Lucy Turnbull (left) and Maria Atkinson (right).

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.

3 replies on “Bays Summit: Turnbull and Atkinson reply to critique from Farrelly”

  1. Lucy Turnbull and Maria Atkinson are right in calling for a new optimistic outlook in the way in which we go about forming our cities, particularly the need to draw a line under past inadequacies and to acknowledge that cynicism in itself is not a source of positive creativity.

    And yet, and yet. There is stuff in Farrelly’s article critiquing the process being undertaken for The Bays precinct that still rings true – in NSW but also one suspects in various other places in Australia as well. Have we really advanced in our processes after all? Are we indeed on a new hopeful trajectory in our urban processes, or will the old ways keep on winning?

    This thought was prompted by attendance at another recent workshop held by UrbanGrowthNSW, for another of its “urban transformation sites” not far from The Bays precinct: the Central to Eveleigh (“C2E” they now want to call it) rail corridor in central Sydney.

    The experience suggests a curious dichotomy going on at present in the conduct of these urban renewal projects. On the one hand we have what seems to be honest attention to a new process that does indeed aim to think and talk and discuss and strategise – to plan, to deal with broad multiple objectives and coalitions, and to learn from overseas experience. At C2E they talked about a “new global strategy” for urban transformation that was becoming apparent – a cycle of “thinking cities”, “funding cities”, then (but only then) “building cities” (and with the master plan only being adopted at this stage), and finally the on-going implementation: “living cities”. Somewhere in here too, perhaps overriding the lot, goes attention to the continuing governance arrangements. Similar to Lucy Turnbull’s and Maria Atkinson’s observations at The Bays, at the workshop I attended the project leader from UrbanGrowthNSW spoke, it seemed genuinely, in these terms, and was attentive, open, sat in on discussions, and made himself available on the floor to speak with anyone.

    But something else is also happening. A continuation of an older style – of fundamental design decisions already made elsewhere, of Government dictates of financial returns the project must meet, of prioritising one strategic component over another rather than looking for synergies. All separate from and often prior to the official public consultation process.

    At The Bays it was an announcement by a senior Government Minister of a numerical target of dwelling units, which had to be batted back by the Premier. Around the same time came an announcement about a proposed new major motorway tunnel in the vicinity. At C2E it was an earlier Government announcement seeking international expressions of interest (a “global precinct opportunity”) accompanied by a fly-through video showing a dense conglomeration of very tall buildings, as would in fact be necessary to pay for the massive deck over the rail lines they needed to sit on. And a decision for an early sale of a critical component site – in terms of size, location and development opportunities. Things which the project leader again had to spend time either batting back or justifying, when the workshop should have been more about what its title suggested – “community thinking and visioning”.

    And how much of such thinking and visioning was actually allowed? The workshop was scheduled for 3 hours, say 2½ when you have done with the introductions and Welcome to Country and a refreshment break. Out of this the “group work” sessions totalled 45 minutes, max. Two small-group sessions of about 15 minutes each, and then an ability to post comments on wall posters. The rest? Largely taken up by “expert” presentations of what they thought should happen – complete with vision statements, strategies and suggested actions. One felt for the facilitator who again had to assure the invited “participants” that really all this was not set in stone, were just ideas at this stage, for discussion, etc, etc. And kept having to hurry things along so “we can all get away at the promised time”. Don Watson would have had a field day sourcing new entries for his dictionary of weasel words from what was presented by the consultant. Words and statements that can mean everything and anything. And as such are meaningless. All world’s-best-practice this and best-in-Australia that. Nothing that really went to the locality itself and the actual community needs because, well, that is what this workshop was supposed to be about, wasn’t it?

    So why couldn’t they have held off with their ideas and visions and such until they had heard what those invited really did have to say? Is it ego? Were the experts employed too early, and felt obliged to produce something? Are they really interested?

    I attended as a local resident after having been cold-called for a telephone survey about what I thought was needed for the area and so what the project could deliver. The questions were another concern – subtly leading, push-polling style. Like, did I agree that new development could lead to better community facilities, more jobs, better parks? Yes I do. But I did wonder about the relevance, here in the heart of central Sydney where there is no shortage of such things. And when there are other areas in metropolitan Sydney crying out for just this sort of attention and investment. Go back and see Rod Simpson’s comment at The Bays event about Sydney’s east-west metropolitan “divide” of privilege and need.

    What central Sydney does need is attention to the things it has lost through just this sort of gentrification and “elite” transformations in the past – mainly space which is affordable – both to live in and for start-up businesses and workshops etc. And to generate diversity. C2E is well-suited for this – the land is already in public ownership, it is highly accessible and, well, not with the highest amenity because it is after all against a rail corridor. Which needs to be retained, and maybe expanded for such future infrastructure like very fast trains. But of these we had no real mention. And building decks over what is a very wide railway corridor to create unencumbered building sites for new “global” precincts very rapidly changes the economics so addressing affordability goes out the door – again.

    I attended mainly out of interest in the process. I have recently been involved in a series of workshops with residents in different areas of Sydney. But we decided against giving any presentation and instead just asked a few broad key questions, like: “tell us about …”, and “what do you think about ….”. The responses were all sharp and to the point and useful. Not a weasel word amongst them. And no-one was in a hurry to get home either.

  2. I was also a participant in the Summit and was very please to be part of it. For the most part I must agree with Lucy Turnbull. It was a great opportunity to learn from leading experts from across the globe about the ways in which we could start thinking about developing the precincts. However, the Mayor of Leichhardt was not invited to be on any of the panels (she was present in the audience), although Clover Moore was. Also, I found the venue not very accessible – it is much more than a five minute walk from Redfern Station (more like 10-15. Coming from Platform 12 (the cut through) there are three major staircases to negotiate plus the steps into the ATP precinct. There was not one wheelchair user in the room and the room did not have the legally required hearing loop. The way the venue interior was designed was fabulous if you had no difficulties with poor lighting, wayfinding, and understanding what the whole thing was about. You might say, only a small group of people would have been inconvenienced (read excluded), but with an ageing population (not at all discussed) all these things matter in design. If you can’t get the venue right, can you get the precincts right?

  3. Thanks Lucy and Maria for this necessary response to Elizabeth Farrelly’s ridiculous critique of the Summit. Irony and scepticism might be regular tools of journalism but it’s a shame if they have become so habitual as to blind Elizabeth to the unprecedented flow of open- minded good will that was The Bays International Summit. Everybody else I’ve spoken to, who was there, agrees that it was a remarkable event and David Pitchford and his team are to be congratulated.

Comments are closed.