In the Great Depression era in Sydney, a vast stretch of ugly docks on the western side of a then-nascent CBD was known as ‘the hungry mile’ because of the daily queues of desperate, unemployed men looking for laboring work to help feed their families.
If they could, those men would no doubt look in amazement at the gleaming commercial and residential towers, restaurants, shops, and pristine harborside parkland that make up the 22ha site now known as Barangaroo.
The only queues there these days are office workers ordering their morning macchiatos.
Fishermans Bend is an ambitious urban renewal project that will bring together 80,000 residents and another 80,000 commuting workers. Picture: Planning Victoria
In time, the current residents of Melbourne will likely marvel in the same way at Fishermans Bend, a massive 480ha site on the banks of the Yarra River near the CBD that has been called Australia’s biggest urban renewal project.
And when the Olympic circus moves on from Brisbane after it has hosted the 2032 Games, old-time residents may talk about how inner-city suburbs like Woolloongabba and Annerley have transformed because of new transport infrastructure, and how a purpose-built athlete’s village completed the gentrification of formerly industrial Northshore Hamilton.
If change is one of life’s only certainties, it’s never more obvious than in our ever-evolving urban landscapes.
Why urban renewal is essential
Urban renewal – the redevelopment of dilapidated or outdated city areas, particularly industrial zones, into modern mixed-use precincts – is seen by city planners as a necessary antidote to undesirable suburban sprawl.
It encourages businesses and people to move close to city centres, through an often-tenuous coalition of public and private sectors.
And because the housing is predominantly medium- and high-density, it can help to address supply and affordability.
“These developments close to the city – areas like Green Square in Sydney, for example – are a real boon for affordability,” PropTrack economist Angus Moore said.
“Building more homes is the only real solution for the affordability crisis in the long-term.
“In cities like Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, there is no free land available close to CBDs so that means redevelopment is essential.”
The Barangaroo urban renewal project has made waves internationally for its design and execution. Picture: Getty
Sydney leading the way on renewal
Barangaroo has been the most high-profile of the Harbor City’s urban renewal projects because of its prime CBD location, the involvement of former Prime Minister Paul Keating in its planning and development, and the controversy over James Packer’s Crown development there.
It’s still an $8.7 billion work in progress, with the plans for its final stage only just revealed, but Barangaroo has already completely transformed the western side of the CBD, with eye-catching architecture and vast, internationally acclaimed public parklands replacing unused and unsightly old waves.
It will have its own train station in 2024 as part of the city’s expanded Metro line, by which time an anticipated 3500 people will call the precinct home – 3501 when the $100 million penthouse at One Barangaroo, atop Crown Tower, is finally sold.
“Barangaroo is an incredible precinct,” said Max Shifman, national president of the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA). “It’s world class – it has become a destination in itself.”
But other major projects have also started to change the face of inner-city areas once populated by factories or docks.
The mammoth Green Square project will be home to 70,000 residents by 2036. Picture: Urbis
Green Square, a $13 billion development 3.5km south of the Sydney CBD, which takes in the former working class and light industrial suburbs of Mascot, Alexandria, Zetland, Rosebery, and Waterloo, is in the midst of becoming one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas.
The 2.78sqkm precinct is predicted to have 70,000 residents by 2036, giving it a higher population density than Karachi, Macau, and Mumbai.
But careful planning, spearheaded by the City of Sydney council, has ensured there is plenty of open space among the apartment towers, with 40 parks and recreational spaces, an award-winning public library, and a new aquatic centre. Dining and retail options will eventually be expanded and there’s also a planned primary school.
Bays West, on the Rozelle-Balmain peninsula just west of the CBD, is the latest Sydney urban renewal project on the drawing board. It’s another initiative that will transform a former industrial and shipping precinct.
With a remediated and repurposed historic power station as its focal point, the 73ha site – once touted as a possible tech hub, with Google briefly eyeing it as a possible Australian headquarters – is to set to include 18,000sqm of parkland as well as offices, housing, cafes and restaurants, and community and cultural facilities.
The first stage masterplan, which is currently on display, limits building heights to 22-storeys to preserve sightlines to the 1912-era White Bay Power Station. There will be a Bays train station by 2028 as part of the Metro expansion.
The Bays West initiative is another major urban renewal project in Sydney. Picture: Planning NSW
But Melbourne will have the biggest
The Fishermans Bend project, nestled between the Yarra River and Port Melbourne, is one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects ever planned in Australia.
With an employment zone and four distinct residential precincts covering two municipalities, it is expected to house 80,000 residents by its scheduled completion in 2050, with a further 80,000 workers commuting there daily.
But while the scale of the project is vast, so has been the squabbling between various government departments and developers, leading to a frustrating delay in progress so far, even though some buildings have been designed and approved.
“It can be absolutely wonderful,” said Terry Taylor, who created his Fishermans Bend Realty agency more than a decade ago, when the project first started percolating.
“I suspect they will get some of it right and some of it not right.”
Mr Taylor, along with other stakeholders, is concerned that proposed car parking limitations and an apartment-heavy dwelling plan may deter families from living there, despite planned infrastructure such as primary and high schools.
He said this could lead to a transitional population of renters or short-term owners using it as a step-up to more traditional housing in the suburbs.
He said innovative design was needed to make apartments family friendly, with separate car parking stations for those who needed more than one vehicle.
Also important was the positioning of towers at angles, so that everyone can enjoy views of the water and planned open spaces, rather than simply facing each other’s balconies.
“There is the opportunity there to make something of great significance,” Mr Taylor said. “Something as large as this so close to the city is very, very rare and it can be amazing.”
The Gabba precinct will be dramatically transformed in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. Picture: Queensland Government
And it’s Gold to Brisbane
When it was announced that Brisbane had won the bid to host the 2032 Olympic Games, there was the usual hyperbolic claims about the economic benefits headed the way of the city and Queensland, with a touted $8.1 billion benefit.
But even if Olympic Games rarely stick to budget and rarely deliver such juicy returns for the host city, there is no doubt that accompanying transport and facility infrastructure will have long-lasting impacts on certain areas.
The $1 billion upgrade of the Gabba to Olympic stadium status and an accompanying train station as part of the Cross River Rail project is great news for the suburbs of Wolloongabba and nearby Annerley, which is already one of Brisbane’s biggest emerging growth areas.
But perhaps the biggest impact will be in already upmarket Northshore Hamilton, the proposed site of an athletes’ village, which will temporarily house an estimated 10,000 competitors and officials during the Games.
“The Olympics will do for Northshore Hamilton what Expo 88 did for South Bank,” predicted Queensland Deputy Premier and State Development Minister Steven Miles.
“Village construction will crystalise the area’s long-term plan and rejuvenate the existing industrial land.”
The Athletes’ Village at Hamilton’s Northshore will be another significant legacy of the Games. Picture: Queensland Government
Post-Games plans for the village, which will lie on the banks of the Brisbane River, are to repurpose it for aged care, retirement living, social and affordable housing, key worker housing, a hotel, and build-to-rent accommodation.
“That area already has a mix of high-density, luxury and lifestyle properties and creating a village will definitely add value and be another reason for people to go there,” said local agent Damon Warat from Ray White Ascot.
“Fifteen years ago, it was mainly industrial with lots of sheds and businesses, and it still has some of those. But there are also some large-scale apartment developments with everything from one-bedders to penthouses and a couple of luxury waterfront homes worth $10 million-plus.”
Big, ambitious urban renewal projects take time to outcome. Picture: Queensland Government
Projects can take decades to reach their full potential
Mr Shifman said there was a broad range of criteria needed to determine whether an urban renewal project was successful or not.
“One of the key things is creating a mixed-use plan so it’s not purely commercial and not purely residential,” he said.
“The area needs to be activated at all times of the day and that typically happens more in areas that are being built close to major CBDs which benefit from better infrastructure and better transport.
“One of the things people need to remember about these projects is they need time to develop their own character.
“People used to say funny things about Docklands in Melbourne, that it had no soul or was desolate. But that opinion has changed.
“You have to look at these things over 10, 20, 30-year time frames.”