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Public-private charity: playground breaks ground

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For a city not known for its hometown pride, Canberra’s centenary last year inspired plenty of spirit. Plans for commemorative projects were hatched all over the ACT, from the obligatory cocktail, local wine blends and printed tea towels to the extravagant yet oddly enchanting beast that is the Skywhale.

The desire to mark the occasion was shared by Natalie Howson, director-general of the ACT Community Services Directorate, who thought local and federal public servants should chip in and get Canberra something nice.

“I asked my staff for ideas about what sort of gift they thought would be appropriate, and it was actually one of my colleagues who came up with the idea of an all-abilities children’s playground, where children with any disability can play on the same equipment as all other children,” she told The Mandarin. “And that really resonated with my department, because we work in community services and support people with disabilities.”

It was apparent this was a rather large undertaking, but they were undaunted. “We thought that if we could actually mobilise the interest of all the public servants that live here in Canberra, we would be able to deliver it,” Howson said.

This October, the first stage of the Boundless, The Centenary of Canberra National Playground opened on a prime lakeside spot surrounded by mature gum trees and overlooking the Carillon. Just last week it was filled with kids from Cranleigh Primary School, who have developmental delays, autism or intellectual disabilities, and were invited to come and play with students from a nearby mainstream school.

“It was a facilitated opportunity for able-bodied children and disabled children to come together and just play together, which is terrific, and we’ll be more doing things like that throughout the year,” Howson explained.

IMG_3128[1]The idea was to give local public servants an opportunity to contribute something to the community as volunteers, not government employees, although the involvement of senior bureaucrats clearly tapped into high-level networks, opened doors and drew rapid support from high places. According to Howson, it was also about showing public servants as more than just “salaried employees”.

“Almost to a person, the people I work with work in the public service because they are committed to making their community better … I have people donate all the time for different things and they volunteer for a plethora of causes. This was just another way of saying ‘this is who we are’,” she said.

Other supporters from the private and not-for-profit sectors joined the project, planning meetings were held, strategies defined, risks identified and potential governance structures debated. An incorporated association was formed, with a diverse and very influential group of Canberrans appointed to its board, including Howson as secretary.

“We’ve been very active in engaging public servants through workplace giving schemes,” she explained. “We’ve had excellent support from the senior levels of the Australian public service, who assisted us to promote it through their departments. For example, [Department of Finance secretary] Jane Halton led out a lake walk, which was a major fundraiser last year involving public servants. [Former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary] Ian Watt got behind it, and we had lots of departments involving their staff clubs in fundraising for Boundless, so it’s been a really successful year.” Hundreds of hours of time were also donated to the project by public servants, but what started out as a gift from them was soon far more than that.

Bruce Papps
Bruce Papps

According to Boundless treasurer Bruce Papps, the local assurance partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, it quickly became apparent the project was so big it wouldn’t be finished during the centenary year, as originally planned, and that fundraising would need to go beyond workplace giving schemes in government offices.

“It was always Natalie’s idea that it would be a gift from the Commonwealth and ACT public services, to the Canberra community, and that ideal has stuck firm all the way through, but I think what immediately became obvious was we needed businesses to be involved as well … We needed business on the board. We needed business to help construct the playground as well,” he told The Mandarin.

The full Boundless playground plan. Click for larger image.
The full Boundless playground plan (click for a larger image)

Donations from construction sector, government

Canberra’s construction sector has so far provided almost $1 million worth of pro bono work, according to Howson, and donations from workplace teams, school kids, companies, community groups and individuals now total about $580,000. “We’re out now hunting for some more sponsorship and we’re got plenty of ideas on the things that we want to do and as soon as we’ve got some more money under our belt, we’ll get on and get them done,” she added. Boundless also received a $50,000 grant from the Centenary organisers, free land from the Commonwealth, and an unbeatable deal on a $2.5 million loan from the ACT government.

Stages two and three will make Boundless one of the biggest and most advanced playgrounds around, and plans are underway to establish a group of volunteers to assist parents and run various activities throughout the year, especially during the school holidays. All along, the play equipment and its vitally important surrounding facilities have been designed in consultation with people with disabilities, their families and carers, and advocacy groups, according to Howson.

“For example, there’s a fully accessible toilet facility there and it was really important that it was inside the fenced area, and that it was able to accommodate older children, not just babies. And that makes all the difference for families and carers that are looking after kids with a disability, that they’ve got the right facilities to know they can go to a place and stay there for a couple of hours quite comfortably,” she said.

“We’ve also got an area for reflection. There was one set of inputs that came in from parents, where often children with a disability die at a young age and they wanted to have somewhere they could go and enjoy the memories of that child in a place that was happy, as well as reflective, so there’s space for that. And again, it’s a great environment for that because the views across the lake are beautiful, and you can just imagine sitting there, looking out across the Brindabellas and in the background you can hear children playing. It would be a very positive, and therapeutic place.

“And then, we’ve also worked with our therapists here in Therapy ACT, looking at it through the lens of [how] children with disabilities need to optimise their physical capabilities and their social capabilities. Therapists set tasks for these children to complete throughout the week within their home environment, and they also need to do therapy in the more clinical environment, so what they’re looking to do is build the Boundless playground into that therapy program, so it’s more fun; it’s just play, and at the same time, the kids are getting a lot of benefits.”

Papps says the playground’s usage has exceeded expectations, and it certainly was busy when The Mandarin wandered past for a look on a weekday morning. That the National Capital Authority offered a prestigious patch of the Parliamentary Triangle, where it strictly manages development on behalf of all Australians, is one measure of the support the project has received from all quarters. Papps describes the board’s reaction to the offer as “wow” and Howson says that once the NCA came to the table it was clear they were “on to something”.

While the federal authority was looking into ways to increase the area’s “recreational utility” —  a planned kiosk is of particular interest — she agrees it was “a big step” for it to get on board with a not for-profit organisation. “[Former NCA chief executive Gary Rake] is very community minded himself and he could see what we were on about,” said Howson. “I think for everybody, it took a little bit of courage to step into a space that’s not that familiar, but you know, you can do it, and it can deliver great things.”

L-R: Boundless chair and ACT Land Development Agency chair Ross Barrett, former chief minister Katy Gallagher, landscape architect Deb Matthews, and Boundless secretary Natalie Howson.
(left to right) Boundless chair Ross Barrett, former chief minister Katy Gallagher, landscape architect Deb Matthews and Boundless secretary Natalie Howson

The location among the showpiece national icons around Lake Burley Griffin also adds to the symbolism of the inclusive playground, as an example of where universal design principles are front and centre. “Unfortunately,” as Howson put it, “more often than not, people with a disability and facilities for them are on the fringe.” She also hopes Boundless will help Canberra raise a generation of ability-blind children, who don’t focus on the differences that separate them from each other. From the parents, some of whom have children of varying ability levels, it’s a big thumbs up so far.

“The feedback we’ve been having from families with children with disabilities is that they feel for the first time they’re in a place where they can sit down on a park bench with all the other families,” she said. “They’ve got a safe environment for their children to play in, and if they’ve got siblings, they can all play in the same playground. The child with a disability doesn’t have to sit at the side and watch.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.