One hundred years ago Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony stood on the banks of the mighty Molonglo River. As city designers they were tasked in creating a capital carved from a sheep paddock. The vista before them had felt the impact of the human hand with the hilltops having been cleared by pastoralists seeking fodder for ravenous stock.
For a grand city to evolve it would require a municipal landscape of regal proportion, a majestic backdrop of picturesque hills. Unperturbed by past practices they set about fashioning a vision by painting the hills with bright vibrant natural colour.
Turning to the inaugural officer-in-charge of afforestation Charles Weston, an ambitious seed of an idea was planted. As a nurseryman of considerable foresight Weston and his hardy gang were up to the challenge of taming a harsh environment. In 1917 a shovel was driven into the soil on a ridge upon a small hill. When completed, over 4000 Crimson Bottlebrushes, native Rosemary Grevilleas and stunning Darling Peas were planted. In time this nondescript little hill would become better known by its new name, Red Hill.
As if to speak from the past, most of these historic plantings remain and form a blooming mass of red floral splendor each spring. This is truly a remarkable landscape given the ravages of time, the periodic impact of bushfires, grazing cattle and foraging feral rabbits.
The intrinsic cultural values of these plantings are reflected in their nomination to the ACT Heritage Register as the earliest known plantings in Australia for landscape restoration. An innovative environmental approach in addressing land degradation, this technique would eventually be seen as mainstream some 50 years later. These plantings serve as historic markers as to the leading role conservationists have played in enhancing our native woodlands over time.
The Griffins’ respect towards nature informed their planning of the bush capital as an inspiring city designed to complement the landscape.
While remaining unrealised their dream to paint Black Mountain pink, Mt Ainslie yellow and Mt Pleasant purple, Griffin’s environmental insights serve as a poignant reminder of the role of the visionary planners who put the red in Red Hill.
One hundred years on their enduring legacy will be celebrated when the Red Hill Regenerators join our Rangers to pause and reflect on the foresight shown.
This Friday we will celebrate the centenary of these historical plantings with poetry reading, reflective speeches and a ceremonial watering of the original plants.
Brett McNamara is with ACT Parks & Conservation Service.