10 January 2013 — These days, the Barangaroo development seems to be about as topical as a jar of calamine lotion, and far more controversial. After all, what controversy can possibly arise from a harmless, soothing lotion for the treatment of irritating skin conditions?

Very little, obviously. A multi-million dollar development on public land in Sydney’s city centre foreshore, on the other hand, is bound to cause irritated break-outs in public discourse. From the James Packer ‘007 Casino (it’s just a movie, Don Burke, it’s just a movie) to the design competition, there’s no shortage of argument-starters around this plate glass and concrete hot potato.

Earlier this year, the Barangaroo Delivery Authority engaged the University of Technology Designing Out Crime Research Centre to conduct research that would assist them in the design of safer parks, at the headland and central sites.

In search of a new perspective, I skipped down to join the “Barangaroo” working  group at the DOC run “Designing Out Crime” in December.

My morning started with a talk series. All three speakers investigated some very sexy points all worthy of a solid session of moustache stroking contemplation: urbanisation, violence, gender, youth, use of public spaces, design, poverty and gentrification. Hmmm. But, as none of them had mentioned Barangaroo at all, I was a little mystified regarding the title of the morning exercise.

Peter Homel of Griffith University began with a breakdown of his research at the Asia Pacific Centre for the Prevention of Crime. Urbanisation, poverty and informal settlements came up as key issues for a region where one by 2030, one sixth of the entire world’s population will be crammed into cities.

I can’t see that the management of slums will be as pressing an issue for the Barangaroo site as it may be for, say, Jakarta. But, like a quiet, academic game of dodgem, Homel’s talk was just scary enough to be exciting, so I had a good time anyway.

Aaron Wallis, youth worker and director of Playce, discussed his hatred for skate parks, because “only a tiny number of young people actually skate”. He talked about the importance of a “socialisation approach” to youth spaces, rather than a “recreational” one. It was fascinating, albeit still coming with no mention of the “B” word.

Rebecca Martin, the second speaker, is a social worker in the Crime Prevention division of City of Sydney Council. She began her talk with a refreshing reminder that “even if your intention [with public developments] is to follow best practice, things don’t always end up that way”. In a world saturated with PR, I love it when people are honest.

She followed with a fascinating talk on her experience developing public spaces in Sydney, most notably a public park in Waterloo and a (now scrapped due to community opposition) child care centre in the same area.

In the case of the park, there was an issue because some locals expected the refurbishment, which promised greater safety, to design out rough sleeping. “Some people find homelessness offensive, or hold the view that if people don’t pay rates or have a home, they don’t have the right to be there,” Martin explained.

But the council didn’t kick out the homeless. Instead, in a shocking display of respect for human rights regardless of income, they incorporated the needs of all those who use the park – including the homeless who sleep there, into the design.

As I shuffled around my late morning Barangaroo site tour with Sam Drake, the Barangaroo project manager, and the “Barangaroo” workshop group, it was Rebecca’s talk that stuck in my mind in particular.

Like many other post-industrial city centres, Sydney City has become a place of social contrasts. Sydney’s wealthiest are crammed in next to housing commission and the homeless, with everyone in-between driven out west by price rises. Sometimes, this inevitably causes tension.

Drake was fairly frank when discussion along these lines came up. Commenting about the older generation of wharfies still residing in The Rocks, he acknowledged that “while there is a quota for some affordable housing, apartments will be expensive… getting people to engage can be difficult”.

I guess that’s the thing with designing exclusive, luxury apartments. All the community engagement in the world can’t override the fact that exclusive apartments are intended to exclude. That’s what makes them so annoying.

In any case, after my day at the conference, I still sit on the fence with this one. You may hate the Barangaroo development, but they are trying to do some good things. They’ve generously set aside a fair chunk of previously inaccessible foreshore land for us plebiscites to play around in. Some of their green energy and sustainable building targets aim very high, such as generating enough solar on and off site to feed back into the grid. If achieved, that’s great.

It’s not their fault that developers can make more money out of providing housing and casinos to rich people than by providing affordable accommodation and, say, more museums or public buildings for the rest of us. It’s “the way the world goes” right?

In earlier feedback to the Barangaroo Authority, DOC advised that “crime prevention for urban parks is ultimately the activity of shaping a quality physical and vibrant social environment that fosters guardianship and close integration within the community”.

I just hope that gentrification doesn’t “design out” that vibrant social environment in Sydney City’s foreshore areas.

As an aside, I was later told that “Barangaroo” was the title of the morning group, not related to the morning’s talk content. My confusion is finally ended in this instance. My confusion regarding the world in general continues.

Lillian Morrissey is the creator and director of GroundRoots