GEOCON High Society Masthead

Beyond the backyard

Emma Macdonald

Most of us have a little patch of garden to call our own, but some create communal commons to celebrate and share in the great outdoors. We go beyond the backyard.

Paul Jurak is better known to a vast number of Canberrans as Kayakcameraman. A plumber by trade who turned to taking photographs of Canberra’s sunrises on his little red kayak as a way to recuperate from cancer, he lives in a quiet Ainslie cul-de-sac.

The father of three sons is a big believer in appreciating the outdoors—hence he will be snapping picturesque vistas before most of us are even close to slamming on the snooze button.

Almost 10 years ago, Paul and his wife Julie, a school teacher, placed the old family trampoline in the middle of the cul de sac. It instantly drew a crowd. And then—because it is the inner north—it disappeared just as quickly. But not to have their spirits dampened, other parents were heartened by the idea. And a neighbouring dad managed to secure an enormous (and theft‑proof) round trampoline, which takes pride of place between the peach trees and the oak.

The quiet plot of land now supports an entire community of kids who visit at all hours of the day. There are the children who live nearby, but also a healthy contingent of visitors, often with parents who take an opportunity to read the paper or even nap in the car while the kids bounce. Mums with toddlers in tow use the tramp in the mid-mornings well before the 3pm post-school rush.

Sunny weekends can often draw 10 or more to the space, where play spills over into impromptu games of soccer, cricket, Frisbee or kite flying. The small circle of families has also been known to throw on a communal meal, everyone bringing a dish into the middle of the cul-de-sac with long tables and a fire pit adding to the atmosphere.


“I love the community we have encouraged here. All the kids are friends and they accept each other for who they are despite different backgrounds and attending different schools,” says Paul.

“Another thing I love is the care that the kids have for their tramp,” he says, noting that it has never been damaged or vandalised.

Sometimes, the parents have been witnessed having a turn. And one beautiful day a bride was professionally snapped full-flight in her gown.

Paul and Julie are believers in children developing their own senses of safety, responsibility and courtesy. There are no nets on the tramp, and in 10 years, not one child has been seriously injured. Kids of all ages manage to get a turn without any incident.

“I guess some may ask about public liability. But I think we are often too precious and negative about outdoor play,” says Paul.

“We need to look at the big picture—what this teaches our children about tolerance and how it allows them to create their own community.”

“Yes, just let the kids play,” says Julie.

“Childhood is over so quickly, I love that my sons have memories of endless weekends bouncing in the sunshine.”

She particularly loves coming outside to find the kids have made up their own games—sometimes involving quite complex rules and strategies.

“Relationships are built out there, creativity is fostered and kids all learn to get along with each other rather than hiding away in their rooms playing computer games.”

Of course, that’s a lot of wear and tear on one old tramp, and the mat was once taken down after a delegation of elders declared it was dangerous. An international hunt for a replacement was undertaken. And in the six cold months it stood as a lonely metal frame, many an enquiry was made about when it would be ready again.

Earlier in the year the new mat was affixed and a celebratory drink was had by the parents as the children literally went wild.

Paul and Julie hope the Ainslie trampoline stands proud, long after their youngest has moved on.

Michael Davison and Christine Gant like to think their “backyard” stretches for kilometres through slopes of pine forest.

They help convene a group of families and mountain bike lovers dedicating their spare hours to the maintenance and restoration of the Majura Pine Trails.

The Majura Pines Trail Alliance came together to deal with the devastation of the popular and historic recreation area caused when the Majura Parkway was constructed through the middle of the pine forest between 2012 and 2014.

More than 150 volunteers—from toddlers to retirees—have contributed in excess of 1000 hours to forging over 20km of mapped and sign-posted trails. These paths are open to all and cater for all levels of ability.

But don’t think the work stops there. There are always new trails to dream up and maintenance is always required. And then there are battles to wage with the ACT Government to stop it clear-felling the area—the latest of which was won earlier in the year.

Michael says the land is precious and a huge community resource. He and his wife Christine take their two youngest children to the trails monthly, if not weekly, to hang out on their bikes, picnic, and take up their tools in trail maintenance.

A key group of devotees keeps the volunteer community together through a Facebook group and most weekends will see small crews of families undertaking some work before they and bust out the mountain bikes.

“I’ve lived in Sydney for 13 years, so I know how lucky we are to have this area so close to home and available to anyone who wants to use it,” says Michael.

Kids can stay in the beginner’s area which is fenced. From the littlies on balance bikes to those who are potential future mountain bike Australian champions, children can pedal around without fear of roads, gutters, pedestrians or any other impediment—save for the odd pine tree root which may need to be circumnavigated.

“It means you can basically let them go—knowing they can’t get too far,” says Michael.

Meanwhile, the serious mountain bikers can get gnarly on the advanced trails which are, according to Michael, world class.

“There is always a great atmosphere and a great community feel when we get down there. Some weekends there could be 40 volunteers lined up and waiting to go.”

On the first Sunday of each month, a group of food forest enthusiasts meander down to a verdant patch of land between the Lyneham Shops and the primary school. Others stride purposefully, kids run, some come with the help of a stick, some come with barrows of tools, pots and plants–“at work” signs go up, tables appear with chairs and colourful rugs on the ground.

The Lyneham Commons is a community-run public food forest in Canberra, which has been growing strong since 2015. While it took almost two years to secure the necessary government approvals, the 3000 square metres of land is now bearing fruit. Sour cherries and mulberries in particular. The land hosts fruit trees, hazelnut trees, aromatic and culinary herbs, berries and vegetables.

Design group convener Sue Peachey said there were around 200 locals involved in the project, from a core team who ensured watering and basic maintenance was kept up, to those who attended special workshops and events.

Anyone can be involved and anyone can taste the produce–one of the founding principles behind the Commons is that it is open to all.

While there was some tree theft earlier on in the project’s establishment, the children who have responded so enthusiastically to the food forest banded together to created artwork for the sign in a workshop with local artist Sarah Rice with financial support from the ACT Government’s Nature Play.

It proudly proclaims “This edible forest garden is a public space that fosters community learning, connection, and wellbeing. We will work with nature over time, to create a bountiful harvest of healthy fruit, nuts, berries and herbs. Guided by permaculture ethics and principles the food forest mimics the processes of a naturally occurring forest to create a stable and resilient ecosystem. Created by the community for the community, the garden is open for all to share. Harvest the food, enjoy the space and come and meet the locals at our next working bee”.

Research shows that kids who plant and care for fruit and vegetables are far more enthusiastic consumers of them, too. Plus the food forest is a great way to get children off screens and outside, interacting and playing in nature.

In any event, the sign seems to have worked. And the food forest has been free from incidents.

For Sue personally, the best part of the commons is the chance it gives her to leave the confines of her own potted herb garden in her courtyard.

“It’s really a diverse group all coming together to create a food forest. It’s quite a different concept in that a food forest is based on perennial plants and works to create a functioning ecosystem where all plants are interconnected and support each other. We are working with natural processes to supply our needs rather than trying to bend nature to our will.

“It is very much about connecting with others. When I spend a day there, I feel more secure in my community, and I have met and spoken and worked with a diverse group of people.”

Enjoying the seasons and new plant life is also good for the soul, says Sue.

“It really gives you hope about humanity.”

Photography: Paul Jurak

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Summer for Summer 2017/18, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author