The Future History of Adelaide: Natural Environs, Green Spaces

Sharon Ede
9 min readJan 13, 2024

This ‘future history’ of Adelaide was based on ‘Los Angeles: A History of the Future’ (1982) by Paul Glover, and is written from the year 2136. It examines how Adelaide became an ‘ecopolis’ — an ecological city — over 150 years, reversing the damage done to the region since European colonisation began in 1836. At the time, there was a proposal for a ‘piece of ecocity’ in Halifax Street, whose features and design principles are referenced as the first fractal of this change. This larger scale proposal did not eventuate, but a smaller scale exemplar, Christie Walk, can be found in the CBD at 105 Sturt Street, Adelaide.

This was written in 1995 at university, as a directed study for history, and reflects my thinking, understanding, available technologies and references at the time. The Ecological Crisis of the 1990s is referred to as ‘EC’ and phrases like ‘200 years EC’ mean 200 years after this Crisis.

Today, almost 150 years EC, it is somewhat easier to envision the Adelaide Plains before the arrival of the Europeans than it was back during the Ecological Crisis of the late 20th century. Many of the original species of vegetation have been replanted in place of imported exotics. Our native birdlife is more abundant. But how peculiar this landscape must have been to those fresh from their long voyage from the other side of the world!

Where Are We?

The Adelaide Plains were originally open, savannah type woodland, the Hills were forested. Kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, wild ducks, emus, cormorants, pelicans and heron all formed part of the population of the Adelaide Plains and the mangroves (Whitelock, 1985a p14). The coastal plains and headlands down to Willunga hosted sheoaks, native pine, tea-tree, native peach, native cherry, peppermint gum and kangaroo bush (Ross, 1984 p13).

The site of Adelaide and to the south was a dense forest of peppermint box trees in 1836. To the west stood blue, red and pink gums, and further to the north grew mallee eucalypts (Whitelock, 1985a pp249–250). Stringybark, casuarina and yacca forests completed the scene to the east, rising into ‘The Tiers’ as the Adelaide Hills were known.

The looming backdrop of the ranges, changing colour from brown to blue to violet as the light changed, from green in winter to tawny in summer, was often praised for its beauty.

(Whitelock, 1985a p249).

But to people whose only experience had been the English countryside, this new land — especially in the middle of the Australian summer — was strange indeed. The light was different, brighter. The sounds and smells were foreign. The immigrants were homesick and many, viewing the land as ugly, set about ‘beautifying’ the land to make it look like home. The anglicising of the Tandanya Bioregion had begun.

Peculiarly Australian

In the summer of 1843, CH Barton mourned the fact that none of the trees, bushes or grasses resembled those of England in the slightest degree, deploring the ‘shrivelled up trees’ with ‘leathery leaves’ that lacked freshness (in Whitelock, 1985a p250). Pike also commented that:

The new land was hard to love, although many praised its evergreen trees and sunshine in an effort to persuade themselves that they really liked the place. Some…carefully tended roses, musk, violets and foxgloves in little gardens to remind them of home.

(in Whitelock, 1985a p251)

Until the late 1800s, gum trees were depicted as European trees in drawings and paintings (Department of Environment & Planning, 1988 p2). One homesick settler wrote a verse which began:

Thou art very fair, my adopted land,
With thy dome of cloudless blue;
And I have found on thy distant strand
Hearts that are warm and true;
But I love thee not with the feelings deep
That I love the Isle where my fathers sleep…

(in Whitelock, 1985a p51)

Not all of the new arrivals were disappointed with their new home. As Derek Whitelock (1985a p251) points out:

To generations of refugees from the grime of Liverpool and London, the sparkling vista of hills, plains and sea were welcome and refreshing. They eased the ache of homesickness.

The ‘founding fathers’ were among those who appreciated the South Australian environment. Light described the Adelaide Hills as ‘enchanted’, and GF Angas marvelled at:

The rich violet of the hills at evening — the intensely deep blue and purple of the distant landscape after sunset — and the pink eastern sky, through which the full moon rises like a silver shield on a bed of roses, are the effects of an atmosphere peculiarly Australian.

(in Whitelock, 1985a, pgs 15, 255)

Whitelock (1985a p248) also points to the Wakefieldian ethos of order, both social and environmental. While the saying ‘if it moves, shoot it; if it stands still, cut it down’ was the ethos of other Australian colonies — and had its share of impact in South Australia — there was also the notion of philanthropy, sentiment, romanticism and scientific interest in the psyche of the South Australian colony. Pioneers like Morphett and Stevenson commented on native flora and fauna, Governors Gawler and Grey were ardent botanists and geographers and officials like Angas, Light and Frome were skilled and sensitive artists.

In spite of such leadership which demonstrated an appreciation of the native environment, the South Australian Acclimatisation Society was formed in 1878. They sought to introduce species which were British in order to make South Australia less of a mystery, less alien and more like ‘home’. The list of introduced species includes: skylarks, thrushes, chaffinches, goldfinches, blackbirds, sparrows, starlings (birds), foxes, rabbits (animals) and Salvation Jane, prickly pear, soursobs, petunias, geraniums (plants) among many others (Whitelock, 1985a p251).

By the early 1900s — perhaps because of the Federation of colonies in 1901 to form the Commonwealth of Australia — these ideas began to change. Kwan (1987 pp121–122) relates how by 1907, South Australian teachers were being encouraged to teach students to appreciate their own country:’ …while we must remember the history of the motherland, we must not neglect the many opportunities to instil in our pupils a love for their own country.’

The celebration of Bird and Arbor Day in 1912, and the poem by Nathan F Spielvogel reflect the change in perceptions:

The oak and the elm are but fair-day friends Our gum stands firm thru’ the winter cold -

That smile when the sky is clear, There’s never a change in him -

But close their eyes when the summer ends, He gives his best like a comrade bold,

And skies and the world grow drear; When the joy of the world grows dim,

(in Kwan, 1987 p122)

These sentiments reflect the change in attitude towards the type of landscape, but the attitude towards the land itself had not yet begun to change. Green, open spaces primarily for human use became a focus, and by 1878 the Mayor’s Annual Report could boast that while London had one acre of park for every 1,400 inhabitants, and New York one for every 820, Sydney’s ratio of 1:190 was outdone by Adelaide’s ratio of one acre of park for every 18 people! (Whitelock, 1985a p185). It was not until the National Park Act of 1891 that South Australia gained its first major park, Belair National Park. This park however, was more of a recreation park than a conservation park (in Whitelock, 1985b p121–124). The Field Naturalists, who were one group of a number advocating parks, were short-changed in their ambitions, because while people’s recreation and enjoyment was desirable, the main objective had been the conservation of native flora and fauna. After the turn of the century, the State government passed more Acts which expanded the area and definition of ‘parks’.

1914 — National Pleasure Resorts Act (Mount Lofty Summit, Waterfall

Gully, Morialta Falls and Hazelwood Park included)

1919 — Flinders Chase, Kangaroo Island declared under the Animals and Birds Protection Act

1941 — Reserves formed on Eyre Peninsula

1945 — Cleland Conservation Park, Wilpena Pound

(in Nance & Speight, 1986 p216)

With affluence, long tenure and familiarity, there developed at last a deep affection for the South Australian environment. The process quickened asthe locally born became a significant proportion of the population.

(Whitelock, 1985b p106)

By 1986, South Australia had set aside 6.82% of the state’s area for various forms of parks and reserves:

Type — Number — Area

National parks — 12 2,634,123 hectares

Conservation parks 184 — 4,049,831 hectares

Recreation parks — 14 — 4,522 hectares

Game reserves — 10 — 22,494 hectares

(in Giplin, 1990 p138)

In spite of all this dedication and work which went into setting aside areas from agriculture, mining and development interests, the very concept of delineating parks and reserves was underpinned by the notion that the environment was ‘out there’, that one had to make a conscious decision to be ‘in’ it. Whitelock (1985b p35) notes that when the choice between settlers’ comfort and convenience and the preservation of wildlife, landscape and wilderness had to be made, ‘…nature invariably came a bruised second.’

As South Australia industrialised under the Playford Government, the environs were increasingly manipulated to provide for economic ends, the most obvious example being the construction of pipelines from Morgan to Whyalla (1944) and later Mannum to Adelaide (1961) (Williams, 1974 p258). The effect on the River Murray of various dams, weirs, locks and diversion for irrigation and water supply was not an issue, despite the enormous impact these decisions had on this environment, which was not considered a ‘natural’ area that should be ‘protected’.

Up until EC, South Australia’s list of environmental faux pas includes the levelling and building on of sand dunes on metropolitan beaches, the gouging of the Hills Face Zone for stone, the destruction of fragile soil and vegetation by overgrazing on pastoral lands, the extinction of several plants and animal species — and tragically the traditional lifestyle of the Kaurna people — the pollution and diversion of lakes and rivers like Lake Bonney in the South East and the River Murray, and the straightening, regulating and burial of Adelaide’s Five Creeks which flow down from the Hills, not to mention turning the mouth of the River Torrens into a drain (Whitelock, 1985a p253, 1985b p8). Thankfully, much of the damage has now been repaired and the land has been rehabilitated as a result of ecological development.

Ribbons of Green

Adelaide City was noted for its ‘green belt’ of parklands which effectively demarcated the city from the suburbs until shortly after EC. Originally, the parklands were 920 hectares, but 230 ha of this area was eroded through various encroachments (Whitelock, 1985a p123). Despite development pressures up to and including EC, the citizens of Adelaide zealously guarded the parklands, and various urban Landcare projects in post-EC years saw great efforts in reestablishing the original vegetation to the point where we now enjoy a genuine bushland setting between the regional centres of Adelaide, while retaining large amounts of land for agricultural and recreational purposes. It is a wonder to us now why people ever bothered throwing endless amounts of water on lawns in a semi-arid environment — and endlessly mowing them — but the garden gnomes had to live somewhere!

While all of this green space requires a lot more maintenance and a lot more bushfire awareness, the gains far outweigh the losses. Our green spaces require little watering, because the indigenous vegetation has evolved with the climate and rainfall levels over millennia; the city is much cooler in summer because our environs do not create the ‘heat islands’ of pre-EC days; our air is cleaner due to the pollutant-filtering qualities of abundant vegetation, and our native fauna feel right at home in and around the city’s ‘ribbons of green’! This is all a far cry from EC days, when it was a rare experience for urban children to even sight a koala in the city!


Department of Environment & Planning (1988) 1988 State of the Environment Report for South Australia. Environment Protection Council for South Australia, Adelaide.

Giplin, Alan (1990) An Australian Dictionary of Environment & Planning. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Kwan, Elizabeth (1987b) Living in South Australia: A Social History (Vol 2: After1914). Government Printer, Netley, SA.

Ross, Betty (Ed) (1984) Aboriginal and Historic Places around Metropolitan Adelaide and the South Coast. Anthropological Society of SA Inc, Moana, Adelaide.

Whitelock, Derek (1985a) Adelaide: a Sense of Difference. Savvas Publishing, Adelaide.

Whitelock, Derek (1985b) Conquest to Conservation. Wakefield Press, Adelaide.

Williams, Michael (1974) The Making of the South Australian Landscape. Academic Press, London.



Sharon Ede

Regenerative Cities Activist | Circular Economy Catalyst | South Australian Government | Award Winning Author | |