William Light was a soldier, sailor and amateur artist and uniquely unqualified for the position of Surveyor General, which was a reward for retired military officers. Light made no geographical discoveries of his own. He merely validated or clarified those made by people who preceded him. Nor was he an explorer. The Adelaide Plains and River Torrens were explored by Kingston. If it had been up to Light, South Australia’s capital would have been at Rapid Bay.
His second choice was Holdfast Bay, with Adelaide only fifth. Light was instructed in London to lay out the design prepared by Kingston in October 1835. He did not find, design, build or erect Adelaide. The site of Adelaide was found by Kingston and later affirmed by Light against the wishes of Hindmarsh. Therefore Light was not the founder but the fixer of the site on which the town was laid out.
To give credit where it is due, Light never said or referred to the design as his plan and never claimed to have engaged in, or studied, or witnessed town planning, or designed a building, village or town. He only fixed the spot of Adelaide. Last but not least, the decision to set aside the park lands was James Hurtle Fisher’s, not Light’s or Kingston’s. Adelaide parklands were the first dedicated, publicly financed and administered city parks in the world.
They were predecessor to future municipal park movements in Europe, Britain, North America and Australia. The impact of the Adelaide plan and park lands was immediate. In South Australia alone 249 out of 370 government towns had encircling park lands or partial park lands. What became of the Adelaide park lands has been described in The Adelaide Parklands, a social history by Patricia Sumerling.
It took nearly a hundred years before the first doubts about Light’s role surfaced. It was Archibald Grenfell Price who wondered if Light designed the city himself. It was another fifty years when Michael Williams was convinced that most of the evidence pointed to the fact that Light was not the creator of Adelaide’s magnificent park lands and town plan.
Another long-held historical ‘fact’, which is celebrated every year, has been the notion that Governor Hindmarsh proclaimed South Australia on 28 December. Unfortunately for Glenelg, Hindmarsh did not proclaim South Australia under the Old Gum Tree. South Australia’s foundation dates from 19 February 1836 when it was proclaimed in England. All Hindmarsh did was proclaiming the rule of law and inaugurating his government.
Anticipating Municipal Parks is well argued and supported by extensive evidence. It is a fascinating story of how an established historical ‘fact’ can change when we go back to the original sources and study them carefully.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Anticipating Municipal Parks, by Donald Leslie Johnson,
Telephone 08 8352 4455
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