‘Can a lawyer save dying park from its lovers?’, asked the article in the weekend edition of Australian Financial Review, 30-31 July 2022. The journalist based the headline and the whole story on the claims of the former minister for planning, Rob Stokes, and the chair of the Greater Sydney Parklands Trust, Michael Rose (he’s the headline’s lawyer). Neither the Friends of Callan Park nor the Inner West Council (or its former mayor cited in the article), nor the local MP Jamie Parker were approached for comment. If they had been, then there is no way the article would have been able to sustain the claim that the residents of the Inner West seek to keep Callan Park in a state of ‘suspended animation’, ‘dying’ and closed to the wider public.
This wonderful heritage parkland actually exists because of the locals’ successful efforts to preserve it from the dismemberment, development, privatisation and commercialisation proposed by a long list of earlier would-be ‘saviours’. As for it being “locked-up” and dying, a random visit would be enough to find it being enjoyed by kids or adults playing sport at the three restored ovals, by dogs and their owners, by picnickers and by Sydneysiders drawn to its beauty and tranquillity. A visitor would also discover organisations such as We Help Ourselves occupying former hospital buildings and carrying out their worthy work in drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
As for the pockets of neglect at Callan Park, for decades locals exposed the ‘demolition by neglect’ by successive state governments and advocated investment in modern mental health services, heritage and bushland protection and an array of not-for-profit uses on the site. This campaigning has in fact been crowned with some success. In 2020 Rob Stokes (which he seems to have forgotten) announced a grant of $14 million ‘as a down-payment’ for heritage works, the expansion and improvement of the parklands, and the demolition of many non-heritage buildings. This work has already begun, as have negotiations for the leasing of buildings that are to be retained under the Landscape Structure Plan adopted by the Greater Sydney Parklands Trust.
As for the demand for flat whites and cappuccinos, the Master Plan for Callan Park, adopted by Leichhardt Council in 2011 after wide consultation, provided for two cafes. It is the state government that has refused to adopt that plan. The intention was that these cafes would be managed by not-for-profits and have some staff positions reserved for people recovering from a mental illness. With goodwill this can still happen.
Locals make no apology for wanting to preserve Callan Park as a green sanctuary, a heritage jewel and a place of healing. In the view of many (if not assorted neoliberals) parklands such as Callan Park should be a core responsibility of governments – just like schools and hospitals. They should not have to pay for themselves by becoming business or hospitality hubs. It’s a pity this perspective was not included in the article. Nevertheless residents and the wider public will go on advocating it.