There is a public forum tonight at Moonee Valley Council, but ‘the Blog’ will only be attending Council meetings (this year). However, I will try to publish something every Tuesday – and today, Petra Stock has written about her five year investigation into the Melbourne Zoo’s campaign for parkland to become car-park-land.
Petra is an environmental engineer with a background in planning approvals for major infrastructure projects, and also a mum who enjoys visiting the Zoo with her kids.
Paving Royal Park for car parks
by Petra Stock
Protecting parkland from becoming car parks ought to be the most basic of environmental causes. After all, Joni Mitchell sang about it back in 1970: “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. Yet decades on, Melbourne’s community still has to fight to protect our green spaces from being paved. It’s particularly perplexing when “they” turns out to be “the world’s leading zoo based conservation organisation”, committed to “the conservation of wild and wild places”.
Zoos Victoria has been campaigning for more car parking since at least 2011, when it investigated three options to accommodate 1,000 additional car spaces – all requiring parkland. These plans came to light during the campaign against the East West Link project. There are signs zoo management continues to pursue a parkland-to-car park agenda.
Melbourne Zoo sits in the middle of heritage-listed Royal Park. The 155 year-old Zoo undoubtedly holds a special place in the hearts of many Melburnians. Central to the Zoo’s charm are its natural surroundings – Royal Park – lending the site particular beauty and a sense of urban sanctuary. With its setting one of the zoo’s defining features, it’s certainly disappointing to see Zoos Victoria eye-off the surrounding parkland as potential car parking to meet its ‘visitor growth’ strategy.
I didn’t set out to spend five years of my life delving into the Zoo’s car parking plans. It all started fairly innocently back in 2013. My friend and I petitioned Zoos Victoria with a fairly straightforward request: that Zoos Victoria seek rigorous assessment of the impact of the proposed East West Link tollway on the Melbourne Zoo. What ultimately set me on the trail was the nonchalant attitude of Zoos Victoria to the multi-billion-dollar construction project happening right outside their front gate.
The Melbourne Zoo was set to be surrounded by the East West Link: the open cut construction of the western tunnel entrance was to be 40m from the zoo’s southern boundary; the project’s major construction worksite operating 24/7 was to be 20m from the northern boundary; a 20m high emissions stack was planned in the vicinity of the Zoo. Yet despite the significant noise, vibration, air pollution and access risks, Zoos Victoria didn’t even make a formal submission to the planning panel. The management told me they accepted the Linking Melbourne Authority’s assertion that there would be “no direct or significant impacts on the zoo or its animals” despite a lack of appropriate assessment or management measures.
Concern about why Zoos Victoria’s acceptance of the East West Link led me to my first Freedom of Information (FOI) request: what internal analysis or work had the zoo undertaken to assess the impacts of the East West Link on the zoo, the animals and its visitors?
In response to my first FOI request, I was shocked to find Zoos Victoria did not appear to have documented assessment or analysis to determine the likely impact on the Melbourne Zoo of the East West Link project. My request did not turn up any internal documentation of impact assessments. I was shocked. Surely the zoo had a responsibility to act in its own interests, to investigate potential impacts from the proposed toll road and seek appropriate management measures?
A further FOI request turned up one possible reason for Zoos Victoria’s approach to the East West Link. Zoos Victoria had met with Linking Melbourne Authority and potential project contractors seeking a “legacy” from the project to “support for a long-term plan to accommodate increased car parking requirements of our visitors of at least 1,000 extra bays”. Further FOIs uncovered plans for a “Melbourne Zoo off ramp” themed with threatened species.
It was little surprise to find the final East West Link design incorporated the zoo’s car park request on grassy piece of parkland between the zoo, the State Netball and Hockey Centre, and the railway line (see below).
However, the Zoo’s lobbying failed to obtain proper planning approval for the car park, when then planning minister, Matthew Guy emphatically ruled out the permanent use of the parkland for car parking.
Royal Park parkland that Zoos Victoria sought to turn into a permanent, multi-level car park
After the East West Link was officially cancelled, I continued to track them first six-monthly, then annually, just to make sure the car park plans were categorically cancelled as well. I took note when the East West Link contract documents were publicly released, particularly that the zoo car park price was not disclosed so as “not to disadvantage parties on future projects” (pg. 293 East West Link contract document “Project Scope and Requirements”). That certainly piqued my interest.
Months passed, and just when I was on the cusp of letting go the issue go, I made one last FOI request in July 2016 specifically regarding car parking expansion proposals, just to be sure. The response in September 2016 was concerning. There were two relevant documents which Zoos Victoria refused access to: a Zoos Victoria submission to government and an Engineers Report. However, a follow up FOI request to Melbourne City Council in December was more fruitful: Zoos Victoria was again after its thousand additional car parking spaces.
Zoos Victoria has clearly not given up on its campaign for more car parking. There are indications of a broader communications plan about zoo car parking, with articles in the Herald Sun (the Zoo’s media partner) and in the June 2017 Zoo News (a publication for zoo members).
Zoo News June 2017
However, there are several claims made by the zoo when it advocates for more car parking that must be challenged:
- The Zoo’s car parking is “limited”
There are more than 2,000 car parks in the vicinity of the Melbourne Zoo. In addition, every grassed area (parkland) adjacent to the zoo is allocated as “overflow” parking.
Comparing Melbourne Zoo’s parking allocation with similar city zoos – Sydney’s Taronga, Adelaide and Perth Zoos – reveals Melbourne Zoo has the largest car parking capacity, the cheapest car parking (at $2 for 5 hours) and the highest proportion of visitors driving.
Furthermore, when I visited the zoo on a Sunday morning at peak time recently, there were several hundred spare spaces available at the State Netball and Hockey Centre next door (see below).
Plenty of spare car parking next door at the State Netball and Hockey Centre
2. The Zoo receives constant complaints from visitors about car parking
I made a specific FOI request to test this claim by Zoos Victoria about visitor complaints. The response turned up six emails over more than 12 month period. That is less than one email every two months!
3. Zoos Victoria has tried to promote public transport
I also made an FOI request to find out what the zoo has done on public transport. The answer: very little. Zoos Victoria’s efforts in relation to public transport appear limited to adding PTV’s Journey Planner onto the zoo website, and decorating a tram with zoo advertising.
There are numerous simple opportunities for improving public transport to the zoo, as outlined by the Public Transport Users Association’s Daniel Bowen in his blog on the subject. And many more creative suggestions from the community every time this issue comes up.
This is only a snapshot of what I’ve learned over five years of following the zoo and its car parking campaign. What has been most astonishing to me has been the secrecy and obfuscation which have characterised the way in which this public organisation with its seemingly green vision, has pursued its dreams to “pave paradise and put up a parking lot”. Don’t it always seem to go…