Battery Point walkway

Battery Point walkway

Controversy has swirled around the proposed Battery Point Walkway for more than ten years. In that time there have been flurries of contentious debate in the media, the Hobart City Council and community organisations. Public opinion has been tested, consultants hired, and engineering plans drafted. Two strips of land between high and low water marks have been acquired to facilitate future development.

There was an important step forward late last year. The City Council decided to launch a development application for stage one of a dual pedestrian and cycle path way to be built off-shore between Marieville Esplanade and the Battery Point slip yards, leaving for future consideration the even more contentious section from there to Castray Esplanade. There has been opposition from home owners living in the two streets which overlook the stretches of coastline in contention.

Localised opposition notwithstanding, broader support for the project has increased with the passage of time. Many developments over the last ten years have boosted the campaign. Modern urban planning puts much greater emphasis on the need to facilitate both walking and cycling, and it is significant that Bicycle Tasmania has become one of the most active proponents of the project.

The growth in the popularity of walking and jogging, and their acknowledged contribution to public health and well-being, add to the momentum behind demands for greater public access to the Derwent’s western foreshore. And it is that question of who should control access to the shore which lends deeper significance to the ongoing controversy.

Opponents of the walkway have frequently held heritage values aloft in their rearguard campaign. But in doing so, they betray a misunderstanding of both heritage and the history of their own neighbourhood. As will be apparent to even the casual visitor, Battery Point is one of the earliest of Hobart’s suburbs that was well established and closely settled before 1850.

Like many early 19th century suburbs, “the Point” had a mixed population but most residents were poor wage earners. There was no public transport, and people’s horizons were limited by their ability to visit those features of the city within reasonable walking distance. And here the local coastline was of great importance. Access to the north was precluded by the busy port, and to the south towards Sandy Bay by the crowded ship yards.

I have scrambled along the rocky foreshore with my dad, Battery Point resident and Tasmanian historian. He tells me the coastline was an essential part of local life for fishing, gathering shell fish, swimming and rambling. The Point’s poor people were accessing their shoreline long before any of the existing houses were built and generations before the newest recent buildings. And they continued to do so until trams, and then cars, enabled them to venture farther afield.

This is the heritage that holds the greatest value because it is about people, and is an intrinsic part of the rich local history. It is generations of local people who made the community, not just buildings and streetscapes. It is by no means clear that opponents of the walkway understand this, and seem to be oblivious to the fact that they are pushing against the great hidden power of history.

Such historic usage should not be dismissed lightly, even when pitted against the undoubted rights of the local land owners. Customary usage cannot be simply set aside, and in Britain would certainly have the protection of the common law. But it is not history alone that plays against the opponents of the walk way.

Demography defies them as well. The essential nature of Battery Point, as with other historic inner-city suburbs, is that life unfolds close to other people, in proximity to neighbours and always within earshot of pedestrians passing in the street. The great security of the suburb comes from always being near other people – not by trying to avoid them with high fences, elaborate electronic security systems, and campaigns to prevent access to the local shoreline.

And here an even more significant question is at stake. One of the most important customs that has helped shape Australia’s democratic society is the almost universal access to the shore and to beaches in particular. Anyone can enjoy the beach, regardless of their place in society or their circumstances. There is no entry fee as in many other parts of the world. What a difference that has made over the generations.

Owners of beachside properties have, sometimes grudgingly, come to accept their circumstances regardless of the size of their houses or the bulk of their bank balances. And we have all benefitted by that situation, as will the whole of the Hobart community when it becomes possible to walk and cycle along the shore from Taroona to the inner city.