Grandson of town planner Gordon Stephenson sets record straight

Grandson of town planner Gordon Stephenson sets record straight
Grandson of town planner Gordon Stephenson sets record straight

POLITICALLY, socially and environmentally divisive, the Perth Freight Link is as provocative a topic as you will find in Perth.

Labelled everything from bad 1950s planning to a road to nowhere and the equivalent of placing a freeway through Kings Park, the project has faced sustained and intense criticism.

For Jon Rose, grandson of Gordon Stephenson, the town planner who co-authored the report proposing Roe Highway, that criticism is personal – and he wants to set the record straight.

“The 1955 Stephenson-Hepburn Plan for the Metropolitan Region has attracted a fair bit of flak over the years and one of the most common misnomers is that Perth is an automobile dependent city because of the plan,” Mr Rose said.

“In fact, the 1955 plan actually proposed a balanced system of passenger and freight railways and highways but the two proposed passenger rail lines to Whitfords and Morley were dropped by the State Government when the Metropolitan Regional Scheme was formally adopted in 1963.”

Mr Rose also maintains his grandfather should be credited with saving rather than contributing to the destruction of the Bibra and North Lake wetlands.

“The 1955 scheme identified Bibra Lake and North Lake, as well as and many other areas including almost the entire Swan and Canning river foreshores, for reservation as regional open space,” Mr Rose said.

“The claims that Roe 8 is destroying wetland are incorrect because in the very same document that proposed the highway it was recommended that Bibra Lake and North Lake be reserved.”

Mr Rose said the Land Use Survey from the 1955 report, and aerial photographs from the early 1950s, reveal a working farm between Bibra Lake and North Lake, in the exact location where Roe 8 crosses between the two.

“Rather than have their land resumed for a regional park as recommended in the 1955 report, an alternative future might have seen the farmers sell to a developer and the whole area between the lakes might have all gone to housing,” he said.

Nearly two decades since Gordon Stephenson’s death, Mr Rose believes his grandfather’s planning legacy continues to be unfairly tarnished by a fundamental misunderstanding of the original intention of the 1955 Stephenson-Hepburn plan.

“Speaking as a family member with absolutely no political interest, I think Gordon has had a very bad wrap in WA, particularly from the political left,” he said.

“It’s very disappointing because my grandfather’s own political leanings were actually socialist.

“One of the fundamentals of his planning design philosophies was the safe separation of cars and pedestrians, with pedestrians having the highest priority.

“People commonly think of him as the guy who loves freeways but in fact his design philosophies were the opposite.

“In an interview in 1992 he was quoted as saying the main function of freeways is to take heavy traffic off residential streets and leave suburban streets open and safe for pedestrians and public transport.”

The life of Gordon Stephenson

BORN in Liverpool in 1908, Gordon Stephenson studied architecture at Liverpool University before accepting successive scholarships, first to New York and then to Paris where he worked in the office of acclaimed French modernist architect Le Corbusier.

In the late 1930s, he received a Harkness Fellowship to complete a Masters of City Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he met his eventual American wife Flora; the first woman to complete a Masters in the same course at MIT.

The pair returned to the UK where Mr Stephenson’s first major project came as one of 12 town planners tasked with the reconstruction of London post World War II.

Included in the 1944 Greater London plan was a system of highways radiating out from the city centre and connected by an orbital ring road, precursors to Perth’s Roe and Reid highways, to prevent heavy vehicles from having to travel through the CBD.

Mr Stephenson took up the post of Professor of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool in 1948 and, along with Flora, spent the next five years co-editing the influential Town Planning Review.

He was headhunted by the WA State Government in 1953 and tasked with developing the Perth Metropolitan Region Scheme alongside Alistair Hepburn, which was delivered in 1955.

The year prior, Mr Stephenson was offered the position of Chairman of City and Regional Planning at MIT but was forced to decline when he was unable to secure an American working visa because of his links with communism as a young man.

In his younger years, Mr Stephenson associated with communists and socialists in England in his role as Secretary of the Liverpool Relief Committee for the Victims of German Fascism and travelled to Russia twice prior to 1937, and after the war, in support of his role with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning.

After World War II, in support of his Ministry of Town and Country Planning role, he was a member of the Architecture and Planning Committee of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union.

Following the visa refusal and after a brief stint in Canada, Mr Stephenson relocated to Perth for good in 1960, taking up the post of foundation chair of the school of architecture at UWA, which he held for 10 years.

In 1968, he co-authored the Stephenson-Lloyd report that indentified a site, at the time an extensive pine plantation, for the future Murdoch University and medical precinct, which today includes Fiona Stanley Hospital and St John of God Murdoch.

In 1974 he and business partner Gus Ferguson were engaged to develop the Murdoch University master plan for a pedestrian orientated campus and in 1977 his last major commission was designing the Joondalup city centre, at the time empty bushland.

When his wife Flora died in 1979, Mr Stephenson established the annual Flora Crockett Stephenson Prize at MIT, which is still awarded annually to a Masters student who demonstrates excellence in written and spoken English.

He spent the remainder of his life consulting for the WA Planning Commission, Department of Transport and Main Roads WA, including reviewing the Joondalup rail project in 1991.

His autobiography On a Human Scale: A Life in City Design was published in 1992 and he died in 1997.