Re-Perth: Walking the Capital of Western Australia

Blooms at the Botanic Garden, Perth

Blooms at the Botanic Garden, Perth

Perth WA is a very tidy town.

Back in 2009, we noticed that many small towns announced on their welcome signs that they had won a “Tidy Town” designation. You couldn’t really miss the towns, for the highways passed right through them. As you slowed in stages – 110kph, 90kph, 70kph, 50kph – there was that sign. Over the years, it seemed, most towns in the country gained recognition as “Tidy”. And they really were: clean streets, pleasantly maintained parks, flowering plants along the road and in personal gardens, and fresh paint. We were charmed not just by the result, but by the very Australian decorum of calling them tidy rather than beautiful, inviting or some fancier term.

Skyscraper arises from an older facade

Skyscraper arises from an older facade

We’ve only seen a few such road signs in towns since, but Perth, a metropolitan area of fewer than 2 million, must be among the tidiest. For Perth seems to have been virtually remade in the last decade or so.

A renovated moderne building looks very modern

A renovated moderne building looks very modern

New buildings have sprouted everywhere and even older buildings have been scrubbed and refreshed, with many interiors transformed into newer structures or exteriors retained merely as fronts for entirely new buildings. The only untidy bit comes from the ongoing construction of yet more new things.

No matter what direction you go, the old is renewed and new projects are everywhere. Here’s what we saw as we walked the city.

Crossing to Northbridge from the Perth rail station

Crossing to Northbridge from the Perth rail station

Start with the gleaming central rail station buttressed by historical bridges looking freshly painted. While sleek, silent electric trains glided in and out, workers were carving tunnels for an added rail line as well as updating passageways to the pedestrian mall of Hay Street.

Tunneling new train line in Perth

Tunneling new train line in Perth

When we visited a high school friend of Nancy’s in trendy Subiaco nearby, we were quickly and quietly whisked to its new station.

Directly to the south, a bright green cactus of a sculpture titled “Grow Your Own” – less than two years old and now an informal symbol of the city – marks the entrance to a grand stone plaza. On its perimeter and in perfect harmony with it sits the neo-classical General Post Office building.

Cactus sculpture, "Grow Your Own," on the way to the GPO

Cactus sculpture, “Grow Your Own,” on the way to the GPO

That looks more like a newly made retro structure than one dating from the 1920s. Across from the GPO, is an equally bulky new structure housing fancy restaurants and shops plus, ironically given the cactus’ tribute to the organic food movement, a number of fast food restaurants.

Along the pedestrian streets of Perth

Along the pedestrian streets of Perth

Beyond the GPO to the south are the two pedestrian shopping streets, a hodgepodge of renovated older buildings and arcades alongside newer ones more pedestrian in style. Further south is busy St. Georges Terrace, the corridor of WA power, where sleek corporate buildings and skyscrapers vie for airspace.

Ye olde shopping mall at Perth's London Court

Ye olde shopping mall at Perth’s London Court

Oddly, the oldest looking area around is the block long London Court, an imitation of Tudor England. A narrow lane of half-timbered houses flanked at both ends by tall gates, it turns out to be ye olde open air shopping mall – as clean and neat as Disney would make it.

Further along as you descend to the central waterway of Perth, the broad Swan River, the city turns gracious with wide parkland and gardens following the river’s curves as it wraps around downtown. Bike lanes and walking paths hug the river’s banks. The only discord is a massive construction project called Elizabeth Quay which is turning a several block square esplanade, 25 acres of park, into a host of new residential, commercial and hotel buildings.

The Swan River from the convention center

The Swan River from the convention center

For the public, the development is also creating a rectangular inlet for the river on one side, its very own island in the middle, and more parkland on the other three sides. Near this development sprawls the new convention center, a streamlined and functional building offering conventioneers spectacular vistas of the river.

Nearby upriver, at the bend around East Perth, is a similar 100 acre development that will offer a natural beach front and more public parkland. Northeast of that and across the river will be the new 60,000 seat stadium for sports and entertainment. Elsewhere, you can see the start of two new hospitals and the $1Billion upgrade to airport facilities and access transport. (Sorely needed we found. On the way to our departing flight, it took us a long 45 minutes to go the last few kilometers to the airport along the equivalent of a country road stalled with cross-traffic and stoplights.)

Somehow, despite the rapidity and scale of growth and renewal, we still found the town relaxed in pace and easy to take, perhaps because the planners have kept in mind what makes a city livable. Even in our short stay, we saw the effort to maintain the parks and expand the range of their use, the honoring of the riverbanks through access to them, the priority given to rail and public transport, and the respect for the humble city walker.

Heading over the bridge to the rail station’s north, an area aptly called Northbridge, these qualities were perhaps even more evident.

The new State Theatre in the Perth Cultural Centre

The new State Theatre in the Perth Cultural Centre

There sprawls the Perth Cultural Centre, a blend of eclectic buildings dating from the early 1900s to a couple of years ago and arrayed asymmetrically on a contemporary plaza. The area is an inviting spot of grass, trees, sitting areas and cafes, a small wetlands, as well as an orchard with actual fruit. People strolled there throughout the day or picnicked under the large trees. Eight institutions operate around the plaza including the Western Australian Museum and the Art Gallery of Western Australia (both important collectors for aboriginal culture, the oldest of Australia), the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, the State Theatre Centre and the State Library.

The original complex was created only about fifteen years ago, but the city continues to revamp and invest. The last two years saw the addition of the State Theatre, a large pile of grey and bronze boxes, while the plaza received yet another major “revitalization.” Soon the WA Museum, itself already housed in renovated century old buildings, will be completely rebuilt as well.

Brass Monkey Hotel and bar

Brass Monkey Hotel and bar

The commercial district adjacent to the Cultural Centre retains what passes in Perth for grungy and edgy. The bars and restaurants stretch for blocks in all directions in a hodgepodge of architectural styles and offerings  – from kebab places to fancy restaurants to 24 hour Pho cafes; from the three ornate Edwardian stories of the Brass Monkey Hotel bar to the unassuming storefront of The Court gay bar (“welcome to all!”). Even Perth wants to keep things eclectic and appealing in its diversity.

Not surprisingly though, Northbridge’s streets all seem fresh laid asphalt (or bitumen as it’s known here, accent on the bit-); the curbs, perfectly formed concrete; the crosswalks newly marked or bricked; bright white lines and signs. Modest and tidy bungalows line most of the side streets. Perhaps there’s a downtrodden neighborhood somewhere in the vicinity but we never found it.

Perth’s ever fresh face shines just as brightly in its premier parkland a bit west of the center city, Kings Park and the Botanic Garden. Conjoined in a space larger than New York’s Central Park, they sit high atop the bluffs of the Swan River.

The grassy mesa of Kings Park offers panoramic views of the city and of the Swan as the river curls past downtown and pools together with the Canning River. A huge area restored to native bushland offers hours of opportunity for forest trekking. And then there’s the mainstay of Australian cities, the Botanic Garden.

A grotto in parkland amid the highways

A grotto in parkland amid the highways

Normally you enter these parks from the western end of St. Georges Terrace through a long allee of tall lemon-scented gums. Fortunately for the charm of this boulevard, these stately trees are not new, but date from 1938. Instead, we followed the riverfront amid a confusing group of major roads and highway overpasses (also clean and neat underneath). It’s so Perth, though, that we walked in parkland most of the time, complete with a huge water fountain, a tranquil lake busy with ducks and moorhens, as well as a moody waterfall grotto – all meticulously maintained, with barely a leaf out of place.

Botanic Garden, Perth

Botanic Garden, Perth

We climbed up the steep bluff to the Botanic Garden. Unlike the gardens on the East Coast, this one completely rethought its purpose. Instead of hearkening back to stately English gardens and Victorian origins, the managers chose to assemble a compendium of native plants from each state and from the varied ecologies of Western Australia – all labeled and neatly laid out along winding pathways.

The Swan River and old Brewery from Botanic Garden treetop walk

The Swan River and old Brewery from Botanic Garden treetop walk

And it wouldn’t be Perth without a new structure. Along the tops of skyscraping marri, karri and tingle trees, you can follow a 620 meter steel walkway parallel to the riverfront. Down below, the old Swan Brewery nestles on the banks, yes, completely renovated about a decade ago into restaurant and meeting space, as well as fittingly a microbrewery.

The giant boab tree, age 750, newly moved to Perth

The giant boab tree, age 750, newly moved to Perth

Near the entrance to the walkway, somewhat emblematic of Perth, they’ve replanted a 750 year old giant boab tree. Just five years ago, the 36 ton tree was moved overland from the Kimberleys in the far north corner of Western Australia – a distance of 3200 kilometers. Remarkably, it is thriving in its new spot.

Viewing the city at Kings Park

Viewing the city at Kings Park

Back at Kings Park, we looked at the city skyline across the new highway heading north. One building over on St. Georges Terrace stands out from the others like a large finger, the new home of bhpBilliton (which we keep reading as bhpBillion). The Australian company is one of the world’s largest extractors of commodity minerals, as well as oil and gas. That finger explains why Perth is growing and transforming itself into an ever new city, for Western Australia has prospered with the growth of China. Think Dubai in the outback. The streets of Perth run gold – and copper, iron, silver, uranium.

Mansions on the Swan River

Mansions on the Swan River

The next day we would leave town on the ferry to Fremantle, Perth’s port city. In about an hour, we passed the watery suburbs, with wealthy homes covering the river banks and their equally imposing yachts docked off-shore. We passed the sprawling Mediterranean mansion of Gina Rinehart, one of the top five richest women in the world, whose wealth came from iron-ore mining.

Moving the cargo at Fremantle

Moving the cargo at Fremantle

Then, as we neared the new ferry terminals at Fremantle, mansions gave way to port operations as tugboats wrangled massive container ships, tankers and bulk vessels which were transporting the rich resources of WA elsewhere.

Maybe the resource and money flow in Western Australia will slow in the future. At least Perth knows that now is the time to build. And fortunately, as it remakes itself anew, the city seems to remember one of the oldest virtues a city can have: livability.

(Also, for more pictures from Australia, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the Australia itinerary page.)

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