It was a privilege to be invited to The Bays Precinct Sydney International Summit. Not just to attend but, as was made very clear, to participate. The opportunity to listen and learn was both exhausting and energising. It was hard work. It was also ground-breaking and unlike anything we have ever seen here in Australia.
So we were deeply disappointed to read Elizabeth Farrelly’s column last week in the Sydney Morning Herald deriding the Summit, for everything from its inaccessible venue and fit-out, to its very premise. (It beggars belief that a venue five minutes’ walk from Sydney’s second busiest interchange train station can be described as “insanely inaccessible.”).
Of course a little cynicism can be healthy – and other projects have tainted the very concept of urban transformation. But, the simple fact is that urban transformation is critical to the future of Sydney and when you looked at the impressive line-up of speakers and panelists – and even the invited participants – it was clear that this wasn’t just another conference where you could network and share some photos on Instagram.
And if that wasn’t enough, we heard David Pitchford outline UrbanGrowth NSW’s bold new approach to urban transformation, the lifecycle of thinking, funding, building and living. The summit was clearly the thinking, and the talking. And no, talk is not walk -–thank goodness! Exchange of conversation is critical, and to belittle that is simply offensive.
It is so compelling and yet, strangely innovative to spend the time thinking and talking about the vision, funding and governance for the project, instead of the usual approach of rushing into designs and building. This site particularly is too valuable to Sydney to not do the thinking first and learn from global best practice.
We need to consider the context and the trends, such as that one of the largest growing household types is women reaching retirement age and living on their own. And the trend of trading space for compact urban housing in return for larger outdoor lifestyles, with access to culture, and walkable well-connected urbanity. It’s that urban life that Rita Justesen, chief planner at the Copenhagen City and Port Authority spoke about as a priority before urban spaces and urban buildings.
As for the claim that Sydney turns even idealists into cynics, we reject that absolutely. We both demand more for the future of our great city and work to enable it to be realised. And if that’s tiring, David Pitchford and other participants’ energy and ambition to achieve world-class outcomes is almost infectious. Nothing will ever be achieved in a dark cloud of cynicism. Sydney needs to draw a line under the “can’t do culture” and aspire to world class outcomes for our city.
Governance and planning are key. For too long Sydney has had a governance deficit. Indeed, governance and planning are what the derided “talk” was all about.
That’s what Rita Justesen, our global sustainability expert Peter Newman, the international landscape architect Peter Walker and Singapore’s Dr John Keung were talking about.
In fact, it’s surely what the whole summit was about – talking about and learning lessons from other inspirational projects around the world, not dissimilar to The Bays Precinct – whether it be the old port areas of Marseilles or Copenhagen, the heritage buildings on Museum Island in Berlin, integrated development and rapid transit schemes in Hong Kong that require almost no government funding, the waterfront in Toronto and London, the fish market in Seattle, London’s Borough Market or Singapore’s 50 year plan.
If the “the owners” of the land were not invited, how is it that we heard questions and comments from many community leaders and representatives, including the Mayor of Leichhardt and the Lord Mayor of Sydney who spoke from the stage? Are they not the elected representatives of the so-called owners?
And what of Dr John Keung’s point, that it is important to plan “with the bigger community in mind” – which has often been missing in urban discussion. This is, after all, a project that will not only benefit and provide improved amenity and facilities for the local inner west community, but Sydney as a whole, and the clear majority of attendees were Sydneysiders.
And finally, to “the plan”. Yes, UrbanGrowthNSW denies the plan is already drawn. You’d have to say it was a lot of wasted energy and effort to enable a valuable global conversation, if in fact the plan is already drawn. The global conversation at the summit did indeed prove that good things are possible, and that governments can be strategic, long-term, principled and fair. That shared public space, great connections and world class design can be prioritised and reap enormous benefits. And that good city precincts can be created.
But trust doesn’t just happen. Both parties need to come to the table in a spirit of goodwill and collaboration. UrbanGrowthNSW came to the table by holding the summit and starting an authentic global conversation about the future of Sydney.
It was a bold and innovative start to the process of transforming a key part of Sydney Harbour, and we applaud UrbanGrowth and the Minister for Planning for being ambitious and ensuring Sydney shares best practice with the world best thinkers on urban renewal. We urge the media to come to the table and help stimulate a constructive and informed civic debate that helps deliver a more prosperous and liveable city for all.
Lucy Turnbull is chair, Committee for Sydney and Maria Atkinson is a Sustainability Strategist.