Barangaroo Reserve revisited

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Barangaroo Reserve, Sydney, September 2015

I visited the Barangaroo Reserve in the heart of Sydney with friends just after it was officially opened in 2015. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing this beautifully landscaped park that day, and fervently hoped that it would be maintained in a proper manner into the future, not abandoned or looked after in some half-baked fashion as sometimes can happen with such projects. I recently returned to the site and was thrilled with how it has matured over the past four years and heartened to find that the reserve is being maintained superbly.

Part of the sandstone shoreline at Barangaroo Reserve, Sydney, August 2019

Many of us Sydneysiders will recall when this area was a hideous shipping container terminal covered in concrete. Championed by former prime minister Paul Keating, the redevelopment of 6 hectares of the 22-hectare site as a reserve took place from 2012 until 2015, with a design by American landscape architect Peter Walker in association with local partners Johnson Pilton Walker. Using massive amounts of sandstone cut from the site, the original shoreline of the headland was recreated in a series of stepped levels that go down to the water, integrating the harbour into the landscape of the park. Four years on, all sorts of sea creatures are clinging to the sandstone blocks, and they look as if they have been there for ever. Many enormous sandstone blocks are used elsewhere in the reserve, as retaining walls and as seating. This iconic Sydney stone immediately gives the reserve a palpable sense of place.

Fig tree, Barangarioo Reserve, August 2019

An incredible sense of place is also conveyed by the plantings among the gently curving paths on the sloping site, which are entirely native Australian species. Wonderfully, with just a couple of exceptions, the plants comprise 84 different species that grew in around Sydney Harbour's foreshore at the time of European settlement, chosen by horticulturalist and landscape architect Stuart Pittendrigh. These include 14 species of trees, palms and tree ferns; 25 species of groundcovers, vines, grasses and ferns; and 45 species of shrubs, small trees and cycads: providing multiple layers of plantings for the landscape. The total number of plants on the site amounts to 75,000. Some of the trees - figs (Ficus macrophylla and Ficus rubiginosa) and cabbage tree palms (Livistona australis) - were mature specimens when planted, to provide shade from the outset, and some extra figs and gums have been added in since on the Stargazer Lawn area.

Banksia spinulosa, Barangarioo Reserve, August 2019

The reserve provides a unique opportunity for visitors to become familiar with the original ecology of this site and to feel a real sense of what this place was once like. Maturation of the plants over the past four years has really started to give the reserve a sense of timelessness, which will only be enhanced as each year goes by. Shrubs and trees frame stunning views of the harbour with their sculptured branches. In other parts of the reserve, walking along some of the pathways now one can almost lose sight of the city, and feel surrounded by vegetation. Some plants, such as wattle trees, have started to self-seed in the reserve, and birds and animals have begun to appear, attracted by flowers, berries and seeds. Native bees have been introduced to help pollinate the local plant species. There are no permanent cafes or other commercial operations in the reserve (though there are various events held there during the year), which really helps it to retain a serene and peaceful atmosphere!

Trees growing at Barangaroo Reserve, August 2019: same view as photo shown at start of the blog

Acute attention to detail in the growing and transportation of the plants, and in the preparation of the soil for planting, has resulted in an attrition rate of only one percent of specimens. The whole site is thoroughly inspected each month to ascertain what needs to be done, and on my recent visit I saw a number of workers attending to the plants. Recycled water captured on the site is used for irrigation.

Barangarioo Reserve, August 2019

On our recent visit, my friends and I took the opportunity to join one of the Aboriginal Cultural Tours of the reserve. This was a really enjoyable and informative tour, which helped us to understand the importance of this place to Australia's Aboriginal heritage and its significance to the clans of the Eora Nation that once lived where Sydney now stands. We learned about Barangaroo, a proud and powerful Cammeraygal leader of the Eora Nation at the time of the first European settlement of Sydney, after whom the whole precinct has been named. She was, and remains today, an important figure in Aboriginal culture and community.

Acacia longifolia, Barangaroo Reserve, August 2019

As well as identifying a number of the plants that we saw as we walked through the reserve, our tour leader told us much about the uses of these plants within Aboriginal culture. Seeds of various plants such as wattles can be made into flour. Other specimens, such as peppermint gum (Eucalyptus piperita) and pigface (Carprobotus glaucescens) are used for medicinal purposes. Native hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus), she-oaks (Allocasurina littoralis) and some Acacia wood can be carved into implements, other plants provide string and fishing line, and the sap of certain species such as the grass tree (Xanthorrhoea media) can serve as a glue. Leaves of Acacia longifolia can be used in rivers to stun fish temporarily in order to catch them. The foliage of Lomandra longifolia can be woven into baskets and fishing traps. We also had a further glimpse into a profound understanding of the environment with the links between the appearance of particular native flowers with seasonal cycles of resource availability, such as when certain fish are in abundance and when salt-water crabs are laying their eggs. We saw all the plants with totally new eyes and appreciation, and I can thoroughly recommend taking such a tour.

Pandorea pandorana, Barangaroo Reserve, August 2019

Some of the plants that caught my eye during the visit were dainty-flowered twiners such as Pandorea pandorana, Hardenbergia violacea and Clematis aristata; rock orchids (Dendrobium) in bloom; and wattles and banksias. I look forward to seeing the reserve mature and evolve over the coming years and hope to return once the entire foreshore walk is complete.