Planning for urban growth is big news at the moment. The Government is forging ahead with its new planning legislation, its Metro Sydney Strategy and new transport system, not to mention changes to the Local Government Act. Its objective is to streamline the planning system to enable massive new developments in identified growth centres throughout the Sydney metropolitan area, including inner Sydney. It is therefore timely, to look back over twenty years of urban consolidation in Pyrmont and Ultimo, now the densest urban area in Australia.

By Elizabeth Elenius

The removal of heavy industry from Pyrmont/Ultimo, including the large CSR complex, the wool stores and the flour mills, saw the residential population of Pyrmont shrink to under 1,000. The planners then began to design what was probably the first growth centre in inner Sydney. They made a number of assumptions, the most significant of which was that families with children don’t live in apartments. On this basis, the Government tried to sell our only public school site but fortunately were thwarted by the local residents, who knew otherwise.

Virtually all public buildings such as churches, halls, etc. were removed from Pyrmont, leaving us with just a school building converted to a Community Centre, and the lovely St Bede’s Catholic Church, built by the quarrymen out of Pyrmont sandstone. Ultimo retained the Presbyterian Church and hall (now the Harris Community Centre), and the City of Sydney built the new Ultimo Community Centre, partly out of Better Cities Program funds and Section 94 developer contributions.

As a resident of Pymont for over 13 years, I have witnessed the extraordinarily rapid movement of residents into (mostly) apartment buildings, ranging from two or three storeys up to 22 storeys. These buildings have been imposed upon the original residents living in the few pockets of old terrace houses, and some existing social housing developments built in the 1930s.

Naturally there was, initially, resentment, and even some hostility shown towards the interlopers who all came from somewhere else in Sydney, such as the North Shore or Warringah. And we knew no-one in the area. But as planning issues emerged with each new DA, people joined together to oppose, or try to get better outcomes for their new suburbs: and we have become integrated and strong communities.

It is timely to reflect on what has been successful and what have been failures of the planning conducted over 20 years ago.

The residential population mix, both in socio-economic, and age demographics is diverse. The developers’ Affordable Housing levies enabled the construction of good quality Social/Affordable Housing complexes, well integrated into the new apartment developments. And, increasingly, residents are working together for the community, and for charities.

We have formed the Friends of Pyrmont Community Centre which we have identified as the focal point of the Pyrmont Community. Whilst the building is totally unfit for its purpose and much of it is leased to a childcare centre, we have managed to initiate a range of activities run for, and by our volunteers, including monthly community dinners (access by donation), and recently held an Open Weekend, complete with photographic exhibition and local history display, performances by the local choir and theatre group, and a Sunday childrens’ day, to celebrate our success in getting the Centre open on Sunday, especially for families. We are also organising Christmas in Pyrmont in 2013, following successful Christmas concerts in previous years (in 2012 we raised $42,000 for charities!).

Volunteers deliver bi-monthly newsletters to 6,000 households across Pyrmont to promote these activities. All these activities are generously sponsored by local businesses. Far from being socially isolated, residents are able to make new friends through the efforts of many volunteers. A local centre which is truly embedded within a community, be it comprised of high, medium or low rise residences is an essential element in building a successful community, integrating longstanding and new residents.

We have managed to build a successful community from small beginnings, despite major planning shortcomings associated with the almost complete absence of social infrastructure, particularly in Pyrmont which now has a residential population of around 12,000 and a worker population of around 16,000.

The 2011 age demographics demonstrate that, indeed, families with young children are living in apartments, and there is also a high population of young people aged between 20 and 34 years (4,391 in Ultimo with a high student population and 5,262 in Pyrmont). The most significant increase is in the 0-19 age bracket, with 899 children in Ultimo and 1270 in Pyrmont. The older, retiree demographic (65+) in Ultimo is 291 and in Pyrmont 711 out of total populations of 7,111 (Ultimo) and 11,618 (Pyrmont).

Since 2003, Pyrmont Action, along with a number of other community groups has been pressing for action by State and Local Governments on the shortfall in childcare, educational, sporting, cultural and community infrastructure.

In Pyrmont there are only 2 childcare centres and existing centres in Glebe and Ultimo are scheduled to close as the building owners wish to develop these sites. Our only local Primary School in Ultimo is over full and can’t be expanded on its current site. There is no accessible comprehensive Secondary School in the City of Sydney, apart from 1 campus of the Sydney Secondary College. And, whilst we have a number of nice green waterfront parks, there is nowhere for young people to play organised sport such as tennis or basketball.

Other Inner City suburbs share some of these problems, but ours have been exacerbated by the very rapid growth associated with the redevelopment, and the absence of planning for the necessary social infrastructure.

A further planning failure has been the requirement to provide a mix of commercial and residential buildings. In Pyrmont, our main street is full of empty shops as owners are charging CBD rents, and new commercial office buildings remain half empty; and at least one large block zoned Commercial remains undeveloped after 15 years, despite strong demand for residential apartments.

Public transport is another forgotten planning element.

Pyrmont, before the Anzac Bridge and Western Distributor were built, was on the main route from the Western suburbs to the CBD via the Glebe Island Bridge. We had great links to Balmain and Rozelle, as well as suburbs further out and to the Eastern suburbs. Now Pyrmont is served by two bus routes, and Ultimo, only one – and both have limitations in terms of access to the city centre, frequency and reliability.

The light rail is expensive and doesn’t take people into the CBD although this may be adressed in the future. The situation will only get worse with the redevelopment of Darling Harbour which is currently not directly served by bus, and the monorail which was used by Pyrmont residents has been demolished.

Transport and traffic are not even on the radar of Infrastructure NSW which develops the briefs for the plethora of new developments occurring around us.

And now, we are experiencing further development right on our doorstep, in Barangaroo, Darling Harbour/Haymarket, Central Park, Harold Park, and now the Central to Eveleigh Precinct.

There is no provision for social infrastructure at Barangaroo or Central Park; we are hopeful of a community building in the new Haymarket precinct; and it is now dawning on people that Harold Park will need childcare and schools for the children moving there, as well as sporting facilities.

We are now pinning our hopes on the proposed Central to Eveleigh development to incorporate the educational, health, sporting, childcare, Affordable/Social housing and other social infrastructure missing from earlier large-scale urban redevelopment. And we trust that planners and legislators will learn from our experience.

The Minister for Planning and Infrastructure has said in the context of the new planning legislation that he wants to “get it right”. The best way to do that is to listen to the community, and learn. n

Elizabeth Elenius Convenor of Pyrmont Action Inc.

(BA Earth Sciences, Macquarie University)

Originally published in Inner Sydney Voice Issue 118 Summer 2013-14