Sunday, 18 September 2011

Planning for people: Christmas Lights in Freo

Christmas is a magical time of year. I'm a sucker for trees and lights and decorations, hymns and carols, ham and cherries, hanging out with family and giving presents. Christmas is about to become even more special for my wife and I, because our baby is due on Christmas Day ("You can't argue with me - I'm carrying the next messiah," my wife has become fond of telling me).

Why doesn't Freo have better Christmas lights?

Christmas lights in Paris
(and my wife, all rugged up)
As regular readers will know, I recently served on the City of Fremantle South Terrace Working Group. One of the initiatives that was mooted during a meeting was putting up Christmas lights in the city centre - the sort of display one sees in most great cities, big and small, that have children and adults alike flocking to the streets to soak up some Christmas atmosphere.

It was a short discussion (and that's using the loosest possible definition of the word). "Can't do it." I was flatly informed. "It would ruin the sight lines down South Terrace, and that's an important heritage feature."

This struck me as absurd for a number of reasons, not least because I dispute whether or not South Terrace can be said to possess heritage sight lines of such purity that temporary Christmas lights will ruin them, when fleets of cars and traffic lights are its most obvious visual feature.

And, I might add, when I consulted John Dowson's excellent photographic book 'Old Fremantle', what did I see strung across the street but a significant volume of wires? Page 185 or pages 9 and 23-26 of 'Old Fremantle Childhood' for anyone who wants to look for themselves. Not heritage, indeed.

Planning for people

But no, it was a bigger issue that left me with an uneasy feeling after that particular meeting. Who is being served with an attitude like that? Certainly not residents, nor traders. In fact, it seems that the City of Fremantle is subordinating the interests of its community for the sake of a vague, intangible and much contested abstraction.

I have a serious objection to any argument or organisation that serves an idea over the best interests of people. Broken down to its most elemental purpose, what is - or rather, what should be - the function of any local government? Surely it's to serve the community and their best interests. And yet, Fremantle people are denied a Christmas lights display because of the City's intractable, illogical championing of the cause of heritage over the interests of the very people who fund its existence.

What would a Christmas lights display bring to Fremantle? Pleasure for Fremantle families? It's hard to imagine otherwise. An increased number of visitors and associated benefits for traders? Almost certainly.

Experts at saying no

Let me be clear that I treasure Fremantle's unique character and am a keen supporter of heritage - however, to me this issue has nothing to do with heritage. The argument put forward to me at the working group meeting was singularly unconvincing, even more so once I did some basic research, but it had the effect of shutting down any discussion on the subject. The City of Fremantle has become expert at finding ways and reasons to say no.

Fremantle people might remember that there were Christmas lights in South Terrace last year. For that, we have our traders to thank - specifically, Ivan Dzeba of Benny's, also a candidate for the city ward. (Technically that does make him my rival, but Ivan's work for Freo has my admiration and respect.) Freo's traders were the ones who organised and forked out the money for those lights, and persuaded Council to match their contribution.

My lightbulb moment

I don't want to have to travel to Perth City for my daughter to be able to share in the glory of Christmas lights. Our public spaces can be made much better, and to me what should be at the heart of any improvements - the core consideration - is the people of Fremantle. I respect community wisdom; people don't have to be trained in design to know intuitively where they will spend time and where they won't. As a Councillor I will leave my ego behind and help communities achieve their goals.

And just imagine what might be possible if the City learnt how to say 'yes'?


  1. Hi Michael. There are many good reasons to have Christmas lights in Freo. Any excuses to the contrary are simply a copout. It's fairly easy to turn the "heritage" argument on its head and use heritage as a reason to light up the city! Christmas lights could be used to highlight our otherwise dimly lit heritage facades. I think you'll find that the council can't justify the expense because they can't see the economic value in doing so. Lighting Freo up for Christmas would be a great economic drawcard for Freo business, particularly those oeprating at nighttime. And given Freo's many artisans, I reeckon we could do something fairly original as well. We could involve local schools to come up with novel designs (non-flammable!). The options are endless and often not that expensive if we dip into the pool of talent in our community. Cheers, Lloyd

  2. Saying NO has become a habit at the City of Fremantle. The heritage argument is stupid, when the city is going to put projections on heritage buildings in High Street for the Freo Festival. Purist could claim that interferes with the identity of the building.

    I could imagine lovely small Christmas lights all over the facade of the Kulcha building. It would enhance it's beauty.

    Roel Loopers

  3. Thanks, Lloyd and Roel.  I was very interested to hear your thoughts on this, and I'm glad we're on the same page.  

  4. Hey Michael,
    I think it would be great for Fremantle to have christmas lights. Good idea.