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Charting a new landscape

Since the emergence of landscape architecture in Australia in the 1960s and ‘70s, there has been an enormous change in how residential suburbs are created.

The evolution of the residential subdivision has paralleled the development of the landscape architectural profession in Australia. Contemporary planning and design is expected to be responsive to environmental conditions, taking into consideration site and context, water-sensitive urban design and the integration of landscape features. These expectations came from important precedents that stemmed, in part, from contributions by the founders of the profession.

Before the emergence of landscape architecture in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, engineers, surveyors, architects, planners, housing commissions and state planning authorities held sway. “Open space” could be anything from a cricket ground to a patch of vacant green space marooned by streets. Features such as the “neighbourhood unit” – with school, shops and amenities including the obligatory open space and pedestrian links – stretched as far as Woomera in the South Australian desert. The result was often bleak.

The quarter-acre block and rectangular grid were nineteenth-century models based on efficiency and economics. Early-twentieth-century design saw streets, parks, and indeed whole towns, struck in the garden-city mould. A landscape consultant was lucky if they managed to select plants for designs laid out by surveyors or engineers.

In stark contrast were the highly individualistic schemes of the Griffins’ Castlecrag community in Sydney (1919–1935) and Edna Walling’s Bickleigh Vale village in Mooroolbark, Melbourne (from 1921), with their social and community agendas forged in the very fabric of the Australian landscape. Despite being more the exception than the rule, these projects set early precedents and a vision for how landscape and community living could become a more complete package.

Tuggeranong in the ACT in the 1970s, by Mackenzie and Associates. (top) Tuggeranong more recently. (bottom)

Tuggeranong in the ACT in the 1970s, by Mackenzie and Associates. (top) Tuggeranong more recently. (bottom)

Image: Bruce McKenzie

A distinguishing feature of 1960s practice was the acceptance that site planning was important in residential subdivisions.1 The establishment of the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) in 1958 set an important precedent. The NCDC’s Landscape Division, formed in 1963, ensured landscape became a key part of strategic planning. The first landscape architects at the NCDC – Richard Clough, Margaret Hendry and Harry Oakman – were also key founders of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects. Raised expectations spilled into private practice in the ACT, with landscape architects such as Raymond Margules and John Deverson working on new towns from 1967. At Kambah-Tuggeranong in the ACT (from 1970), Bruce Mackenzie and Associates avoided concrete drainage channels in favour of green, planted corridors.2 Tract Consultants reported on new forms of cluster subdivision at Gungahlin New Town (1974).

Around the same time, landscape architects forged links with prominent Australian house builders like AV Jennings and Lend Lease Homes. Project-house developments had taken off in the mid-1950s and offered architect-designed homes that often featured a designed landscape.3 The firms of Pettit and Sevitt in New South Wales and Merchant Builders in Victoria became known for their responsive approaches to siting, climate and outdoor living. Landscaping often emphasized the protection of existing trees. Landscape architects Bruce Mackenzie (for Pettit and Sevitt) and Ellis Stones (for Merchant Builders) became names associated with the new look – homes presented within a frame of Australian native plants.

Merchant Builders (founded in 1965 by David Yencken and John Ridge) promoted cluster-style subdivisions. Winter Park (constructed between 1970 and 1974) and Elliston (constructed from 1970), both in Melbourne’s suburbs, set important precedents. A community-oriented approach included innovative ideas: the inclusion of barbecues, timber play equipment, seating, and intimate community-oriented meeting places. At Winter Park the core of the subdivision was park-like with eucalypts in open lawns, and brick-paved courtyards with islands of native planting set within natural stone rockwork. Elliston featured continuous open space systems and a “ride” (designed by Stones and Rayment Landscape Architects) that passed behind unfenced properties. It had a simulated dry creek bed linking the barbecue area and children’s play equipment to a larger, more public, linear open space system adjacent to a nearby creek.

In 1977 Merchant Builders and Tract Consultants developed Vermont Park, a small residential cluster subdivision in Nunawading, Melbourne. They converted a four-hectare site, formerly an orchard, into a residential complex of forty-three homes with shared access, open space and a community centre that had barbecues and a swimming pool. Tree preservation, new plantings and small garden spaces together gave the impression the houses were set in a forest.

Through the 1980s, the scale and complexity of new settlements expanded into masterplanned estates. Landscape architecture gained professional territory.

The wetlands at North Lakes.

The wetlands at North Lakes.

Image: Peter Bennetts

The masterplanned estate has, from the 1990s to the current day, seen community-focused approaches combined with diligence in working with site. This has included responding to pre-existing landscape values as well as re-establishing values lost. As these projects start to reach maturity, subdivision design in Australia is undoubtedly improving in terms of environmental quality. For example at North Lakes near Brisbane, the masterplanned community of an expected twenty-five thousand residents co-exists with adjacent Ramsar-listed wetlands.4

The change in thinking that has occurred since the 1960s in Australia, a time when creeks were barrelled in concrete and swamps were drained and turfed, has been enormous.

1. Andrew Saniga, Making Landscape Architecture in Australia, (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, a UNSW Press Book, 2012), 242
2. Bruce Mackenzie, Design With Landscape: A 50 Year Journey, (Sydney: BruceMackenzieDesign, 2011), 286–287
3. See Judith O’Callaghan and Charles Pickett, Designer Suburbs: Architects and Affordable Homes in Australia, (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, a UNSW Press Book, 2012)
4. Catherine Bull, New Conversations With An Old Landscape, (Melbourne: Images Publishing Group, 2002), 154



Published online: 28 May 2014
Words: Andrew Saniga
Images: Bruce McKenzie, Unknown, courtesy David Yencken


Landscape Architecture Australia, November 2013

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