The Derry / Londonderry Peace Bridge – Lessons for Penrith’s Green Bridge Proposal

Recently I embarked on my first ever trip outside Australia. For people around my age – 40 – it is relatively rare these days to find someone who had never climbed onto the long haul flight and headed off.  It was an ambitious first trip – nearly 4 weeks in England, Ireland and Iceland.  Over the next few weeks, the blog will catalogue the things I observed and liked. It won’t be chronological – more what takes my fancy.

We came back to Australia with a Penrith City Star on our front driveway, complete with articles about people in Penrith objecting to a new pedestrian / cycleway bridge over the Nepean River.  That the former member for Lindsay, Jackie Kelly, is involved is interesting, considering that she lives not far from the proposed bridge.   It comes at the tail end of a long campaign for a bridge that would see people in Penrith and Emu Plains be able to walk and cycle across the river in safety, ease and comfort – something that can’t be done these days with the existing bridges.  The campaign has involved howls of objections, especially from rowing groups, who would experience a change in rowing course along the river, due to the need for pylons.  These same rowing groups cannot afford to use the custom built Penrith Lakes rowing courses built for the Olympics.

The Green Bridge proposal has followed a typical NSW planning process timeline, considering that the original proposal from Penrith City Council was for a bridge with seats and other features that would make the bridge more of a destination for walkers, cyclists and tourists.  The RMS’ proposal to the State Government doesn’t entirely fit with that vision – it provided three options, none of which with seats along the bridge. Two of them dull, conventional walk / cycle bridges that clash with the environment and would encourage just quick movement and probably vandalism of yet another concrete structure.  The third, the only one to make it from the European design group that were consulted by Council, contains some of the original vision, but not all – it doesn’t encourage people to stay and sit on the bridge.  It appears that the desire to bring a bridge in at $20 million has been the overriding desire.

The Hideous Option

The Boring Option

Only Option Close to Original Vision

It has been interesting because the city of Derry (to the British, Londonderry) has gone through this very same process with its Peace Bridge.  Across the River Foyle, £15 million was spent on a bridge that was built between two quite different communities.  On the west side of the Foyle has the city centre, but also an almost entirely Catholic community – including the well known Bogside area, which, amongst other events, experienced Bloody Sunday.  On the east side, the community is roughly 50 / 50 Catholic / Protestant.  There were objections raised, communities questioning whether people from both sides would cross to the other, the cost, the name.  Fortunately for the city, all barriers were overcome and the bridge has been built.

In a city as contested and troubled as Derry / Londonderry has been, such a project has become a symbol of the optimism and the movement of the city to a new era.  It has, for a start, witnessed a large increase of people wishing to cross from the east over to the west, either by walking, running or on cycle.  When I was there near sunset, there was a lot of foot traffic. Our wonderful B and B hosts (from the East Side) also told us about the pride people had for the bridge. We could see why.  The design has helped with the success of the bridge for the community.  Its curve and seats have been crucial for its stunning look and encouragement to sit and enjoy the river and surrounds.

The Curved Peace Bridge

How Derry looks behind the bridge

Also important are the seats – the Peace Bridge has two long seats, ideal for sitting and enjoying the view.  During the day, the view is beautiful too.

One of the seats on the Peace Bridge

The view from one of the seats

And just in case you haven’t realised just how stunning the Peace Bridge really is from the bridge itself …

 

The Peace Bridge is rapidly becoming a tourist attraction by itself – and so it should. Like the city of Derry / Londonderry, it represents how people can rise above adversity and have a new, interesting future. Penrith should learn from Derry’s experience. Rowers should lobby governments to lower the prices at the Penrith Lakes. Local residents should see the wider benefits of opening the river to the community. The RMS and State Government should realise that by spending a touch more money, this 100 + year asset can be so much more than just a way of crossing a river speedily.  Bridges can inspire and act as a magnet to an area.  The Peace Bridge in Derry is one such project.

In Response to Something Wonky…

Last week, Dave Gaukroger was kind enough to ask me to contribute to the What Gets Stuck in my Craw segment on the podcast produced by him and Jeremy Sear, Something Wonky. I took the opportunity to articulate something I have spent two years doing with this blog – what is wrong with the way Western Sydney is represented by politicians and media outlets. This is a response to their comments about my segment. It’s probably a good idea to have a listen to the podcast first.

First, yes, this is The Preston Institute, a completely made up thing done purely to take the piss out of the fact Gerard Henderson has his own Institute to play with. Better still, named after the downmarket street in South Penrith where I was living at the time. It was almost called the Institute of Preston Affairs. But then I would have to accept Micro Brewery money and then wonder why people didn’t believe me when I said I was impartial about micro brews. Why can’t all of us just make stuff up to make ourselves more important? Political commentary would be so much more fun if we all just made up think tanks.

Jeremy Sear then raised a number of points that proved exactly what I said about the way people think of Western Sydney. That the strategists, pollsters, politicians and journalists must have been told by someone that asylum seekers are vitally important to the people of Western Sydney. Yes, focus groups, cold calling people on landlines. The same mindless nonsense that has pigeonholed all of us. Yes, there are a number of people who do think asylum seekers are an important issue – but it’s not the dominant one. What has happened is that journalists and market researchers have hijacked the message and lumped everyone in the dumb bracket. Sear was, by implication, doing a similar thing at the start. He also said that the rest of Australia would have loved the attention paid to the West. Not when that attention was unrelentingly stupid, narrow and infantile. That was precisely the reason I made the podcast.

The whole “western suburbs is obsessed with asylum seekers line” seems to me to be linked in part to one key event and person. David Bradbury – known these days as Commander Bradbury because of his absurd naval visit in the lead up to the 2010 election – made 2010 into asylum seekers on what I believe to be a false premise. He was not seen all that much in his seat of Lindsay since 2007 – Mr. Bradbury is seen by many as a ladder climber, not bobbing up all that much in his seat, instead seeking more and more promotions. He did go back, however, in the lead up to the disastrous 2010 Penrith State By-election, trying to clean up the mess caused by the criminal activities of the previous state member, Karyn Paluzzano. It was an utter disaster for Labor, partially because people don’t like voting more than they have to, partially because Paluzzano committed a crime. Bradbury, having set up mobile offices to listen to people’s concerns, listened to some people who said asylum seekers was an issue. Bingo, he went back to Canberra, said this to people in the party room. Coincidentally (or not, if you really like conspiracy theories), Kevin Rudd was deposed soon after this event.

It was rubbish. If Bradbury was really connected to his seat, he would have known the big issues that face Lindsay. The dire M4. Non – existent public transport for many, scarce privately run buses for some, overcrowded trains for others. Almost uncontrolled urban sprawl which makes dependence on the car obligatory, causing large traffic jams every morning. Disappearance of natural habitats. Things that actually concern the everyday lives of the majority of people. Things too hard for the likes of Bradbury to fix. Instead, it’s asylum seekers. Just as it was for the Land of Dumb Liberals who organised those fake Islam pamphlets to be delivered to the low socio-economic / poorly educted area of North St. Marys. The same party delivered similarly dumb pamphlets – but authorised by them this time – to similarly impoverished South Penrith in 2010, claiming the ALP wanted to have 42 million people living in Australia.

The Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald, commercial TV, the ABC ran with this too because amongst the people who work for them, almost none of them grew up in the west, or even know people in the west. Most of them seem to me to think anywhere west of Leichhardt is too hard to get to, too hard to know. There are others who grew up in the west but so hated it they pretend it never happened (for example, when was the last time anyone saw Bernard Zuel, music writer for the Herald and one time critic for the Penrith Press, review anything in the west? This same westie denial syndrome has occurred for many currently in political parties.) This is why they, like the out of touch Bradbury, have persisted with the stereotypes. Yes, stereotypes are based on a grain of truth, but why is just tacitly accepting them good practice? It’s a bit like me saying Sear’s view isn’t important because he at one time lived (I am making a guess here) in inner city Melbourne and inner city Melbourne people all vote Green, drink single origin coffee, microbrew beer and read Sartre. Why would I bother trying to win Melbourne for the ALP if everyone was like that?

Another point raised was what people in the West listen to and get political messages. Gaukroger got it right when he said people are political disengaged. They are because both major parties ignored the people of the west for so long they just gave up until the late 90s. The danger of being a safe seat in the case of the ALP – very little was done for the west after they got in government in 1995. The Liberals, when they won in 96, happened upon the goldmine of middle class welfare, which made up for more expensive public infrastructure spends. Howard’s mistake was going the step too far and threatening people’s working conditions.

As an aside, I think Abbott, too, would make many mistakes as PM in regards the west, simply because he and his team are in the thrall of neoliberal philosophy, which hasn’t been too kind to the west over the decades. Public infrastructure spends and middle class welfare are an anathema to workplace “flexibility” and public service cuts. Howard knew the west, to an extent, through the unfiltered mouth of Jackie Kelly. Fiona Scott, the Liberal candidate for the same seat, would be a quieter, more polite, more flexible, but less savvy adviser in Abbott’s ear.

The political messages come in a variety of ways. Alan Jones is one, with the older people listening to him. Another is MMM, which is pretty popular with the western suburbs – the non stop blocks of rock is arresting to many a tradie and their wives. A member of the “Grill Team”, Mark Geyer, if he makes political statements, is listened to. So is the newsreader for the breakfast shift, the Sandman, whose conservatism has been pretty consistent for a while – and gets a chance to have a say about politics from time to time in the breakfast shift. I remember getting a call through to his show in 2007, talking about WorkChoices. I was, of course, against it, doing my bit for the union movement. He tried to spar with me, but eventually gave up and went to the next caller.

When Tony Abbott went on the Grill Team in 2010, Mark Geyer asked him one question in regards the people of Western Sydney. It wasn’t asylum seekers. It was transport. Abbott fobbed him off, saying that the Howard Government had built the M7, as if that was enough. (Actually, they only built it in conjuction with the NSW Government and a PPP connection with a private operator, but I digress). It’s always about transport. I think many people of the west might be concerned about the influx of refugees due to the enormous pressures placed by population, not whether they come by boat.

Problem is, however, that a number of people also get their information from the “current affairs” shows. As a teacher, I encounter daily examples of racist, intolerant comments about Muslims and asylum seekers that seems to come direct from current affairs shows or 2GB. Once you confront those positions with facts, attitudes change quickly. This is why I see the culpability of media outlets and politicians in the way they deal with issues. I see the generation created by stupidity and stereotyping.

I think Dave Gaukroger got my points really well. That it’s the way the west is thought of and represented that is the problem, not the amount that is out there. There is such a thing as bad publicity. And the west gets it a lot – and will do so again in 2013. Joe Hildebrand will come out and talk to people in Penrith Plaza or Panthers and make lame jokes about things he saw. He won’t notice any Greens, of course, because they only exist in the inner city on his carefully constructed universe of shit. A rotating roster of journos will come out the next unrepresentative forum organised at Campbelltown Catholic Club or Panthers, see the fruitcakes and wonky types that frequent such events, draw their conclusions and run back to Sydney, celebrating the fact they don’t live “out there”. I can almost hear their catty comments about the traffic, the coffee, the clothes worn by people.

There was also a comment made by Sear about people “always voting for the two major parties”. This was pretty insulting to the Greens, who have made inroads into the vote in Lindsay – but also shows a misunderstanding of how difficult it would be to run an independent campaign in Lindsay, Macquarie and Macarthur. Media outlets are scarce and in any case, less people in those seats are as engaged with reading as much material as those in say, Melbourne, where many more have higher levels of political interest. As a result, the expense needed to run a big campaign by someone outside the major parties would be huge. There would be support for an independent candidate, however. I think if someone like Mark Geyer ever wanted to run as an independent for parliament in Lindsay or Penrith, he would win or get very close. People would be sick enough of the two majors to do that.

I was happy with the way my segment was responded to – I think a lot of pertinent points were raised and discussed. And I don’t do this stuff to have everyone agree with me. I do it to introduce another perspective. Mine is by no means the definitive western suburbs view of things – I would never presume. I would love to see more blogs and commentaries out there. My point is that there isn’t that much done. We see a heap of blogs and opinion pieces focused on Canberra, on the major cities. I have longed to have someone do for the outer suburbs what Tony Martin used to do with the Scrivener’s Fancy – do four good articles each week about issues relating to those areas. A kind of Drum for the outer suburbs. That way, actual issues like CSG, solar panel feed in tariffs, natural habitat depletion and public transport can be discussed and promoted.

This is all I really have ever asked for. That and for someone to destroy all the poker machines at Panthers.