Business South Bank has just released a new report called ‘Vision South Bank’, sketching out possible future trajectories for the South Bank precinct.
As the local councillor for the ward which encompasses South Bank Parklands, I thought I’d share my initial thoughts on the document and some of the key ideas that flow out of it, with a particular focus on how this vision could impact on the broader South Brisbane neighbourhood and what it might mean for local residents.
I hope what I say here doesn’t come off as too negative, because there’s a lot of great stuff in the report. I have a lot of respect for what South Bank does, and in particular for its potential to continue growing as one of Australia’s leading artistic and cultural hotspots. I offer these thoughts in the hope that future detailed planning documents will benefit from constructive criticism at this early stage.
Like many of these big-picture vision documents, Vision South Bank is very light-on in terms of detail. Its intended purpose seems to be to put broad ideas on the table for further discussion rather than explain how they will be delivered or funded.
At first glance, the document is almost too vague to be worthy of much discussion and analysis. Most of the ideas are not new, and have been in the public domain for some time, but putting them all into one place serves as a useful starting point for further planning. Reading between the lines, the report actually reveals a lot about the values, biases, assumptions and goals of the organisations that produced it. In some respects, the issues the report doesn’t talk about are even more interesting than what it actually contains (here’s a link to the full report if you’re interested).
Perhaps most importantly, the release of ‘vision’ documents like this should not be understood as a satisfactory substitute for a proper masterplan of the Kurilpa Peninsula that’s driven by the community itself. There is currently no up-to-date masterplan for the development of the riverside reach to the west of GOMA and the State Library, and so development of this part of 4101 is currently occurring on an ad hoc basis with very little forward planning or coordination. The Vision South Bank report makes visible the fact that right now, development decisions for the Kurilpa Peninsula are being driven by the property industry rather than the needs and interests of the broader citizenry.
Consultation and Community
The first point to keep in mind is that this document is not the result of widespread collaboration from all the different individuals and organisations who have an interest in the future of South Bank. The report is not produced directly by South Bank Corporation itself, but by Business South Bank, which is a separate entity that acts as a mouthpiece for a few of the big ‘establishment’ stakeholders including the larger hotels and educational institutions in the area. It has been drafted with comparatively little direct input from the broader public.
I’m sure these big entities have engaged in their own forms of wider consultation and customer surveys, and I think much of Vision South Bank will line up very closely with the desires of Brisbane residents more generally (which is great). But it’s important to recognise that the demographics and stakeholders who have been omitted from this conversation will probably also have different needs and ideas about the future of South Bank and the surrounding area.
South Bank is of immense importance to so many Brisbanites, and while this report is a valuable contribution to plans for the future of the precinct, it should be seen as just one perspective in a broader conversation, rather than a democratic document that purports to articulate the needs and wishes of all Brisbane residents. To complement this report, South Bank should organise a broader community design process that is well-funded and inclusive. Every resident should be offered a meaningful say in the future of South Bank, rather than leaving these decisions up to a few design experts and elite power-holders.
Homelessness and Gentrification
One demographic which will be very significantly affected by the ideas in this vision, but whose voice has been completely silenced and sidelined by this report, are the many rough sleepers and marginalised people who live around South Brisbane. The report contemplates expansion of South Bank along the Kurilpa Peninsula, and greater connectivity to Musgrave Park. Both of these areas are gathering places and refuges for people whose presence has been increasingly criminalised in other parts of the inner-city.
South Bank’s origin story is one of displacement and upheaval. The development and ‘revitalisation’ that came with Expo 88 saw many low-income residents forced out of the South Brisbane area, and many current and former residents of 4101 still have unhappy memories of the dispersal and fragmentation of their communities. Today, South Bank is a much more accepting, diverse and egalitarian space, enjoyed by people from a wider range of demographics and cultural backgrounds. However some of its policies – such as closing at midnight, and militantly resisting any gathering or event that might be considered a protest – do continue to impact negatively on homeless Brisbanites, even if this might not be South Bank’s intention. Our office has had contact with several individuals who received fines and ended up in court because they tried to sleep in the park after the midnight curfew, or urinated in one of the garden beds late at night after the toilets were locked.
Any proposal to expand South Bank westwards around the Kurilpa Peninsula, or to increase connectivity to the south with a goal of driving more tourists through to Musgrave Park needs to start by identifying and proposing solutions to deliver well-designed affordable housing within the 4101 postcode that can accommodate rough sleepers. Any changes to the way these spaces are governed and the kinds of events that are held there should focus on supporting and empowering marginalised people who use these parks, rather than forcing them out.
My main concern is that if the reach of South Bank Corporation were extended to these other green spaces, these areas will be more heavily policed by security guards and more heavily influenced by the wishes of high-end businesses and corporate events organisers. Over time, the social norms about what activities and kinds of behaviour are considered acceptable in these parks would change, and marginalised demographics would again find themselves displaced and pushed away.
Respecting Aboriginal Sovereignty
You could write all day about Musgrave Park and still only scratch the surface of its significance to First Nations people. Musgrave is a unique site and an important ceremony place for local Aboriginal clan nations, but also a special meeting place and community hub for First Nations peoples from across Australia.
No significant changes should be contemplated for Musgrave Park or how it connects to the broader neighbourhood unless all the various Aboriginal community groups that are stakeholders to the park are meaningfully involved in the conversation. Importantly, there is a distinction between top-down consultation where you ask Aboriginal groups whether they support a proposal, as opposed to projects which are defined and driven by Aboriginal people.
Even if – hypothetically speaking – Business South Bank’s vision for Musgrave Park were not so different from the vision held by Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy and the other First Nations groups that regularly use the park, the mere process of an external entity forcing a particular vision onto Aboriginal communities would itself be a disempowering and colonial act that’s likely to meet strong resistance.
I expect that the mention of an Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Musgrave Park will attract strong community support, as this is something that local Murri elders have been requesting for many years (I’m told that funding was allocated by the State Government for a Musgrave Park cultural centre some years ago, but then quietly removed by the Campbell Newman government). However it’s crucial that planning and decision-making power rests with the Aboriginal community itself, rather than a project like this being driven and delivered by South Bank Corporation or Business South Bank.
Different Roles for Different Kinds of Green Space
On page 6, the Vision South Bank report correctly observes that “While the local and regional populations have increased dramatically since the inception of South Bank Parklands, the quantity of open space has not. New green spaces are needed to support the sustainability of our city.”
However it’s important to recognise that a sustainable, liveable city requires several different kinds of green space that serve different purposes and fill different needs. South Bank is a busy tourist destination, where the open green spaces are often used for large public events. It attracts visitors from across the city and further afield. The quality of programming and activities at South Bank is so high that in all likelihood, expanding the physical footprint of South Bank would also lead to a proportionate increase in the number of people who travel into South Brisbane to enjoy what it has to offer.
While South Bank is a great place to recreate, it’s not necessarily the best place to go if you want to kick a ball, fly a kite, or organise a community meeting with some neighbours on your street. South Bank is also very strongly opposed to any kind of protest activities taking place within the parklands, which means that an expansion around the Kurilpa peninsula could neutralise the existing use of this space as a meeting point for rallies and marches.
The many new apartment residents moving into South Brisbane certainly reap the benefits of their close proximity to South Bank Parklands, however they also need access to other, less intense public parks. For someone living in a small apartment, with a tiny balcony and no other common spaces around the building, it’s very important to have nearby parks where you can hang out and relax without feeling like you’re in the middle of a busy metropolis.
The report states at one point that “Musgrave Park is a large but underperforming green space at the heart of a fast growing neighbourhood.” I think it’s fair to say that a lot of nearby residents aren’t in the habit of enjoying Musgrave Park as much as they perhaps could, but to describe a park as ‘underperforming’ is a heavily value-laden statement. Anyone who spends a bit of time at Musgrave in the afternoons or on weekends will observe residents hanging out on park benches chatting, families enjoying the playgrounds, and people exercising and playing sport in the open fields.
If a park’s performance is evaluated in terms of how comfortable people from marginalised backgrounds feel hanging out there, or in terms of how much political activism it hosts, Musgrave is probably one of the best-performing parks in Australia. Musgrave Park plays the role of a quiet retreat in the middle of a busy suburb, as well as being a hub for community events and protest movements. Any changes to the park will need to keep these existing roles in mind.
Conservative modelling from Brisbane City Council suggests that over the next 12 to 14 years, the number of apartment residents in West End will rise from 6000 to 16000, and the number of apartment residents in South Brisbane will rise from 5500 to 24000. Long-term, BCC is planning to acquire a few large sites along the Kurilpa riverfront to provide additional green space for these residents, but the green space needs of these residents are not necessarily 100% compatible with the uses the land might be put to if amalgamated into South Bank Parklands.
All this is a very roundabout way of saying that not all green space is created equal. The benefits of expanding South Bank as a citywide destination parkland must be balanced against the needs of thousands of nearby apartment residents who also need access to local neighbourhood parks that are less heavily curated and controlled, and not subject to the same intensity of use. Ideas for performing arts centres, event spaces and curated gardens are exciting, but we also need inner-city pockets that are preserved as wildlife corridors, community gardens that are genuinely controlled by local residents, and spaces where unconventional events and projects can take place without requiring public liability insurance and having to go through a detailed risk management assessment process.
Maritime Museum Proposals
Vision South Bank correctly identifies that the Queensland Maritime Museum is not living up to its full potential, and that more could be done to open up this site to the public.
Currently, visiting hours for both the inside and outside parts of the museum site are only 9:30am to 4:30pm, and an adult ticket is $16 (students are $14 and kids are $7) which compares unfavourably to the other museums and galleries along South Bank. The Queensland Government should be putting a lot more money into this museum to bring it up to a higher standard and ensure it can be open to the public for a lower entry fee. Ideally, the outdoor parts of the site should be free and open to the public all day and night.
The report adds its voice to suggestions from many other sources to open up a riverside pathway through the Maritime Museum site, which is obviously a high priority. This could include revegetating some of the riverbank to add to the existing trees along this stretch, which are important habitat for aquatic life as well as native birds and mammals. I also see a lot of merit in establishing a slightly larger museum building that would do justice to Queensland’s varied and significant maritime history.
However I’m sceptical of the report’s suggestion to develop further riverside restaurant spaces along the museum site’s river frontage. Such restaurants would tend to be high-end businesses that are unaffordable for many Brisbanites, and restrict public access to the river. There are already plenty of high-end restaurants in the Riverside precinct around Eagle Street in the CBD, and many more restaurants are likely to be developed on the Queens Wharf and Howard Smith Wharves sites. Recent experience in Brisbane suggests that new dining precincts tend to cannibalise business in other parts of the city. Local traders in other parts of 4101 regularly report to me that they are already struggling to attract enough customers, so any decision to expand the offering of restaurants around South Bank should take account of likely impacts on nearby precincts.
But putting that aside, the core point is that the Maritime Museum site is public land. The Queensland Government has already made the mistake of selling off other major riverside assets like the Queens Wharf site for private development, and it would be foolish and short-sighted to allow the Maritime Museum site to become dominated by for-profit businesses. As much of the site as possible should be opened up to the public.
One of the report’s key themes relates to how South Bank Parklands connects to the surrounding area and how people will move through it. I could write a whole essay on this topic alone, but for now I’ll stick to a couple of key points:
- Conceptualising Glenelg Street as a key connector up to Musgrave Park needs to take account of the slope of the hill and the volume of traffic on Merivale and Cordelia Streets
- The report seems to gloss over or completely ignore the urgent and crucial challenge of improving bike access through South Bank and the surrounding streets and bridges
- Private water taxis and tourist boats sound like great ideas until you start thinking through the logistics of so many different vessels crossing paths with CityCats and ferries
I really like the report’s vision for opening up Glenelg Street as a leafy pedestrian boulevard. Not only would this greatly improve pedestrian connectivity between South Bank and West End, but if designed well, it could double up as a wildlife corridor between Musgrave Park and the river.
However, the southern end of Glenelg leading up to Musgrave is quite steep, and for this reason it might not be the best possible connector for cyclists or for people with impaired mobility. As well as supporting a green boulevard on Glenelg Street, Business South Bank should also push to ensure that as sites between Cordelia and Merivale redevelop, new pedestrian laneways are included through this precinct that aren’t quite as steep as Glenelg.
Merivale and Cordelia Streets are key traffic arteries through the inner-south side. I will be among the first and strongest advocates for narrowing and slowing these roads to make them safer and more comfortable for pedestrians, but this isn’t something that can be done by halves. To achieve the report’s vision for Glenelg would require prioritising pedestrian movements ahead of the vehicles that travel along both these high-capacity roads. Drivers would find themselves waiting through multiple traffic signal phases so that pedestrians could flow more freely.
Pushing Merivale St underground to create more public realm and a comfortable area for pedestrians sounds great, but probably wouldn’t be worth the immense cost, particularly in such a flood-prone location. That kind of money would be better spent buying more public green space in the area. A gradually sloping pedestrian overpass might be more feasible, and could become a significant architectural landmark. Either way, Merivale and Cordelia will hopefully become slower streets in future that offer more space (and priority) to pedestrians and cyclists, as private cars are gradually banished from the inner-city.
Currently, there are a number of key conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians in and around South Bank Parklands. Grey St is rightly perceived as unsafe by many commuter cyclists (I’ve personally been hit twice while riding along there) due to cars pulling in and out of street parking bays without giving way to bikes. As a result, many commuter cyclists still choose the riverside path, causing conflicts and near misses with pedestrians.
Rather than pushing commuter cyclists through the middle of South Bank Parklands, a better solution would be to leave the riverside path for pedestrians and recreational bike riders, and severely restrict motor vehicle traffic along Grey Street to improve cycling safety and convenience. Closing Grey St where it meets Melbourne St, replacing street parking with loading zones and pocket parks, and dropping the speed limit to 20km/h would turn it into a primary cycling route through South Brisbane.
On page 12, the report states: “Victoria Bridge to give priority to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit, with seamless transition and connectivity into SBP.” However the Brisbane City Council’s Metro Project will be substantially reducing cyclist access across the bridge. Current plans for the Metro will see the on-road bike lanes removed. Cyclists would continue to share the narrow northern pathway with pedestrians, but the pedestrian crossing over to Brisbane Square is also flagged for removal. The reduction in bike access over Victoria Bridge may see more cyclists travelling through South Bank to get to the Goodwill Bridge or over to the Kurilpa Bridge. The fact that the proposed bridge to connect to the Queens Wharf casino is intended to be closed to cyclists is a huge mistake and lost opportunity.
My broader point here is that cycling connectivity is already a major problem around South Bank, which will only get worse over time. The Vision South Bank report’s general ideas about improving connectivity are positive, but Business South Bank should have been a bit braver, and called for a substantial reduction in car access throughout the precinct.
Private water taxis?
Installing more launching points for non-motorised recreational vessels (e.g. kayaks) is great, but I’m still a bit of an agnostic about encouraging more motorised water-based transport around the South Bank reach of Brisbane River. The only way I can imagine a private water taxi industry being financially viable on such a winding river is if all other modes of land-based transport became so gridlocked, unreliable and inefficient that wealthy customers were willing to pay a premium for a river-based alternative. But I don’t really want to live in a city where most of us are crammed onto crowded buses or stuck in traffic congestion while a wealthy few get to zip back and forth across the water in Uber-ferries.
Perhaps more relevantly though, there’s a real (but not insurmountable) risk that private cross-river taxi services might create excessive congestion for the public ferry and CityCat services. CityCats need a fair bit of space to manoeuvre safely. It’s ok to have private boats cruising up and down the river parallel to the banks, but if you have large numbers of vessels continually crossing between South Bank and the CBD, this is likely to impact the reliability and frequency of river-based public transport.
If there’s a genuine need for more tourist-friendly cross-river transport services, making all of the council’s existing small ferries free is probably a good place to start. It would certainly improve efficiency if every patron didn’t have to swipe their GoCard when getting on and off.
As much as possible, South Bank Corporation, Brisbane City Council and the State Government should prioritise and support public transport services on the river, rather than building infrastructure that’s primarily for user-pays private water taxis.
One other little Easter Egg in the report that probably isn’t too significant but which I found interesting was the image of a light rail service running down the middle of Boundary Street in West End. It’s just a simple artist impression, and I don’t think we should read too much into it, but it’s nice to see that ideas like that are being tossed around to provoke a bit of conversation. 4101’s population is likely to increase by tens of thousands of residents over the coming decades, so new high-capacity public transport services will be essential. I’ve written a bit more about this issue at this link if anyone’s interested.
Ongoing need for Kurilpa Masterplan
Although it’s not perfect, this report is a useful injection into public debate about the future of South Bank Parklands. However, Vision South Bank should not be treated as a proxy for detailed democratic masterplanning, nor should it be seen as reflective of the needs and desires of other stakeholders beyond those who contributed to it directly.
There’s a pressing need for a new masterplan for the Kurilpa Peninsula precinct – one which strikes a better balance between density and green space than the previous ‘Kurilpa Riverfront Renewal Masterplan’ that was produced by the LNP a few years ago.
The design and development of further green spaces along the river to the northwest of South Bank Parklands must give more power to residents (both those living within 4101 and those from further afield) and must resist pressure from the property industry to maximise the density of private dwellings and minimise public space.
Already, the lack of a proper masterplan is delaying and complicating forward planning for public space improvement projects right along the West End and South Bank riverfront. It might actually make sense to develop a single Kurilpa Riverside Masterplan that includes South Bank and stretches right around to include Davies Park in West End, which is long-overdue for a redesign and upgrades.
Any redevelopment of council-owned and government-owned land in 4101 should primarily be restricted to public green space, community and cultural facilities, and public housing. Highrises should be kept well back from the river, and planning decisions to further upzone sites for higher density should not go ahead without broad community support.
I commend Business South Bank for taking the time and energy to produce the Vision South Bank report, and I hope the concerns I’ve raised – particularly with regard to respecting Aboriginal sovereignty, consulting democratically and managing the negative impacts of gentrification – will be taken on board going forward.