Ebbs and flows

PAUL GAMBLIN was one of the key players in the Leighton Action Coalition’s extraordinary effort to push the developers back off our beaches 20 years ago. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED has says a new threat’s on the horizon – and he wonders where our park got to.

THE Leighton coast at the crossroads, again

You don’t have to be a surfer, sunset-ogler or dog-walker to feel the almost umbilical bond to our beaches. These wide, natural, public places that form the backdrop to so much of our lives don’t stay healthy and accessible by accident; often it takes communities stepping up repeatedly to protect this heritage.

Threats to our beaches can creep up on us, and we’re about to reach a fork in the road for the Leighton coast, which serves a sandy, devoted constituency from a hundred suburbs.

The McGowan government is poised to make a series of decisions that could either protect and restore the Leighton coast and create an iconic coastal park – a once-in-a-generation, legacy moment – or oversee large parts of the foreshore being smothered under cheek-by-jowl urban development, relegating it to a future of seawalls and shrinking beaches, and sequestering other sections from us for eternity.

Most acutely threatened now is the low-lying Port Beach, effectively the southern end of Leighton Beach, behind which oil tanks and other industrial infrastructure from a bygone era have recently been removed. Things are in flux, which brings danger, and opportunity.

Some development interests will likely ratchet up pressure on the government to wave through multi-storey apartment proposals for this vacated land, encasing much of the southern foreshore in concrete and brick, squeezing out the already minimal dunes, and eventually the beach itself as seas continue their inexorable rise. Any doubts should have been erased by last winter’s storms that carved up these beaches and dunes.

What if we imagined something else: a sustainable coastal park for our growing population, one that would incorporate the latest science on setbacks, enabling nature to restore the foredunes and protect the shifting coast, free of charge?

Rehabilitated dunes

Behind the rehabilitated dunes would be a traffic-calmed coastal track, parking areas, and space for kicking back, music, picnics shaded by local trees. A place for coffee and food trucks to gather on a warm morning or balmy evening. Behind this public arena would be the better place for sympathetic urban development in future, adjacent to the park, and space for a (realigned) road to relieve the beach of through-traffic.

We’ve been here before. Twenty years ago the community had to campaign hard to despatch a previous proposal to build a 17-hectare housing estate at Leighton which would have suffocated much of the foredunes, cycleways and public areas people now flock to.

Off the back of the public groundswell, the Leighton Action Coalition – the community group formed to give voice to the wider community – negotiated successfully for development (limited to four hectares) to be set back much further from the shoreline than the original proposal and to be focussed on the part of Leighton near the North Fremantle train station.

The community also argued for the northern part of Leighton – the old railway marshalling yards (under the pedestrian overpass) – to be zoned for parks and recreation. Successive governments promised to finish the job by transforming that blighted wasteland into a park – which we applauded – but still we wait for action, all the while squeezing into inadequate parking, with families running the gauntlet across the busy road. It’s a park on paper only.

Unlike so much of the world, at Port and Leighton we still have the chance to get it right. A linked-up Leighton coastal park would be a boon for physical and mental health, a magnet for tourists looking for the natural, quintessential beach experience within a stone’s throw of Perth and Fremantle (and the cruise ship terminal). It’s economically prudent: natural beaches are far cheaper than attempts to hold back a rising ocean with seawalls. It’s also our public square, of sorts.  If we give Leighton the love it deserves, it will continue to nourish us in so many ways.

The McGowan government can put its stamp on the Leighton coast for the public good and create a legacy that would pay dividends for generations to come. It really is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Will we take it?

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