Chapter Two. Sydney’s First Two Centuries
Sydney’s history of ad hoc urban development can be traced back to the earliest days of European settlement.
Sydney was the first European settlement established in Australia and from its beginnings, it was a township without a clear idea of what it would or wanted to be. There was no Cardo or Decumanus, nor indeed was any type of rational street grid established. Instead, urban development occurred in an ad hoc manner over an undulating geography and around a serpentine harbour based upon short-term pragmatic requirements and commercial opportunities.
Sydney is the biggest city in Australia and dominates the nation’s economy. Positioned in the Pacific Rim, close to the dynamic economies of Indonesia, China, Japan and India, Australia’s and Sydney’s orientation has shifted towards these Asian neighbours and no longer reflects the traditional exclusive influences of Britain and Europe.
Sydney has a beautiful and unique geography. Its harbour, coastline and natural topography, coupled with its benign climate, have spawned an enviable lifestyle. However, as Sydney’s population grows and its urban footprint swells, the wonderful natural attributes are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the daily experience of most citizens. Instead, the human-made urban environment is becoming a more significant factor affecting the quality of life in Sydney. The ease with which people can perform their daily activities, get from home to work, shops, school and tertiary education, health care, cultural, recreational facilities and open space — these are the determinants of livability that affect each and every resident of Sydney.
Whether Sydney takes up the challenge of addressing these problems to become a functional and sustainable metropolis in the future remains to be seen. The raw natural ingredients still exist but they are dwindling, and time is running out. While Sydney is a unique city with a great heritage, it cannot rely on its natural beauty any longer. Sydney is a city at a critical stage of its history and is in need of reinvention by a change in its financial, social and environmental priorities.
Explorer Lieutenant James Cook left the English port city of Plymouth in 1768 and reached mainland Australia (then known as New Holland) in 1770. He sailed the Endeavour up the Pacific east coast of Terra Australis from its southern tip past many enchanting waterways that offered protection from wind and surf and sufficient depth for his 3.5-metre-deep barque to drop anchor — but he chose to land at Botany Bay.
More than two centuries later, this same bay is Sydney’s global gateway to the world. At Cook’s very landing spot, 800 air movements now catapult 140,000 passengers each day to and from all corners of the planet. The arrival of a 30-metre-long wooden barque with 94 crew sailing at eight knots has been eclipsed by 76-metre-long 747 steel jumbo jets travelling at 920 kilometres per hour and carrying up to 660 passengers per flight. It took Cook 20 months to reach Sydney from England — albeit with stopovers on the way — but today this journey takes less than a day.
Sailing up Terra Australis’ east coast, Cook, his botanists and scientists observed the fertile agricultural terrain and sandstone cliffs that meet the Pacific shoreline. What they could not have known was the existence of a 3500-kilometre-long mountain range extending from the Grampians in western Victoria through New South Wales to Dauan Island off the north-eastern tip of Queensland and isolating the narrow, green coastal belt from a vast, dry and barren landmass the size of Europe or North America.
Settlement and governance
Following the Endeavour’s return to England with news of continental discovery, Captain Arthur Phillip arrived with the First Fleet to establish a penal colony and become its first Governor. In 1788, a settlement was founded at Sydney Cove — the area now known as Circular Quay — to accommodate more than 700 convicts, as well as the civil officers and their families who had accompanied Phillip.
The population grew gradually and the colony developed, with arterial roads and buildings spreading along its ridges. The Tank Stream, a freshwater tributary, bisected this humble settlement, which extended over the escarpment to Darling Harbour. By the time of Phillip’s departure in 1792, the town’s boundary was established by a survey connecting the southern end of Darling Harbour and Woolloomooloo Bay. He left a directive to his predecessors that “no ground within the boundary line is ever to be granted or set on lease.” This vision was promptly ignored.
Successive Governors Hunter, King and Bligh did not or could not enforce Phillip’s directive. A number of colonialists, including John Macarthur, Thomas Jamison and John Harris, challenged Phillip’s memorandum, and so Sydney’s laissez-faire capitalism was born. By the time Governor Bligh’s tenure came to an end in 1808, the town of Sydney was little more than a hotchpotch collection of streets and disparate buildings spread over 13 square kilometres and bounded by what is now The Domain/Farm Cove to the east, Central Station to the south and Darling Harbour to the west.
It was not until the 12-year reign of Major-General Lachlan Macquarie, commencing in 1810, that Sydney grew further afield and began to distinguish itself as a place of civic significance. Aspirations of becoming a great port city became evident for the first time. Governor Macquarie established the street pattern in Central Sydney we recognise today and was responsible for prestigious buildings along Macquarie Street, including the State Parliament House (previously the Rum Hospital) and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He widened streets and established roads and thoroughfares flanked by properties that respected surveyed boundaries and building lines. He established parks, gardens and Australia’s first recognisable and significant public square, Macquarie Place, on the corner of Bridge and Loftus streets, as well as infrastructure like the Macquarie Lighthouse at South Head.
Macquarie intended to create a town “as opulent and fine as any in the British Empire” and intentionally excised Crown land to create commercial property relationships with citizens capable of erecting “substantial and handsome buildings within the town.” Such individuals were encouraged to develop sites with the promise of land grants instead of leases.
Under Macquarie, new roads extended from what is now Circular Quay, east to South Head, west to Parramatta and south to what is now Central Station. Civic improvements included better street lighting and tree planting in the town centre. Simultaneously, Parramatta was also growing and establishing itself with farmland, housing for a local community and public buildings, including churches and court houses.
Macquarie’s reign as Governor was a progressive period in Sydney’s urban history, with the results taking many years to be fully realised.
Sydney’s burgeoning growth
Laissez-faire capitalism was on the rise and came to characterise Sydney’s growth throughout the nineteenth century. In the absence of strict regulations, land owners, developers and builders were unfettered and able to build almost whatever they pleased. In the haste to seize opportunities for development in the town centre, buildings were erected without concern for quality standards, which were virtually non-existent. Structures were often erected outside site boundaries and without due regard for structural adequacy and fire safety.
By the time of Macquarie’s departure in 1822, Crown land squatting had become prevalent and many residents were flouting what little authority existed by constructing buildings to satisfy short-term personal requirements and profit. Subsequent Governors Brisbane, Darling, Bourke and Gipps were unable to curb the trend of unplanned growth. Over a period of 30 years up to 1850, 20 buildings collapsed and fires in another 10 killed more than 200 residents. Sanitary conditions were generally poor throughout working-class areas like Surry Hills, Chippendale, Pyrmont and Paddington.
In his 1832 Report on the Limits of Sydney, Surveyor- General Thomas Mitchell described Sydney’s peripheral edge as being “alienated and the roads and boundary lines were oblique and irregular.” In 1834, he attempted to square up land boundaries and establish a more regular street pattern, but this led to claims for compensation by adversely affected landowners and was consequently abandoned by the State Government.
Nevertheless, Mitchell’s report helped establish Sydney’s boundaries and led to a number of regulations, including the Police Act 1833, Streets Alignment Act 1834 and Building Act 1837, which controlled development and regulated building practices to a degree.
After a two-year battle, Governor Gipps succeeded in having the Sydney Corporation Act passed in 1842, which established Sydney as a city. He also introduced by-laws to control urban growth. The City Council opposed the by-laws but were sacked in 1853 and replaced by commissioners appointed by the Colonial Government.
This was the first blatant example of tension between local and state government, but it would not be the last. Irrespective of the schism, neither government-appointed commissioners nor city surveyors were effective in regulating growth, which developed a will of its own.
By the mid 1850s, the residential fabric of Sydney extended west to Stanmore and Strathfield, south to Surry Hills and Redfern and east to Woolloomooloo. By 1880, Sydney’s footprint had extended to Homebush in the west, Botany in the south and Rushcutters Bay in the east, whilst Parramatta, Liverpool and the North Shore were consolidating independently. Although the Sydney Harbour Bridge was not built until 1932, residential communities were already developing in North Sydney and Manly, as they were in Parramatta and Liverpool. Sydney’s urban expansion and population growth continued in the absence of enforceable planning regulations and building standards.
Following a decade of economic growth during the 1870s, pressure mounted for legislation to improve Sydney’s public health, sanitation, sewerage, pollution and water supply. Outbreaks of deadly diseases and structurally dangerous and unsanitary buildings were commonplace. Urban infrastructure was not keeping pace with the expanding population, which led to the drafting of a City Improvement Bill. Despite opposition from self-interest groups (mainly slum landlords), the City of Sydney Improvement Act was passed in 1879, leading to the demolition of many dilapidated and unsafe buildings.
In 1880, the Lands for Public Purposes Acquisitions Act led to the emergence of well-planned public parks, and the following year, the Width of Streets and Lanes Act saw improvements in the design of streets and lanes in inner and middle-ring suburbs. While these were positive developments, Sydney remained devoid of a comprehensive long-term vision for metropolitan growth.
With such poor sanitation and building standards, it’s not surprising that the bubonic plague swept through Darling Harbour, The Rocks and Millers Point in 1900. The infestation of rats at the back of wharves and terrace houses in the precinct now known as Barangaroo led to the epidemic. More than 300 people contracted the disease and 103 died.
More than all the debate and political posturing that had taken place in the previous century, this singular event prompted the implementation of strict regulation. Holding the Sydney City Council accountable, the New South Wales State Government took control of the waterfront precinct and brought in widespread reform. 119 properties were resumed over the next 17 years and higher standards of sanitation and health were enforced.
The Sydney Harbour Trust was established to oversee the redevelopment and establish effective controls. The Trust was succeeded by the Maritime Services Board and, eventually in 1999, by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority or SHFA.
Despite the efforts of successive state governors and surveyor-generals, it was not until 1919 that new building and health regulations passed through Parliament. These comprehensive regulations, together with the Sydney Corporation Act, gave powers to enforce order in the development and construction of buildings and infrastructure throughout Sydney and the State of New South Wales.
A civic vision – improvement and beautification
An economic depression in the 1890s had widespread social implications, but by the turn of the century and with the added impact of the bubonic plague, civic improvement in Sydney had become a priority.
Land use zoning as a means of improving social conditions was introduced to the discussion for the first time. ‘Euthenics’ and ‘Science of Life’ principles were advocated on the basis that better organised town planning would lead to higher living standards and improved physical and mental wellbeing. New models based on innovations from Europe and the USA became influential in the debate surrounding Sydney’s growth.
Beautification became a popular pursuit, with the design of boulevards, squares and civic centres gaining prominence. At the behest of Lord Mayor Allen Taylor, a Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and its Suburbs took place in 1908–09. The objective of the commission was to explore the efficiency and harmony of the urban environment and its capacity for growth.
Sydney’s planning shortcomings and mistakes of the past were acknowledged, with the commission noting that the central city precinct “presents few opportunities for town planning on modern lines.” Instead, ad hoc development continued to characterise urban development and this was based largely on private self-interest and capital investment.
Outside the city centre, opportunities for innovative housing materialised. Architect John Sulman was a leading voice for change and, together with New South Wales Housing Board Chairman JD Fitzgerald, was instrumental in designing the model suburb of Daceyville. Inspired by Britain’s Garden City Movement, it was a departure from convention and hailed as the first city beautification scheme in Australia, as well as the country’s first suburb devoted to public housing for workers. The picturesque quality of the radial street pattern was a rejection of the gridiron arrangement and the housing models were more imaginative and individuated. Other suburban housing examples of this period included the garden village for war veterans in Matraville and Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin’s Castlecrag experimental community on Sydney’s lower North Shore.
On the whole, though, suburban housing based on the triple-fronted, red-brick and tiled roof bungalow set on the quarter-acre block in a gridiron street arrangement proliferated throughout the century as a model of residential homogeneity.
In 1913, the Town Planning Association of New South Wales was established by George and Florence Taylor lobbying for further civic reform, but the outbreak of World War I stalled momentum until 1918, by which time the pressing demands of post-war reconstruction distracted state officials, civic authorities and planning advocates from the pursuit of civic beautification.
Australia’s first Town Planning Conference and Exhibition was held in Adelaide in 1917, with JD Fitzgerald lamenting Sydney as a city without a plan “save whatever planning was due to the errant goat.” His passion for a new system of governance for city-wide planning control was a threat to private interests and failed, but his major success was the implementation of the Local Government Act in 1919, which, apart from establishing health and building regulations, gave local councils powers for sub-division and development approval.
Whilst there was much discussion and impetus to address Sydney’s civic shortcomings, economic depression during the 1930s made this unachievable and stifled development in Sydney. State Government inquiries into the remodelling of Circular Quay and Macquarie Street and a Town and Regional Planning Bill that was drafted but never introduced into the Parliament were indicative of momentum that was stymied during this difficult time.
Ideas for a major bridge crossing had been mooted as early as 1815 (by architect Francis Greenway), but it was not until 1924 that construction began on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, with British engineering firm Dorman, Long and Co winning the worldwide tender and Department of Public Works engineer John Bradfield supervising the entire design and building process. The project was completed in 1932 following resumption of some 200 houses that stood in its path. It remains the highest steel arch bridge in the world and was, until 2012, the widest.
Population boom a cosmopolitan city
Mass migration mainly from Europe during and after World War II left an indelible mark on Sydney’s development. The population boom brought an end to ethnic uniformity and created a more cosmopolitan community.
The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electricity Scheme was constructed predominantly by emigrant labour. The much-acclaimed Sydney Opera House design competition of 1957 was won by a Danish architect. Civil and Civic, which later grew into construction and development multinational Lendlease, was founded by a Dutch engineer who not only worked on the Snowy Mountains project, but also delivered stage one of the Sydney Opera House development. There are many stories in the fields of commerce, education, health and the arts where trailblazers emigrated to Australia and helped transform Sydney into the international cultural metropolis it now is.
Modernism was born and developed in this new environment. While a regional design approach became evident, the influence of international modernism was pervasive. Local exponents of modern architecture before World War II included Sydney Ancher and Melbourne-based firm Stephenson & Turner, but during the 1950s and ’60s, a greater number of modern architects produced a significant body of accomplished work that was highly influenced by European and American models. Prominent among these architects were Harry Seidler, Bruce Rickard, Neville Gruzman and Bill Lucas. Their influence can still be seen in the legacy of residential, commercial and public architecture and urban planning.
The Cumberland plan
In July 1944, Labor Premier William McKell announced his intention to extend the boundaries of Sydney and the “Union of Areas in the County of Cumberland.” In 1945, a Royal Commission paved the way for an Act three years later that incorporated Alexandria, Darlington, Erskineville, Glebe, Newtown, Paddington, Redfern and Waterloo into the City of Sydney — expanding its footprint to 28.5 square kilometres. Further boundary changes would take place in 1968, 1982, 1989 and 2004.
The formation of the Cumberland County Council was an innovation in metropolitan governance, establishing an intermediate tier of governance between state and local government to oversee metropolitan development. The Local Government (Town and Country Planning) Amendment Act 1945 enabled councils to prepare comprehensive planning schemes for the first time. A town planning branch within the Department of Local Government was established, along with a Town and Country Planning Advisory Committee to oversee and offer high-level ministerial advice.
The County of Cumberland Planning Scheme was gazetted in 1951 and was described as “the most definitive expression of a public policy on the form and context of an Australian metropolitan area ever attempted.” The scheme introduced land use zoning, suburban employment zoning, open space acquisitions and a Sydney green belt. Additionally, the Main Roads Department proposed an expressway network.
As so often in the past, this holistic initiative eventually failed because of a range of short-term considerations — objections from private developers and property owners, antagonism from government agencies and concern about population growth based on immigration and the post-war baby boom.
Only four local councils took the opportunity to develop planning schemes by the time of the Cumberland County Council’s demise in 1963. The City of Sydney’s plan of 1952 wasn’t approved by the State Government until 1971, by which time makeshift interim development orders had come into force. In the meantime, traffic in the city centre had become progressively worse, culminating with ‘Black Friday’ in December 1956, when a logjam brought vehicles to a standstill for almost an hour.
Increases in population, car use and traffic congestion had created the conditions for the government to commit to the Cahill Expressway — an elevated four-lane freeway linking Sydney’s eastern and northern suburbs and feeding traffic on and off the Sydney Harbour Bridge. While the expressway — opened in 1958 — was a response to the problems of the day, it led to the demise of the pedestrian heart of Sydney, Circular Quay, a public square by the historic shores of Sydney Harbour. An act of such urban vandalism would be unthinkable were it proposed across any other significant public square in the world — Piazza San Marco in Venice being an obvious comparison.
Similarly, the dismantling of a functional, metropolitan tram system across Sydney’s eastern suburbs (including tracks) on the pretext of liberating transportation, proved alarmingly shortsighted. Both of these decisions have been reappraised since, but the cost of revoking them has proven extremely expensive if not completely prohibitive.
In 1957, an amendment to the Height of Building Act 1912 repealed the old 150-foot (46-metre) height limit and paved the way for Sydney’s first skyscraper at Circular Quay. Many subsequent high-rise towers, most notably Australia Square, followed and transformed the centre of Sydney from a 15-storey, nineteenth century city to a modern high-rise metropolis. Also in 1957, the winner of the Sydney Opera House design competition was announced, with Danish architect Jorn Utzon beating 232 other entrants from more than 30 countries. Utzon’s iconic, awardwinning design not only put Sydney on the map in terms of international architecture, but also showcased the city’s beautiful harbour to the world.
Between 1956 and 1964, a building boom pushed the value of new building stock from £3 million to £51 million, and during the next 10 years, the State Planning Authority was granted the powers necessary to acquire and develop land, as well as specify corridors and areas for growth. A 1968 Sydney Region Outline Plan identified opportunities for the growth of up to 60,000 residents in Menai, 500,000 in Gosford-Wyong and a total expansion of 1.75 million residents in and around Sydney.
Big thinking and big planning for the Australian Bicentennial
The Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority was founded in the late 1960s, bypassing the Local Government Act and increasing the value of government-owned waterfront land in The Rocks precinct by the redevelopment of high-rise offices, hotels and apartment blocks. The 1970s redevelopment scheme came at the end of a long building boom and was influenced by the social changes of the previous decade — Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and a concern for human rights, feminism, environmentalism and heritage issues. This was the era of street protests, resident action groups and green bans by the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, all of which created upheaval in local planning systems and led to the replacement of the State Planning Authority by the Planning and Environment Commission, the formation of the New South Wales Heritage Act 1977, the landmark Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and the establishment of the Land and Environment Court.
While Sydney’s inner-city residential population declined during the 1970s, the 1980s heralded another building boom. With the relocation of heavy industry to Western Sydney, the State Government encouraged redevelopment of the inner city where disused industrial and commercial buildings became increasingly valuable and appropriate for residential conversion.
In 1984, State Premier Neville Wran announced plans to transform a disused rail yard at Darling Harbour into a cultural precinct and “return it to the people of Sydney.” The Darling Harbour Authority was established and wrested planning control from the Sydney City Council to pursue an ambitious development agenda. Minister for Public Works Laurie Brereton cut through bureaucratic red tape and succeeded in completing the redevelopment in four years — just in time for Sydney’s Bicentenary celebrations in 1988. This was a remarkable achievement by Sydney standards and something more akin to the development industry in China. It demonstrated the State Government’s earnest ambition to achieve urban consolidation without lengthy public discussion or debate.
There can be no doubt that the 50 hectares of disused industrial waterfront that had fallen fallow after years of neglect was ripe for redevelopment. A new exhibition centre, convention centre, aquarium and retail markets complemented an existing entertainment centre and IMAX theatre, all connected by public open space and a monorail to the centre of the city. While the exercise demonstrated the advantage of holistic development rather than piecemeal infill rebuilding, it also illustrated the complexity of getting the long-term vision right. Almost all the buildings completed for the 1988 Bicentennial were replaced within 30 years and Sydney’s reputation as the ‘ephemeral city’ was now well established.
The State Government’s bicentennial initiatives also extended to projects in Circular Quay, improvements to Macquarie Street and an upgrade to the Sydney Opera House forecourt.
In metropolitan Sydney, land scarcity, rising prices and a shortage of services and infrastructure prompted the State Government to increase housing and population densities. From 1986 to 1988, the Sydney City Council was disbanded by the State Government to effect the reforms it deemed necessary. New South Wales Minister for Planning — and future Premier — Bob Carr released a new planning scheme in 1988: Sydney into its Third Century: Metropolitan Strategy for the Sydney Region. This scheme signalled the State Government’s determination to tackle population increase and housing densities with a different approach to urban design. Among other things, the scheme identified new areas for development and promoted multi-unit dwellings rather than detached housing.
Continue reading Sydney XXXL. Next: Chapter 3. Beyond the Bicentennial