Re-imagining Parramatta: A place to discover Australia's many stories

Commissioned article for Griffith Review

03 October 2018

Re-imagining Parramatta: Negotiating the Arrival of Australia's Next Great City

This article appeared in Griffith Review’s collection Who We Are (Edition 61, 2018). It is based on a Research Report led by Dr. Sarah Barns when based at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. The Griffith Review article was co-authored with Phillip Mar. The full research report Waves of People can be accessed here (pdf). The Conversation also republished the article here.

THERE ARE JACKHAMMERS everywhere. A new Parramatta is emerging out of the rubble, seeking to make real its tag line: ‘Australia’s next great city’. Thickets of new residential and commercial towers are rising – testament to the city’s ferocious ambition – overshadowing what remains of the squat, 1970s office blocks built during Parramatta’s previous development boom.

Over the next five years, more than $10 billion will be poured into this city. A city that has long tried to overcome its outer suburban reputation can ingest this volume of cash when its empty skies take on an actuarial sensibility, recalibrated in square-metre portions and sold off to the highest bidders. A city can be transformed this quickly when it is finally revealed to be pivotal to the workings of the vast conurbation that is Greater Metropolitan Sydney, whose spaces of flow increasingly clog without a profitable and attractive ‘second CBD’ to ease the blockages mounting daily around Sydney Cove.

There are many today who loudly proclaim Parramatta’s centrality to the story of Sydney. ‘The stars are aligning,’ says Lucy Turnbull, CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission, who recently rebadged Parramatta Sydney’s ‘Central City’ – no longer subsumed by, but on equal footing with, the sparkling ‘Eastern City’. Mike Baird, when premier of NSW in 2015, called Parramatta nothing less than ‘the infrastructure capital of the world’, its fortunes tied closely to those of the state and the nation. We have a ‘once in a generation’ chance, he said, to transform the city. ‘There’s always been a belief on the ground of how important, significant and great Parramatta city and region is but today it has gone beyond that, we are starting to see something quite transformational taking place’.[i]

Baird was acknowledging the efforts of the well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual planners of the twentieth century, who tried repeatedly to reorient Sydney’s growth around this place where salt and fresh waters meet. When the agricultural settlements of the Cumberland Plain became the outer suburbs of Australia’s largest metropolis, forming a new urban region called ‘Western Sydney’, Parramatta ought, the planners urged, to have been treated as Sydney’s geographical heart. And yet, despite their sensible attempt at long-term urban re-engineering, the money stubbornly refused to flow.

Things have changed. The investors have finally arrived; the cranes are everywhere. The west is booming, as the NSW Government releases huge tracts of land in the north-west and south-west of Sydney for development. ‘Smack in the middle lies Parramatta,’ says developer Andrew Young, explaining to Domain in March 2017 why developers are now cashing in on Parramatta’s rise.[ii] National Australia Bank is setting up its new headquarters at the $2 billion development that is Parramatta Square. A new light rail network is on the way. Western Sydney University has completed its $220.5 million high-rise campus. A new $1 billion health precinct at Westmead is coming.

All this, seemingly, at once.

So, Parramatta is a city on the make. And the numbers tell us why. The NSW Government’s population projections show Greater Sydney growing by more than 1.5 million people over the next two decades. More than forty thousand people are expected to move to Parramatta in the next five years. Numbers like these provide our city leaders with irrefutable evidence to defend the current rate of redevelopment. Presented as objective fact, too often it’s forgotten that such numbers are primarily expressions, not of a certain future, but of a recent past, projected forward in time.

Today’s population projections are comprised, to no small extent, by yesterday’s migration policies. They are not an inevitable future, but an intentional one, a story about where we want to go. In the twelve months to March 2017, the total number of arrivals, measured as part of ‘net overseas migration’ reached 540,300, exceeding any previous year.[iii] As levels of net overseas migration increase, population projections are continually adjusted upwards.

Western Sydney attracts a high proportion of Australia’s migrants, and Parramatta, in particular, is a city being radically reshaped to meet the volume of demand projected off the back of this recent, record-breaking intake. Between the 2001 and 2016 census dates, the city welcomed almost twenty thousand more Indian-born residents and sixteen thousand Chinese-born arrivals. Over the same period, the number of Parramatta’s Australian-born grew by just six thousand. Today, the proportion of Parramatta’s population that identifies as Australian by ancestry is just 13 per cent, compared to 23 per cent for Australia as a whole. Fewer than five in ten Parramatta residents were born in Australia, and for at least seven out of ten, both parents were born overseas.

Clearly, Parramatta’s $10 billion transformation is preparing the city for a future that will be culturally distinct from its past. Australia’s next great city is emerging as a beacon of our nation’s hopeful, cosmopolitan future, built on growth, multiplied. But what kind of city will it be?

A city, after all, is more than the sum of its speculative real estate investments and projected demand. Cities, as Leonie Sandercock reflected in her essay ‘Practicing Utopia’, are ‘neither organisms nor machines. They are flesh and stone intertwined. They are “built thought”.’ Surely, to be great a city must capture our imaginations? It must offer, all at once, a place to get lost in and a place in which to belong. In great cities we seek both refuge in the crowd and a sense of connection with something bigger than our selfies.

The greatest cities of the world also immerse us in experiential encounters with the archaeology of other eras. They are storied landscapes. Walking through these cities, we quite naturally absorb the daily integration of archaic infrastructures – horse troughs, cobblestones, ceramic piping – with the computationally connected services of our emergent present. It is through the remnant traces of past eras that we can imagine a sense of physical connection with those who came before us.

We hear a lot about the challenges that population growth brings to Australian cities. Mostly, we are conditioned to thinking of these challenges as infrastructural, or monetary. As demand outstrips supply, roads are getting clogged and houses too expensive. We need more roads, more transport, more housing, to accommodate the swelling numbers of people coming here from across the globe.

But as our new, denser urban forms are rapidly realised, with forests of cranes and thickets of high-rise apartments replacing the sleepy suburbs that once represented the Australian dream, we’re also going to need to rebuild, as it were, the narratives of place and of belonging that define our cities. Without such narratives, our instant cities will struggle to be more than a duplicitous rendering in a real-estate brochure.

For those who have learned from the failures of twentieth-century modernism, there is now widespread recognition that what Jan Gehl famously called the ‘life between buildings’ – the shared social spaces of our cities extending beyond their built form – is vital to the success of a city. The life that happens between buildings shapes a sense of place and a sense of urban dynamism.

As Robert Hughes once said, delivering a National Trust lecture in 1998 on Australia’s forgotten histories: ‘An urban culture that predicates itself chiefly on an obsession with development is not worth having. A city needs deep memory, without which it becomes merely a stage set.’ It is the accumulation of stories and experiences inscribed in built form that gives a place its distinct identity. Such stories are not only for the culturally sensitive: they drive real-estate investment too. When a city is rebuilt from scratch, we risk losing these stories and connections.

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