Transforming Sydney, City Conversation

(6.30pm 21 May 2012, Sydney Town Hall)

Thank you, Adam Spencer, MC. Welcome, everyone, to our City Conversation. I would like firstly to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the traditional custodians of our land, and to pay my respects to their Elders. I also acknowledge the 200 nationalities who make up our city.

I'm also pleased to welcome our panellists for this evening:

  • The Hon Bruce Baird AM, Chairman, Tourism & Transport Forum
  • Margie Osmond, CEO, Australian National Retailers Association
  • Glenn Byres, Executive Director NSW, Property Council of Australia
  • Chris Jordan AO, Chairman, Committee for Sydney and
  • Martin O'Sullivan, President, NSW Small Bar Association
  • Paul Nicolaou, CEO, Australian Hotels Association, NSW

The City of Sydney is small in geographic terms - just over 26 square kilometres housing 185,000 residents, 390,000 workers and about 500,000 visitors. That means a million people each day who need to get around this relatively small area.

If only for the sake of those residents, workers and visitors, Sydney needs greatly improved transport and clearer connections that will allow them to easily get into the centre and, once here, to easily make their way around.

But the City of Sydney also has a much broader significance. What happens here affects the prosperity of metropolitan Sydney, of NSW and of Australia.

At present, the City generates a full third of the output of metropolitan Sydney and close to eight per cent of Australia's gross domestic product. It's equivalent to the mining industry.

It is by far Australia's leading centre for finance and business services - 70 per cent of all banks and other financial institutions in Australia are headquartered in Sydney.

It is a major educational centre, attracting over 35,000 international students; it is Australia's largest centre for digital, media and telecommunications companies, and of course it's Australia's gateway for international tourists and business visitors. It's Australia's face to the world.

Sixty-four per cent of overall hotel accommodation is located in the City. And if these tourists can't get around the CBD, they're unlikely to venture out to Parramatta or further afield in NSW.

So what happens in the CBD isn't just about making things look "attractive" - though that's important. It's about ensuring that Sydney works and continues to work as a powerhouse of the Australian economy; that it works for residents and visitors, and for all the people who want to do business here.

The challenges are clear before us now: central Sydney is nearing gridlock. In peak hour, buses are locked bumper to bumper down George Street. Town Hall Station is at capacity and, while buildings are growing taller and accommodating more people, our narrow late 18th to 19th century street pattern is bursting at the seams.

At the same time, we are seeing major new developments at Harold Park; at Central Park on Broadway; at Green Square and at Barangaroo.

When it's completed, it's likely that Barangaroo will house over 23,000 workers, more than 2,000 residents and as many as 12 million visitors a year.

Green Square Town Centre will bring another 6,000-plus residents and over 8,000 jobs. In the Greater Green Square area, we will eventually have 40,000 residents and 22,000 jobs.

And Council has commenced a priority review of central Sydney planning controls to ensure future capacity for the commercial development needed to maintain Sydney's global competitiveness.

In central Sydney, the NSW Government is planning an extensive redevelopment of the western side of Darling Harbour, including, a new convention centre, new retail and commercial, and possibly residential in the mix.

If properly supported, these developments could be a tremendous boost to propel Sydney to a new level by addressing existing inadequacies and knitting isolated areas into the fabric of the city as a whole—rejoining the dots to create a city that is smooth-flowing and accessible, a stimulating and joyous place to be.

Our work in the Harbour Village North area - Millers Point, Walsh Bay and Dawes Point, and also in Chinatown, aims to reclaim these areas, reconnecting them to the city and enriching their unique qualities.

We have a vision for how that could be achieved, through our Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan and draft "Connecting our City" plan, a strategic framework showing what transport services and infrastructure are needed.

A key element of the 2030 plan was Jan Gehl's proposal to make George Street the city's great connecting spine, a mass transit mall linking the grand gateways at Circular Quay and Railway Square with light rail and generous space for pedestrians. It would be marked with three civic squares, at the Quay, Town Hall and Central.

Our central city is long and narrow, squeezed between the Macquarie Street ridgeline and the tangle of roadways around Darling Harbour. Its narrow, late 18th to 19th century streets - especially around the Quay - do not help visitors penetrate to the city beyond.

To give the city greater coherence and legibility, we need a clear transit avenue, punctuated by squares which will help define the various precincts in the centre.

Once the George Street light rail is in place, you would move from a transport square in front of Central, past a greatly improved Chinatown and World Square to the entertainment precinct of the cinema belt and on to a civic precinct at Town Hall.

The City is continuing to buy properties across from Town Hall to realise a modern civic square - a meeting place for people - facing our historic Town Hall.

The progression down George Street continues past the existing public space at Martin Place through an enhanced retail sector to terminate at a grand square open to the harbour at Circular Quay.

We've also given priority to revitalising the laneways off George Street, creating a network of vibrant links to surrounding areas. This builds on work already completed in Ash Street and Angel Place in the CBD, and Kimber Lane and Little Hay Street in Chinatown to provide nooks-and-crannies for new art, street life and boutique businesses.

At the same time as this route is built along George Street, the continuous harbour walk promoted in Sustainable Sydney 2030 is being created. It will thread its way from Glebe and Pyrmont to Darling Quarter on the edge of Chinatown through Darling Harbour to Barangaroo, Walsh Bay, the Quay and beyond to the Botanic Gardens and Domain.

This will be the more leisurely, naturalistic counterpoint to the more urban route through George Street and will reinforce along the way the centre's links to our harbour.

When both are complete, the global heart of Sydney will be truly transformed.

This is what we envisaged with our Sustainable Sydney 2030 plans, and our commitment to that vision is serious. Last year, pending the Government's decision on the light-rail route, we set aside $180 million for public domain improvements in conjunction with light rail. Like most of the major infrastructure decisions in Sydney, light-rail falls into the State Government's ambit. But we are committed to working with the State to create a great physical environment which in turn will promote a healthier economic environment.

A city that works for its residents is also the sort of city tourists want to visit and the sort of city that business wants to locate in.

So small bars are part of the big picture, as are cycleways, good shopping, restaurants and easy access to cultural precincts like Walsh Bay - the many facets of the cities we all love to visit, the cities that are smart, creative and, increasingly, sustainable.

Tonight, we'll outline for you how we can transform Sydney - through the work we are able to carry out ourselves, and through the way we can work with government and the private sector to unlock the extraordinary potential of our amazing city.