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The resurgence of local living

by Vanessa Weedon

For decades Sydneysiders, and Australians as a whole, had become accustomed to travelling widely – be it for holidays, the daily commute to work, or the journey across town on the weekend. However, the global pandemic has led to widespread behavioural changes in how we think about and interact with places. With the sudden shift to working from home, many Sydneysiders have adopted a more local lifestyle, reducing their travel and walking to their local shops and cafes. For many, it has helped strengthen connections to their local community and develop a stronger sense of place with their home suburbs.  The liveability of our existing neighbourhoods, and the value investment in our future neighbourhoods will bring, has never been more important.

Local councils taking the lead

Local Councils play a vital role in our capacity to live locally, investing in social infrastructure and activities within their local government areas (LGAs).  Many Councils across Greater Sydney are actively working in this capacity to create quality places and improve liveability for their communities. And for over 25 years Root Partnerships (RP) has been working with local and state governments to support their delivery of projects across the liveability scorecard, from housing, justice, hospitals, transport, education, recreation and the arts.

The fasted growing LGA, Blacktown, is leading a long-term strategy to be a ‘City of Excellence – diverse, dynamic, progressive. This strategy is being spearheaded by a program of transformational projects that are embedded in principles of social justice, ecologically sustainable development and the quadruple bottom line. These principles are embraced in even the smallest project in the program that is being project managed by RP, the Blacktown Animal Rehoming Centre (BARC), set within the beautiful natural setting of the Western Sydney Parklands. The BARC acronym itself reflects Blacktown City Council’s understanding of the values of placemaking and place brand. RP has worked with Sam Crawford Architects on a design that will improve animal wellbeing and attract visitors with the purpose of changing people’s perceptions of animal shelters and improve the outcomes for impounded animals.

Blacktown Animal Rehoming Centre. Image credit: Blacktown City Council and Sam Crawford Architects

Penrith City Council is also demonstrating how small-scale projects can assist in improving liveability in their LGA. RP has commenced work on the Kingswood Commuter Carpark to deliver Council’s vision for a greatly improved ‘park and ride’ experience for its residents. Beyond a standard multi-storey carpark, the project aims to set a benchmark for creativity, design leadership, urban integration and environmental sustainability incorporating green walls and ground floor commercial spaces.

Across town, RP is working with Sutherland Shire Council to deliver the Sutherland Entertainment Centre (SEC). Council is using this opportunity to redefine SEC (pictured at the top) as a cultural venue to support active community engagement.  The project aims to provide a rich and engaging theatre experience that goes beyond spectatorship and facilitates active participation in the performing arts. An upgrade of the existing Peace Park and a new landscaped forecourt will provide a civic address to the building and facilitate a large array of community activities, connecting the project into the local urban and social fabric and substantially contributing to the quality of life in the Sutherland area.

The value in going green

Another corollary of the pandemic has been our enhanced appreciation of open green space. More than ever, we (residents, Councils and Governments) appreciate the importance of access to high quality green space for our physical and mental health, with even the most functional of facilities, such as the commuter carparks, providing opportunities to incorporate environmental initiatives like green walls.

Our gardens and parklands have been vital in enabling socialisation outdoors with appropriate social distancing, greatly assisting with health and social cohesion, particularly during periods of lockdown. For the last six years, RP has been working with the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust to enhance the amenity, accessibility and relevance of two of Sydney’s greatest open spaces, the Royal Botanic Garden in the CBD and the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan. The relocation of the National Herbarium of NSW from the Sydney CBD to Mount Annan, which RP is project managing, safeguards the preservation of Australia’s largest collection of plant species and ensures vital environmental research can be undertaken for future generations. This state-of-the-art facility is also an example of the continued push to deliver world-class facilities – both in terms of design and functionality – outside Metropolitan Sydney.

The new National Herbarium of NSW.

Pre-Covid, the NSW Premier had identified a priority to increase the green cover across Greater Sydney by planting one million trees by 2022. A further priority aims to increase the proportion of homes in urban areas within 10 minutes’ walk of quality green, open, and public spaces by 10 per cent by 2023. These priorities take on increased significance in 2021. The increased need to facilitate outdoor interaction may encourage local councils and the state government to adopt more ambitious targets in line with global best practice. The challenge for outdoor place-making in Western Sydney is the significantly higher temperatures, at times soaring 10 degrees hotter than the eastern suburbs.

Global benchmarking is leading RP’s work exploring the key ingredients for liveability at the macro level. The Greater Sydney Commission’s district planning already recognises that liveability is key to great placemaking and is essential to a productive city. RP advocates for governments and urban planners to make decisions on critical targets for tree canopy, access to open space, social infrastructure and residential density. As cities expand and new sites are developed it is important to celebrate natural blue and green assets to cool the city, encourage outdoor interaction, foster liveability, and strongly attract people to live and work. Successful neighbourhoods have distinct identities with local key infrastructure and parks, connecting residents into a broader urban fabric and transport infrastructure.

Connecting to Country

There is growing recognition in Australia that a critical ingredient to creating an authentic place is Designing with Country.  The NSW Government Architect has developed a Connecting with Country Framework for the planning, design and delivery of projects that support the health and wellbeing of Country, respect the guidance and cultural knowledge of local Aboriginal communities, and seek to reduce the incidents of natural events such as fire, drought and floods. Protecting water is protecting Country and hence enhancing people’s experience of local creeks is an important focus for the revival of places, especially in Western Sydney where the health of natural water systems was for many years overlooked in favour of the needs of industry.  Across Australia vibrant community spaces have been created by encouraging the regeneration of local wetlands and waterways, improving the community’s connection and engagement with those places.

 

Moving through 2021, social infrastructure and open space have never been more important to our physical and mental wellbeing. Working with local Councils on local liveability and with NSW Government on new city design, RP is invested in the creation of vibrant places that foster interaction and liveability, with a range of social activities and authentic local experiences, that will greatly enhance our community’s resilience, productivity and long-term economic recovery.

 

Vanessa Weedon is an Associate Director at Root Partnerships leading our Civic & Cultural sector projects in NSW.