It’s a crisp autumn morning and Sydney’s Lavender Bay foreshore is a study in painterly colours and crystalline light. Through the branches of a Moreton Bay fig tree, the water glitters mosaic-like, fragments of blue flecked with the white of bobbing sailboats.
At Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden, a subtropical oasis planted in the mid-nineties by the former wife of Australian artist Brett Whiteley, ferns and bangalow palms draw rainbow-bright rosella birds and wide-eyed picnickers, all awed by the dazzling expanse of Sydney Harbour. To the left, the clown-like face that adorns the entrance of Luna Park grins at onlookers, as if daring them to question the visual splendour. Meanwhile, the iconic Opera House shimmers in the distance.
“Now, an effort is underway to turn Sydney into a more inclusive and eco-conscious metropolis via the regeneration of the area’s natural landscape and the creation of urban parks.”
Lavender Bay – once a hub for the shipbuilding industry, and then the centre of the city’s bohemian artistic community – has always been a site of transformation. These days, it’s the subject of Sydney’s newest shift.
Despite its overwhelming natural beauty, the Harbour City has historically lacked purpose-built and easily accessible green spaces for its sprawling population. Now, an effort is underway to turn Sydney into a more inclusive and eco-conscious metropolis via the regeneration of the area’s natural landscape and the creation of urban parks.
Since 2016, a group of local residents led by Joan Street, David Bowman and Ian Mutton has been campaigning to turn an 1890s railway track lining the southeastern shore into the Sydney Harbour High Line. The High Line, which is currently in a costing stage, is a proposed landscaped corridor linking Lavender Bay with nearby Waverton Park and Balls Head Reserve. Along with a commitment by the New South Wales Government to invest AU$290 million in green infrastructure, it’s part of a recent movement to make Sydney’s natural assets more accessible and democratic.
“The [Sydney] Harbour, for all of its magnificence, actually divides the city, and there are so many parks that overlook the water that are isolated. When people forget about these places, they are lost,” explains Mutton, who becomes increasingly animated as he speaks about the project. “We’re looking for a way to connect these harbourside parks and give them back to the community. The Sydney Harbour High Line ends with a vision of the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden. It integrates all these places into something that’s truly exciting.”
Change is also afoot in the city centre. These days, a walk down Hickson Road near Wynyard railway station is soundtracked by whirring cranes and the chatter of construction workers. With a 5.1 million-strong population that’s growing by 100,000 each year, Australia’s biggest metropolis is undergoing a development boom – and the need for public parks and greener spaces has never been more compelling.
Just this April, the Government announced plans to plant five million new trees by 2030, expanding the city’s urban tree canopy from 16.8% to 40%. For Anthony Roberts, the New South Wales Minister for Planning, this will help ensure a high quality of life for the future. Having easy access to green spaces is doubly important for millennial Sydneysiders for whom rising property prices have meant that the Australian Dream looks more like a shoebox-sized apartment than a sprawling house with a spacious backyard.
“A planned network of parks, rivers, bushlands and street trees are as crucial to cities as transport, schools and roads,” offers Roberts, an outspoken advocate for natural spaces in Sydney. His passion for green infrastructure is also reflected in plans to invest millions in further developing the 5,280ha Western Sydney Parklands, a nature reserve that might soon become Australia’s largest urban park. “A tree canopy combats heatwaves in our suburbs, lowers energy bills by providing shade and is a habitat for native birds,” he adds. “According to the World Cities Culture Forum, Sydney already ranks third in the world when it comes to open green space. But I want us to be first.”
Clover Moore, who’s served as Lord Mayor since 2004, is another vocal champion of urban greenery. The visionary leader is the driving force behind the pocket parks and community gardens that have proliferated around inner Sydney. “Over the last 12 years, we’ve been transforming the eroding embankments of Glebe foreshore into a wonderful space,” she explains. “[It’s a place] where families can walk, cycle and spend time next to the Harbour, looking out at the Anzac Bridge.”
“This area is home to many first-generation migrants who don’t have a voice in planning, so we wanted to create a space where the community could play, exercise or meet while connecting with nature.”
Later this year, construction will start on the latest phase of this project – an open space near The Crescent, a waterside street that borders leafy Johnstons Creek Parklands. “We’re also building a playground and a new skate space, and [will reintroduce] mangroves to create a natural habitat for birds and sea creatures,” Moore shares. “We’ve [also] purchased and demolished an old commercial building and a car yard to reclaim 8,500m2 of land.”
Over in Ultimo, a bustling suburb on the southwestern fringe of the city, a linear park floats above the traffic, next to a building designed by Frank Gehry to resemble a crumpled paper bag. Here, students from the nearby University of Technology Sydney play ping pong, commuters pause to admire plantings of velvety kangaroo paw and locals sip flat whites on cheery yellow armchairs. A metal plaque announces the site as the Goods Line, referencing its former life as a railway.
Sacha Coles is a founding director at Aspect Studios, the acclaimed landscape architecture practice behind the Goods Line. He was also part of the team who designed One Central Park, an award-winning sustainable building with a green façade that conjures the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, presiding over nearby Chippendale Green. “We wanted to build a pedestrianised spine so Sydneysiders could take power back in this part of the city,” says the lively and intelligent Coles. “This area is home to many first-generation migrants who don’t have a voice in planning, so we wanted to create a space where the community could play, exercise or meet while connecting with nature.”
His colleague, Kate Luckraft, adds that the firm is also currently revitalising the riverfront in multicultural Parramatta in western Sydney, where the weather is hotter and drier and the geography revolves around the winding Parramatta River. “This is where Sydney is growing… we need to make sure that locals are getting well-designed places and free access to green spaces along the river that they can walk and cycle to,” shares the studio director at Aspect Studios’ Sydney office. “It’s not just about an island of green – it’s about planning a precinct that people can access. I think this is fundamental to a healthy society.”
According to Frances Bodkin, a botanist and gardener who is a descendent of the Dharawal people, no effort to build a greener future is complete without acknowledging Sydney’s Indigenous past. She explains that the ghostly eucalyptus trees of the city’s coastal bushland were intrinsic to Aboriginal health, as their vapour repelled virus-carrying mosquitoes.
“It’s not just about an island of green – it’s about planning a precinct that people can access. I think this is fundamental to a healthy society.”
Today, Bodkin is preserving Indigenous botanical traditions for a new generation at Waraburra Nura, a public garden on a north-facing balcony at the University of Technology’s main tower. Here, native species like waratah, a sculptural flower with deep-red petals; Dianella revoluta, small purple blooms which bear edible, ink-blue berries; and multiple species of eucalyptus – including Eucalyptus parramattensis, a popular Indigenous antiseptic – flourish together in the warm afternoon sun.
If you follow the curve of Darling Harbour, past the Goods Line, you’ll arrive at Barangaroo Reserve – another seedbed for Indigenous flora. This six-hectare park, which opened in 2015, is named for Barangaroo, a powerful Aboriginal fisherwoman who lived in the area in the 18th century. Here, visitors sit on sandstone rocks and dip their toes in the water, or recline in the sun on an elevated outcrop called Stargazer Lawn. Across the site, nearly 75,000 native trees and shrubs – including water gum and gymea lily, a spiky plant with dramatic, flame-like flowers – transport visitors to pre-settlement Sydney.
For Georgina Reid, a landscape designer and the editor of online publication The Planthunter, Barangaroo Reserve owes its beauty to the way it preserves the craggy lines of Sydney Harbour, bookended by sandstone cliffs that jut out of the water. “The Harbour is so overwhelmingly beautiful but I’m drawn to the edges, the sandstone cliffs that still exist as they did tens of thousands of years ago, those half-tended vacant lots full of wild things,” says Reid, a note of wistfulness creeping into her voice.
Indeed, any move to invest in Sydney’s green infrastructure must consider the past and the present, tempering convenience with respect for the original landscape. After all, it’s the untamed, unkempt pockets of nature that define the city’s natural charms – and with sensitive redevelopment, this wild, ancient beauty can endure for centuries to come.
– PHOTOGRAPHY BY JONATHAN CAMI
This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine.