Birabahn, masterclass, with the big door open

Chapter 3: Monarchists and Republicans – mown weeds versus mounds and swales

By Philip Pollard

FAVOURITES – 21 January 2010 – Philip Pollard’s Phd thesis, Campus as Place, on the transformation of the University of Newcastle into one of the world’s leading sustainability exemplars, is a rare insight into the enormous complexities – human and technological – that need to managed, nurtured and coaxed into a creative outcome. See Chapter 2 and Chapter 1.

“At that time the area of the South Bronx where I had spent my childhood was burning… There was some kind of informal deforestation going on, and all the forests were burning. (Interviewer: …Was it some kind of vandalism?)
I imagine so. Some kind of hostility toward the environment. I think people that don’t understand something, they try to destroy it. That goes for art, and unfortunately [in] this day and age, nature too.” (Excerpt from an interview with Sonfist, Danoff cited in Sonfist and Becker 2004, pp. 217-223)

Soon after he commenced in the role of Vice-Chancellor at the UoN in 1993 Professor Raoul Mortley gave an interview on ABC Radio 1233. The staff of Physical Planning & Estates had anticipated that the live interview may give some insight into what changes might be expected under the new Vice-Chancellor’s direction, and a number of staff members gathered in the open plan office of the Services building to listen to the interview as it went to air. One of the questions that was put to Prof Mortley was whether he supported the initiative to plant native grasses in mounds and swales, in place of mown areas. Prof Mortley gave a long pause, and observed that it was a bit like the debate between the monarchists and the republicans – the monarchists wanting to see a preservation of the status quo and the romantic notion of rolling green English lawns, whereas the republicans wanted change and a more regional expression of landscape. He indicated that after some consideration of the matter, he would have to declare himself a republican (ie he was for the native grasses).

We were greatly relieved by this endorsement as there had been some debate in the community about the initial process of removing some lawns (more accurately described as areas of mown weeds) and replacing these with mounds and swales covered in native grasses and shrubs.

One of the areas that had raised some discussion when it was first undertaken in 1992 was the visually prominent slope either side of the western entrance road of the university (which had been the main entrance of the old university).  The gates, bus shelter and university signage constructed in the 1960s had been removed in the 1980s to allow the construction by the RTA of a new roundabout on University Drive, and had not been replaced. There was no sense of arrival to the campus, nor even any sign to inform a visitor that they had arrived at the University of Newcastle.

The area was quite barren, in part because of overhead 330kV powerlines, which precluded the planting of any trees or large shrubs. The relocation of the 330kV and 110kV power lines, which had been separately strung on gnarly and bent old timber poles, needed to be undertaken for the construction of the new expanded ring road and to prevent large areas of valuable campus land being sterilised by new state government regulations which required increased separation distances and easements for high voltage transmission lines.

This realignment of the lines to new concrete poles meant that the site now occupied by the ICT building, as well as a number of sites, were available for potential development, and an increased area on either side of the western entrance could be landscaped.  The heavily compacted poor clay soils and the absence of topsoil meant that any turf planted on the campus struggled to survive more than a few months, reverting largely to a mown assortment of introduced weeds which bore little resemblance of the rolling English hills to which this landscape aspired.

Not long prior to my appointment the UoN had commissioned architects Rodd Hay Craig to prepare a design for a new entry feature to the western entrance. This design included a large clock tower and masonry gate structures (which were non-functional). This design may well have been a reasonably appropriate response to its design brief – a document which I did not get to see. However, the UoN council decided not to proceed with this proposal, which had not been well received and which would have been quite expensive to construct. The design’s symbolism was also considered by Dr Huxley and other members of the executive to be too referential to British university design, which seemed out of place in the local context.
Like many parts of the campus, there were a range of storm water issues pertaining to this area. Impervious clay soils with scant top soil and next to no vegetation combined with a large catchment area meant that during heavy rain large volumes of water raced down both the roadway of the entrance and the open areas either side of it, occasionally flooding across University Drive and running into properties on the south side of the Drive. Part of the landscape design that we were to undertake for the western entrance included a large detention pond on the eastern side of the entrance, which buffered large volumes of water and prevented them from flooding onto the roadway.

Peter Stevens (the recently appointed Curator of Grounds) prepared a simple design for two low sandstone walls which were curved in a wide arc on either side of the entrance. These walls had ‘THE UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE’ carved into the stone in simple roman lettering, and were landscaped with low native ground covers in front of the sign. This was an elegant and relatively inexpensive entry marker, which was generally well received by the community as being both visually pleasing and appropriate for the purpose. Later the existing eastern entrance sign, which had marked the entry to the HIHE, was updated to a similar format using sandstone facing and simple stainless steel lettering. On the city side of the old university entrance, a new large bus shelter was constructed (which was later made redundant by the bringing of all bus services onto the campus itself). Extensive landscaping and screen planting was undertaken after the earthworks had been prepared following the Landsoft principles. This screen planting shielded the entry from the previously expansive view of car parks.

When the mounds and swales had initially been prepared and the area deeply mulched with eucalyptus mulch[1] the area briefly looked quite stark before planting occurred. A number of the staff of the UoN Computing Centre saw this as an opportunity for some fun, and they dressed in army fatigues and armed themselves with toy rifles and took off into the ‘trenches’ where they were photographed for the Uninews publication.

The area was subsequently planted using virocells[2] at quite high densities – up to 100 plants per m2 when using grasses. This dense planting, combined with deep eucalypt mulching was shown to keep invasive weed infestation to a minimum – essentially physically restricting the germination of competing weed species. Any weeds which did propagate in the first months following landscaping could easily be removed by hand because of the deep mulch and because they were quite limited in number. As per normal practice, plants were only watered at the time of their placement in the soil, and possibly once or twice again during the following week, after which they had to rely on natural precipitation. Seedling losses were remarkably low (less than 10%)- in spite of the poor clay soils, the immaturity of tube-stock and the policy of not using potable water on landscaped areas.

Once the native grasses had achieved a good cover within a few months, there was minimal need for weeding. Thus within a relatively short period, the  former ‘trenches’ which looked quite desolate in the ‘Dad’s Army’ photo were covered in soft native grasses – which thankfully won over the opinions of many who had previously held some reservations at the early appearance of the incomplete landscape.
Sometime after the landscaping of the areas either side of the western entrance drive, the median of this road was landscaped using natural rock to create a dry creek bed (which also solved a storm water problem arising from McMullin Lane and the ring road near the McMullin building).

In extreme downpours the constructed creek bed acted as a detention area for storm water overflows from these campus roads uphill of it. When the extensive rockworks were completed and prior to planting of native grasses, this area too appeared quite barren and desert like, but the addition of the soft waving grasses transformed this area into an attractive focal point for anyone arriving by car. Particular attention was paid during the construction of these works to ensure that driver sight lines to pedestrians and bike riders were maintained. This was particularly important around the cycle path, which intersects the road. This crossing was also included in the areas regularly monitored and trimmed to ensure public safety was always maintained. The area was subject to further works in 2007 which are described in Appendix 2.

A book was published in 2000 by visiting French academics (Hanrot and Rault 2000) which briefly sets out the principles of our Landsoft catchment approach.  Essentially the underlying concepts are quite simple, and they mimic natural systems which tend to be self perpetuating and economical to implement and to manage.

As mentioned previously, both Mollison’s Permaculture principles and PA Yeomans’ Keyline agriculture concept were drawn upon in the development of Landsoft. The principal difference between Landsoft and the systems from which it borrows, is that Landsoft is applied to remnant bushland areas, and regenerated urban bushland landscapes, and both the cost of maintenance and durability of the works are major influencing factors. Landsoft also makes use of stormwater runoff from roof areas, car parks and roads and playing fields.

Another consideration for the Callaghan site is management of bush fire risk, and for this reason an approach was taken to utilise indigenous plant species from the wetter riparian parts of the campus, and extend these more broadly across the overall site. These species are considerably more fire resistant than some of the local plants which prefer drier conditions, but they could only be extended in their range by bringing about favourable conditions on the higher and more barren parts of the site. This requires much deeper soils and moister sub-soil conditions, which were achieved by the Landsoft approach. This is discussed in further detail later in this chapter.

With Landsoft, swales (depressions in the earth) are constructed across the contour of an existing slope in a pattern resembling fish scales in plan, and these are interspersed with corresponding mounds. Thus, rather than stormwater sheeting directly down the slope, picking up eroded sediment en route – water is instead led very gradually through a succession of swales, where it can be absorbed into the soil, watering the surrounding plants and carrying nutrients into the soil. Each swale becomes a mini- detention area in this way. During heavy downpours, water in excess of what can be detained in the swales and absorbed in the soil, gently feeds across the contour through the series of swales into a succession of constructed ponds.

The first (most upstream) pond serves as both a sediment collection pond and a detention area. This is designed so that it can be accessed if required (not more than every few years) to remove deposited sediment by back hoe. The better managed the upstream landscape is, the less sediment is created and the less sediment is collected. Thus well covered (planted) and mulched areas create very little sediment at all, whereas areas of bare earth create high volumes of sediment. Downstream from the first sediment catchment pond, several other ponds are constructed between the landscaped area and the headwaters of the natural creek (the exact number depends on the topography and the character of the particular site). Water quality is incrementally improved as sediment and nutrient are removed by settlement and aquatic plant growth in the initial ponds, and aeration occurs as water percolates along the constructed watercourse.

The same principles are applied in remediating degraded natural water courses and when creating constructed creek beds. The latter are constructed at close to a level contour (ie with little slope which would otherwise increase water velocity) and meander between constructed ponds and the natural waterway. Any areas where water is likely to move with greater velocity (e.g. outer sides of bends in constructed or natural creeks) are protected by stacked loose stone and planting to prevent any scouring.
Stuart Hill of University of Western Sydney has observed that:

“The potential for farming systems to be ‘redesigned’ and improved based on our understanding of biology and ecology is enormous.  Among the few pioneers who have led the way in this ‘project’, the late P.A. Yeomans’ work in NSW is exemplary.  His understanding of soils as living systems, farms as complex, integrated and evolving systems, and landscapes as the appropriate scale for planning and major decision-making was key to the development of his ‘Keyline’ approach to agriculture.  In addition to learning how to make up to 10 centimetres of topsoil in three years (it normally takes 100s to 1000s of years), he designed a landscape that did not suffer from lack of water, was fireproof, high in biodiversity, and highly productive and profitable.  Despite this, his ‘whole healthy system design’ approach has been largely neglected in favour of component focused curative approaches to problems.” (Hill 2002, p.34)

The creation of new topsoil that Hill refers to was widely demonstrated at Callaghan, and this is a major contributor to the making the campus bushland ‘fire proof’ (more accurately more fire resistant). The deeper topsoils and their much greater retention of moisture in turn leads to the capacity of riparian local species becoming viable on the higher, drier areas of the site. The local species that were deliberately selected for such propagation were those recognised as being fire resistant, and therefore unlikely to support a bushfire – even if started deliberately.[3]

While some poor quality areas of ‘grass’ (mown weeds) were identified in our process as being appropriate for replacement with native landscape utilising the Landsoft approach, this was not by any means undertaken indiscriminately. A range of substantial areas that were situated near academic precincts, such as in the area between the Auchmuty Library, the Shortland Union and the Great Hall were identified as having high recreational value and were upgraded using introduced buffalo turf to create a series of quite large spaces or outdoor ‘rooms’ which were very well used by students and staff.

The design brief for these landscape works called also for a visual reinforcement of the axis which had been conceived as part of the original master plan for the former university campus – which is a line from the Great Hall at the crest of the hill, ending in what is now the Language Centre in the north. This axis had been laid out using straight paths, which included a small fountain about its mid point. A copse of Casuarina trees towards the Shortland Union/Auchmuty Library end of the axis effectively obscured the line at this point, and this combined with the random nature of the distribution of the existing eucalypts rendered the axis virtually unidentifiable.

An audit of the trees identified a small number as being marginal in terms of their viability, and these and the Casuarinas which had spread from one poorly sited planting, were removed. The layout of new passive recreational turfed areas, and their defining native landscaped surrounds were used to reinforce the visibility of the axis, while keeping the open grassed areas to a human (and ‘defensible’) scale. The result was to render the formal construct more legible, and given the fact the axis itself was hardly a grand urban gesture, we felt that a reasonable balance had been struck between formality and informality.

Another aim of the design brief was to treat precincts so as they visually expressed an individual character which would also assist with way finding. Using sculptural works from the University’s collection, including works on loan from bodies such as Sculpture by the Sea, was one means of achieving this. Varying the form of the landscape earth works and the arrangements of plantings, as well as the selection of native species (different flower and foliage colours) were all employed to create distinct character.

In the area of the Shortland Union there also existed a major storm water problem, which in extreme downpours saw water racing down the hill from the Great Hall and flooding through the interior of the Shortland Union, cascading down the stairs like a water fall. A similar problem existed with the basement of the Library, which in part arose from storm water rushing down the hill, and in part from design problems arising from the original library construction. In upgrading the landscape for the area, a deep water detention area (constructed of some 3 metres depth of open cobble) was created in the terraced area above the library and the Shortland Union.

This was topped with geo-textile and layers of gravel material and good quality soil produced by the campus worm farm. Buffalo turf planted above flourished with no watering after its establishment, and crucially the storm water problem for the Shortland Union was eliminated and the worst of the problem arising to the library’s basement was greatly alleviated. Further remedial works to the building itself were planned to resolve the entry of water to the area from other sources.

Similar high quality turfed areas were created around the campus in areas where these were most likely to be utilised by students and staff. These areas were defined by surrounding planted mounds and swales which delineated a positive space while maintaining ‘natural surveillance’ and appropriate sight lines.[4] In good weather throughout the year, these spaces were well used by students and staff as a place to meet and have lunch, read a book, or even have a nap. Simple, robust and inexpensive hardwood benches and larger square hardwood low table/seats were installed in and around these grassed areas. In areas of higher pedestrian use where turf would not be sufficiently durable for the number of pedestrians gathering, hard landscape materials were applied to create meeting ‘nodes’ outside lecture theatres and academic buildings.

The landscape of the General Purpose (GP) building utilised both turfed and hard paved recreational areas, as well as reinforcing areas of non-trafficable native shrubs and trees. Again, a series of generous outdoor turfed ‘rooms’ were defined by borders of native grasses and small shrubs planted in mounds. Particular attention was made to preserving ‘natural surveillance’ of these areas for personal safety considerations while allowing recreational users to feel comfortable and not unduly exposed in using these spaces. This project was one of a number on the campus which received award recognition for excellence in design.[5]

Although it became evident over time that the weight of community opinion had moved broadly in favour of the ‘bushland campus’ approach, there remained some enclaves of staff who never developed an aesthetic appreciation of the native flora and who considered the native grasses in particular to be untidy, unattractive and generally an annoyance. One enclave where this opinion was most strongly in evidence was the University Security Service, which for ten years (1992 to 2002) fell under my managerial responsibility.

While a handful of Security staff were eventually won over to the native flora aesthetic, the majority remained against it – some vehemently so. Many arguments were raised and put forward as reasons against the bushland approach, and a number of these arguments warranted very careful consideration as they went to the issue public safety. However, as one worked through the concerns and examined the actual evidence in the field, it generally (though not always) emerged that the underlying issue was either an aesthetic one, or one arising from embedded and outdated work practices, and a resistance to change.

Security staff have a core responsibility for maintaining a safe campus and therefore have a clear and legitimate interest in campus design, and the issues of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design and personal safety are areas which received considerable attention and discussion from both the design professionals (landscape and architects) within PPE and the Security personnel. Over time the NSW Police Service set up specialist Police officers who were also regularly consulted in terms of minimising risk for people and property.

While both the UoN Security staff and the specialist Police have expertise in crime prevention and in setting objectives for risk reduction, neither group has training or expertise in undertaking creative design. So my response to getting a good collaborative outcome was to encourage the crime experts to have a key role in setting the design objectives, and in evaluating the effectiveness of these as design outcomes were proposed – but the design itself was undertaken by the design professionals whose task it was to ensure this component of their brief was given a very high priority.

The discipline of crime prevention through environmental design is a relatively new one, and in examining the available research on the subject it is evident even now that some of the accepted design ‘truths’ advocated are not well supported by sound research. One example of this is the widely accepted notion that the more night-time lighting provided in an outdoor area, the safer it will be. While there is some available research which supports the notion that people are likely to feel safer in brightly lit areas, this may not correlate at all with a real improvement in safety.

I came across some US based research during the 1990s which suggested that in the schools examined, crime levels were actually significantly reduced by completely removing night time lighting to trouble areas (Building Operator 9 (1991), cited in IDA 1991). A detailed report to the US Congress (Eck, Sherman et al. 1996, Chapter 7) noted that”Lighting has received considerable attention. Yet, evaluation designs are weak and the results are mixed. We can have very little confidence that improved lighting prevents crime, particularly since we do not know if offenders use lighting to their advantage. In the absence of better theories about when and where lighting can be effective, and rigorous evaluations of plausible lighting interventions, we cannot make any scientific assertions regarding the effectiveness of lighting”.

Another key aspect to the lighting issue is the quality of the lighting itself. High levels of outdoor lighting are very often associated with high levels of glare – which can actually shield criminal behaviour. A case in point was the Hunter Union building at Callaghan, where the Union manager installed very bright, after-hours halogen security lighting, located on the outer walls of the building facing out towards the ring road. While this lighting provided virtually daylight conditions as viewed from the building looking outwards, this was of absolutely no assistance as the building was unoccupied after hours – and the key to providing security to the building was to allow Security staff to see in. However when looking towards the building a viewer was completely blinded by the glare of the unshielded light source – which totally obstructed anyone from seeing the building. Thus high levels of light actually encouraged criminal behaviour, whereas more appropriate low glare lighting, or possibly even complete darkness (with motion sensor activated appropriate lighting) would have produced a much more effective outcome.

Research examining reported alleged criminal events across university campuses in Australia is very limited, essentially to one researcher at the University of New England Armidale who provided collated annual assessments of reported events across Australian campuses over a number of years through the 1990s. This research consistently indicated that the UoN Callaghan campus was one of the safer national campuses when compared (per thousand FTE students) on the basis of reported alleged assaults and robberies.  Subsequent research including that by Robert Samuels (1995) has dismissed the use of reported criminal events on the basis of assumed under reporting, and has instead relied entirely on surveying university students and staff about where and under what conditions they ‘feel’ safe.

I believe that it is very likely that under reporting does occur – possibly to a significant degree – but there are means of estimating the extent of under reporting which can be factored into any conclusions drawn. To the limited extent that published comparative research has been carried out in regard to Australian campuses in recent years, it appears that there is a complete reliance upon reported feelings to determine comparative safety of areas. Given that many of us feel unsafe in an aeroplane (for fear it may crash) or swimming in the ocean (for fear of shark attack) and few of us feel unsafe in a motor vehicle (in spite of this being statistically a much riskier activity)

I believe there are serious shortcomings in relying entirely upon reported feelings as a measure of actual safety of different environments.  That is not to say it is unimportant if campus users feel unsafe – but this is a different matter and should certainly not be relied upon as the sole indicator of actual risk.

There are similar issues which can be raised in regard to a number of the accepted ‘truths’ relating to very specific suggestions for crime prevention through environmental design, and I believe that until more design professionals get seriously involved in the discipline it will remain dogged with well meaning but unreliable specific design recommendations. However – there is no debate in my mind as to the importance of the principles of design for safety, and these objectives must be fully embraced and addressed by design professionals working in public institutions such as universities.

So how might design for safety principles best be applied – for example – to the design of a landscaped area? Considering the stated design objectives (DUAP 2001):

“Crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) seeks to influence the design of buildings and places by:

•    increasing the perception of risk to criminals by increasing the possibility of detection, challenge and capture
•    increasing the effort required to commit crime by increasing the time, energy or resources which need to be expended
•    reducing the potential rewards of crime by minimising, removing or concealing ‘crime benefits’
•    removing conditions that create confusion about required norms of behaviour.”

One would expect little debate over these objectives, and they should in my view inform the design process. The design principles are also unlikely to spark debate:

“There are four principles that need to be used in the assessment of development applications to minimise the opportunity for crime:
•    surveillance
•    access control
•    territorial reinforcement
•    space management.”

The detailed recommendations of these principles introduce the process of design and a more subjective assessment of how well a particular design or environment achieves these objectives:

The attractiveness of crime targets can be reduced by providing opportunities for effective surveillance, both natural and technical.
Good surveillance means that people can see what others are doing. People feel safe in public areas when they can easily see and interact with others. Would be offenders are often deterred from committing crime in areas with high levels of surveillance. From a design perspective, ‘deterrence’ can be achieved by:

•    clear sightlines between public and private places
•    effective lighting of public places
•    landscaping that makes places attractive, but does not provide offenders with a place to hide or entrap victims.

Access Control
Effective access control can be achieved by creating:
•    landscapes and physical locations that channel and group pedestrians into target areas
•    public spaces which attract, rather than discourage people from gathering
•    restricted access to internal areas or high-risk areas (like car-parks or other rarely visited areas). This is often achieved through the use of physical barriers.

Territorial reinforcement
Territorial reinforcement can be achieved through:
•    design that encourages people to gather in public space and to feel some responsibility for its use and condition
•    design with clear transitions and boundaries between public and private space
•    clear design cues on who is to use space and what it is to be used for. Care is needed to ensure that territorial reinforcement is not achieved by making public spaces private spaces, through gates and enclosures.” (DUAP 2001)

I would argue that even these recommendations in themselves are not unreasonable – indeed that they are generally appropriate – but they require a degree of both common sense and an informed capacity to assess whether a physical design will achieve each stated objective.

For example, ‘clear sight lines’ do not require an absence of any suggestion of a screen – in fact such an absence of contextual design cues would work counter to the objectives of ‘territorial enforcement’. Effective lighting may be low level lighting or motion sensor operated lighting – but should always be low glare lighting. Context is critical to assessing the performance of a design in meeting these criteria.

In undertaking the Callaghan landscape design work, our design team adopted standard lighting fittings which were erected on tall (minimum of 3m high) poles, with lighting directed only downwards and with minimum glare to the pedestrian. Specific selected pathways were nominated as ‘lighted pathways’ and were recommended routes for use later at night.

This concentrated pedestrians on a limited number of busier routes, which benefitted not only from higher levels of Security operation, but also natural surveillance brought about by greater pedestrian concentrations. Brochures promoting the use of this limited number of ‘lighted pathways’ were widely distributed and information made available on the web. Strategically placed signage was used to indicate that very secluded, long pathways, such as the path through the Nature Reserve between the Chancellery and the Shortland Union should not be used late at night, and pedestrians were directed alternatively to busier paths.

Landscaping close to pathways around the campus was kept relatively open, with sharp foliage such as spiky Grevillea shrubs and Lomandras used to discourage pedestrians wandering off the pathways, and with essentially very little mid-height foliage cover in areas which would be attractive to ‘predators’ to hide. However in order to channel pedestrians into target areas and to actually avoid providing potential offenders hiding spaces or areas likely to entrap victims, it is in some locations entirely appropriate to provide dense planting – generally the denser and more inhospitable (because of sharp leaves and flowers) the better – provided this does not unreasonably obstruct sight lines and unduly hinder natural surveillance.
Some Security staff also strongly resisted the initiatives to provide traffic calming to the campus roads via a means of measures, and to restrict vehicles (except emergency vehicles) from accessing some pedestrian precincts. I believe this resistance arose more from lazy and entrenched, outdated work practices rather than with the efficacy of the changes. Traffic calming operates on the psychology of making conditions uncomfortable for drivers to travel at speed in an area. This can be achieved by a means of devices – from severe to mild in their impact. For example in some of the streets of Neutral Bay in Sydney which were dangerous because of speeding drivers, the local authority many years ago installed single lane ‘chicanes’ in an otherwise wide street, which force vehicles to meet head on (in which case one defers to the other). This is a fairly drastic form of traffic calming – but it has been effective on these public roads for many years.

The devices we applied at Callaghan were much less severe by comparison – but they none the less gave an impression to the driver that driving fast was not safe. This was achieved by such devices as narrowing access roads in car parks, and providing low planting (while being very mindful of driver sight lines) which made driving quickly feel uncomfortable. Similarly, speed humps were introduced around the ring road, and various other areas where vehicle speed was a danger.

Some Security personnel saw all of the traffic calming devices as a hindrance to their easy navigation by vehicle around the campus, and in spite of the demonstrated calming effect on drivers generally, the measures remained an annoyance about which some individuals regularly complained.
Areas designated as being for pedestrian use only were fitted with robust lockable bollards which were virtually impossible to remove without a unique key – held only by the landscape manager and Security staff. In spite of this limited access, quite a few of the bollards frequently went missing, with a number being found later rusting away in sediment ponds when these were accessed to remove silt.
Although they were increasingly in the minority, a few ‘monarchists’ continued occasionally to come up with so-called reasons for containing or limiting the use of native plants and the application of Landsoft. One such ‘reason’ that was produced from time to time was that the Asian students were fearful of the Australian fauna, including spiders and snakes. While both spiders and snakes certainly exist on the campus, it is doubtful that anything short of clearing the entire site would have a significant impact upon their population. But more to the point, what basis was there for this claim?

When PPE staff investigated the matter with NUSA and with a cross section of international students that we interacted with, there was a somewhat surprising response. Not only were we unable to find a single student of Asian origin who expressed a particular fear of the ‘creepy crawlies’ in the bush, but a number of people were quite angry that the native landscape may be removed or controlled on the basis of such a claim – which they saw as being both inaccurate and culturally offensive.
The late Emeritus Professor Godfrey Tanner, was a respected and long standing member of academic staff at the UoN. He was also recognised as a character and an influential leader, so it was a matter of some concern to us when in the early days of our removing ‘mown weeds’ he expressed his dislike at what was being done. Godfrey had spent quite some time undertaking post-graduate studies at Oxford, and it appeared that he too harboured a vision of a university as being set in rolling green lawns.

Ultimately though, when he came to understand the reasoning behind the changes, and as the native grasses softened the initial visual impact of the mulched mounds and swales, Godfrey became an enthusiastic and vocal supporter of the initiative. Godfrey’s advocacy corresponded with a widespread embracing of the bushland campus across much of the university community, which was followed by a range of external awards for landscape design and environmental management.[6]

[1] This mulch was obtained from highway construction contractors, and had been ‘rumbled’ including some rootstock and attached soil, as well as eucalypt leaves and small branches. This is a very different material from wood chip, which tends to leach nutrient from the soil.
[2] Virocells are very small tubes in which seedlings are sold and transported. These were purchased in bulk for as little as 7c per plant, and were found to adapt quickly to their new environment. Native plants used in this way were found to have reached a similar size after approximately 18 months to advanced plants planted at the same time. These immature virocell plants actually performed better in the longer term than the much more expensive advanced alternative, presumably because of their capacity to adapt to conditions at a very early stage in their lifecycle.
[3] Regular – generally annual – assessments of the bush fire risk existing at the Callaghan campus were commissioned by the NSW Fire Brigade, who allocated one of their most senior Sydney based officers to this assessment. This risk was consistently assessed ‘on the ground’ as being ‘low’ – primarily because the campus was not in close proximity to other larger heavily wooded areas. Also acknowledged in this assessment was the contribution to this risk reduction that arose from the use in landscaping of more fire resistant riparian species combined with the deepening and greater hydration of the topsoils. The experts also advised on risk management measures for the site, with very occasional fuel reduction in some remote areas being really the only intervention suggested. Deliberately lit fires were not an uncommon occurrence on the campus during the summer period – generally thought be the result of mischievous children playing. One summer, four separate fires occurred during the holiday period, and in spite of high fire danger conditions prevailing (high temperatures and strong dry winds) none of these fires was ever at risk of causing property damage and each was readily managed.
[4] Landscaped areas, pedestrian routes and buildings were designed to a brief which included Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design and Safer by Design principles. This is discussed later in this Chapter.
[5] Alfred Sharp award 1997
[6] Landscape and Catchment Awards:
GP Building Courtyard :
1997 – Lower Hunter Civic Design Awards:         Alfred Sharp Award – For excellence in the Design of a Development incorporating Urban Design and Landscape
1997 – Newcastle City Council Environmental Achievement Awards: Encouragement Award –
Public/Private Enterprise Site Enchantment Category (whole of campus)
The University of Newcastle Sports and Aquatic Centre:
1997 – Newcastle City Council Environmental Achievement Awards: Winner – Public /Private Enterprise
Site Enhancement – Landscape treatment and innovative water catchment management system surrounding the Sports and Aquatic Centre.

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