Drawing a precinct’s boundaries lies very much in the eyes of the relevant beholders. Pictured: The Bays Precinct.

Sustainability with a local or precinct flavour is of growing interest, but what exactly is a precinct? Murray Hogarth, one of the founders of the Total Environment Centre’s Smart Locale, found this was a critical question in establishing the new group.

Fans of the ABC television satire Utopia, featuring the fictional but scarily familiar Nation Building Authority, will remember an episode that parodied the faddish use of terms like “hubs” and “precincts” in contemporary planning lingo.

That episode’s original screening caused a few rueful chuckles for the architects of a new initiative called Smart Locale, which began its life in 2014 as the Ultimo-Pyrmont Sustainable Precinct – envisaged, as it is, to serve as a hub for promoting local economy-level sustainability solutions for greenhouse gas emission reductions, renewable energy uptake, and waste, water and energy efficiency.

“Local” is definitely in fashion as communities look to right-size sustainability to speed the transition to a low-carbon, low-waste economy without sacrificing prosperity and quality of life.

Many such community ventures are in regional areas. Byron Council in far northern NSW has its zero emissions strategy and a Virtual Net Metering trial for peer-to-peer renewable energy trading. Uralla on the New England Tableland is set to become the first Zero Net Energy or Z-NET town, with other regional centres keen to be fast followers.

Yackandandah in northern Victoria is pursuing 100 per cent renewable energy by 2022, while close to Melbourne the Livewell Yarra initiative is seeking “low-carbon well-being” for its communities. Canberra and nearby parts of NSW have SERREE, the South-East Region of Renewable Energy Excellence initiative.

There are city versions too, including Smart Locale, established by the Total Environment Centre’s Green Capital business sustainability program; the separate but allied Empowering Broadway program under the auspices of the CRC for Low Carbon Living; the Street Coolers inspired by sustainability guru Michael Mobbs, aiming to literally cool down urban areas to fight the heat island effect; and on a grander scale the City of Sydney’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 Plan for a green, global connected city of the 21st century.

International inspiration comes from numerous sources, from highly innovative clean energy-powered villages in the German countryside to business collaborations like the Lloyd EcoDistrict in Portland, Oregon, one of the leading civic homes of sustainability in North America.

The growing attention being paid to local sustainability seems to have a number of drivers. One is frustration at sustainability inaction and in some cases backsliding at the higher tiers of government and in the big corporate world. Another is a desire to make change happen at a scale where the outcomes are visible and manageable – in touch with the people.

As part of the team that devised the Smart Locale concept, I quickly learned that overuse is only one of the problems with the term “precinct”. A more important one is defining what constitutes a precinct in the first place. Is it a sprawling site like a university campus or an airport complex? Is it a small group of buildings united by co-location? Can it be a whole business area? Could it stretch across a whole suburb or even multiple suburbs?

It turns out that drawing a precinct’s boundaries lies very much in the eyes of the relevant beholders. The Smart Locale initiative’s borders embrace the two Sydney inner-city suburbs of Ultimo and Pyrmont, stretching from the busy Broadway thoroughfare in the south, to the quiet Pirrama Park fronting on to Sydney Harbour in the north.

All of this is recognised as a distinct business precinct by the City of Sydney, and has its own business association, the Pyrmont-Ultimo Chamber of Commerce. This locale is a hub too, widely acknowledged as Australia’s leading centre for IT and digital start-up businesses and co-working spaces clustered along the precinct’s north-south spine, Harris Street.

The borders, however, are necessarily porous too, because the local area’s economy and lifestyle experiences for its inhabitants and visitors alike are hugely influenced by this precinct’s relationships with adjoining ones – Darling Harbour on the Sydney CBD side, Chippendale to the south, and Wentworth Park and the newly badged Bays Precinct to the west.

It’s open to speculate that sustainability advocates looking to integrate and fast-track workable solutions for energy, water, waste, mobility, buildings, public space and other key elements of modern enterprise and living will define precincts, districts and locales that make sense for them.

Precincts and hubs were clichés in Utopia, but they can be profound opportunities in the sustainability real world trying to avoid a climate crisis dystopia.

Murray Hogarth is an external adviser to Smart Locale and the Green Capital program, and is also treasurer of the Pyrmont-Ultimo Chamber of Commerce.

One reply on “What exactly is a precinct?”

  1. Excellent article Murray, thank you. As we take the leap from fairly well-defined sustainable buildings towards sustainable cities, debating and defining precinct boundaries, stakeholders and (shared) governance is a critical challenge.

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