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May 11, 2021

The city council is seeking World Heritage status for Adelaide’s Parklands and city plan

Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor says the living story of colonial settlement told by Adelaide’s green belt and gridded layout is worthy of “global recognition".

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  • Words and pictures: Angela Skujins
  • Above: Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor standing with Colonel William Light's 1837 Adelaide Plan

For over three years, the City of Adelaide has been building a case for Colonel Light’s city plan – the tidily aligned blocks encircled by a ring of parklands – to receive a lauded UNESCO World Heritage listing.

To make it onto the World Heritage List, according to the official UNESCO website, the natural or cultural site must have “outstanding universal value” and “be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.”

Of the 1007 places already registered, some of the most well-known include Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, India’s Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon in the US.

Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor believes the city of Adelaide is also worthy of the title.

“The Parklands are extraordinary and this really is about how you bring it to people’s attention,” the Lord Mayor tells CityMag from within Town Hall.

“You can still see it… the urban colonisation.”

The city’s World Heritage bid began at the end of 2018, when councillors voted to support the exploration of getting the city on the list.

A 2020 report recently presented to council found there’s “substantial potential” for the Parklands and city layout to be included as a cultural site – but only if it combined its bid with the simultaneous World Heritage List effort occurring in the Mount Lofty Ranges.

The Mount Lofty Ranges bid started in 2013, with Adelaide Hills Council pitching that it’s worthy “for its working agricultural landscape and historic settlements on the basis of its unique history and continuing culture and practice.”

“It’s just such a big story [and] such a great narrative when you look at it together,” the Lord Mayor says of the now combined effort.

But these aren’t South Australia’s only World Heritage applications. A third bid in the Flinders Ranges has been officially endorsed by the State Government.

Premier Steven Marshall said the Flinders Ranges nomination is about recognising the superb natural site, as it uniquely documents the rise of animal life with 550-million-year-old fossil beds.

“No other site can directly link the interaction between changing climates and environments with the evolution of animal life, for such a continuous period,” he said in a statement.

There’s been conversations around Adelaide that we haven’t got an icon, we haven’t got a Sydney Harbour Bridge. I started saying years ago ‘We’ve got the Parklands. They are extraordinary.’
— Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor.

Another copy of the City of Adelaide Plan


At a time when it seems every council is proposing something within its boundaries to be of “outstanding universal value”, we ask the Lord Mayor what makes our CBD so special.

She says it’s because Colonel William Light’s city plan is “largely intact” and the city operates as a walk-through museum.

She admits that if we win the listing, they’ll have to “crank-up” the storytelling.

The Lord Mayor says Light’s plan also acknowledges the original owners of the land.

“When Colonel Light put the plan together, he looked at some of what the Kaurna communities, the Aboriginal communities, were doing and how they used the land,” she says.

“I’ve heard various stories…. But what we need to do is put the data and facts behind the stories to make sure we get it right.”

The Adelaide Parklands were considered integral to Colonel William Light’s 1837 City Plan


The report examining the potential for a World Heritage List bid also mentions there is evidence the original Adelaide Plan was regarded as a precursor to the Garden City movement – a late 19th century civic design planning theory that places urban development in close proximity to a wide rural belt.

But this fact alone doesn’t guarantee ‘outstanding universal value’.

The report argues the Wakefield model of systematic colonisation, Light’s gridded city plan, and the encircling parklands represent progressive colonial town planning and are the most convincing arguments.

If the City of Adelaide’s bid is successful, the Parklands would then be bound by the 1972 World Heritage Convention, which states that once a site is listed, the country in which it’s located must pledge to conserve it.

The Lord Mayor tells CityMag this pledge wouldn’t hamper the council’s development plans.

“The World Heritage bid doesn’t stop or change the development plans that we have in place,” she says.

This comes at a time when fears of corporate bodies moving onto public land have been rife at Town Hall, with the Adelaide Crows’ controversial attempt to knock down and replace the Parkland’s Aquatic Centre in 2019 acting as a springboard for discussion.

The Lord Mayor says the World Heritage listing bid must be supported by State Government, so it may not be until 2022 before a formal bid is lodged.

“There’s been conversations around Adelaide that we haven’t got an icon, we haven’t got a Sydney Harbour Bridge,” she says.

“And I started saying years ago, ‘We’ve got the Parklands. They are extraordinary.’”

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