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An article, “Jumpstart for an urban heart” (Spectrum, July 30-31), should have stated the tender race for Parramatta’s Civic Place was between Multiplex and Grocon, not Multiplex and Leighton.

 : Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 30-Jul-2005

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum

Subsection: Books

Page: 27

Wordcount: 1256


Jumpstart for an urban heart



Plans are afoot to restore vigour to the heritage core of Parramatta, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.

You remember the line: a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Had Gloria Steinem phrased her immortal quip with just one different word, the entire history of feminism might have been less (as it were) glorious. While fish may not need bicycles, they do, it seems, need ladders. Especially Australian fish and especially at a number of well-meant historic weirs on the Parramatta River. Fish architecture isn’t the biggest thing happening in Parramatta, but it is both an imagination catcher and an irresistible, bite-sized symbol of our need to make reparations to the planet.

There are four weirs in question, between Charles Street at the estuarine harbour head and the Upstream Weir in Parramatta Park. All are heritage-listed or essential for flood control, or both. All, however, profoundly disrupt the migratory lifestyles of up to 11 native fish species, including bass, striped mullet and the eels “that lie down”, for which the Dharug Aborigines named the city. Some, such as the bass, live upriver but spawn only at sea; others vice versa. Either way, the weirs form impassable barriers where both fingerlings and adults congregate hopelessly, delighting winged predators and exotic competitors.

The ladders, pending approval, range from a chain of simulated sandstone refuge ponds up one side of the river to a working mechanical lock. Each would facilitate the passage of our comparatively weak fish, adapted to the slow rivers of a flat country, against an artificially enhanced river flow. The idea is not only to restore the river’s health, and that of the fish, but also that the relatively aggressive native bass (or freshwater perch) will compete with the introduced carp, keeping this cane toad of the waterways in check.

At a cost of $600,000, it is a small project, I guess, but a powerful symbol, not least because of the crucial role the fish and eels played in pulling the entire Australian settlement project though its starvation years. Not just fish, either. Loaves, too, since it was Parramatta Park, the region’s bread basket as sown by James Ruse, that staved off famine in Sydney town. Now Sydney’s sister CBD is threatened by famine of another kind. How do you rescue a city centre that is old and a little tired, with a rich and vigorous history, but burdened by the very combination of working-class culture and heritage fabric that constitutes its greatest strength? It’s the million-dollar question.

Some people push the Guggenheim line: that Parramatta’s salvation – like Bilbao’s – depends on developing one huge cultural magnet. Others focus on more standard solutions: retail enhancement, night-life, eat streets, transport, public art, urban design and improved employment opportunities. Probably, they’re all right.

David Borger is Parramatta’s energetic thirtysomething Lord Mayor. A planner by profession and urbanist by temperament, he is in the throes of a master’s degree in urban design. Normal enough, you might think, but seeing an urban place as an urban place, rather than a cash cow, is something of a turnaround for this city.

Ten years ago, when Borger was first elected as a councillor, he faced a wall of what he calls “rissole culture”: a culture dominated by war veterans and leagues clubs, presuming an unhealthy intimacy between developers, councillors and planning staff and flavoured by a distinct whiff of corruption. It wasn’t peculiar to Parramatta, or even NSW, or even Australia. In Parramatta, where councillor intervention in particular development assessments was the norm, rissole culture was shameless and persistent. “It was nothing,” Borger says, “for council to vary its own height or [floor space ratio] rules by 150 per cent.”

The State Government’s 1998 report on Parramatta Council details an especially enchanting instance of rissolism. A council-owned riverbank site, complete with heritage church, was for sale. Meriton was interested, but negotiations to purchase hinged on negotiations to develop. This gave the council three hats – vendor, planner, consent authority – encouraging it to mould development rules to its own (and/or Meriton’s) financial interest. Further, the proposal was handled by the council’s director of environmental services whose son suddenly took a job with, well, Meriton. The report found no corruption in this instance but pointed out that both the system and the culture provided clear incentives in that direction.

Rissole culture, having other priorities, tends to be underwhelmed by stuff like urban quality. “Try explaining urban grain or texture to these guys,” Borger says. He’s right. I’ve tried it. It’s hard. Now, all that is changing. The energy in the air is palpable. There are huge developments: the very accomplished and multi-award-winning NSW police headquarters building by Bates Smart McCutcheon; the $100million railway station improvement project; the vast Civic Place redevelopment, subject to a tender race between Leighton and Multiplex and likely to produce a number of towers of up to 42 storeys (commercial, residential, retail and civic) around a central public space; and a major expansion of the Westfield Parramatta shopping centre along the southern side of the railway line.

All this is fine and good – apart, perhaps, from the Westfield expansion, which adds 11 cinemas, 70 shops and 200 car spaces to the already gargantuan shoppingtown, and which can only exacerbate its vampire effect on Church Street Mall. Westfield defenders point to its ability to draw 18 million people annually into Parramatta. But I say this: if the shopping hordes stay trapped inside Westfield’s teflon bubble – precisely its design brief – where’s the benefit?

Borger, though, is undaunted. He bubbles with ideas: plumping the garbage lanes with tiny bars and cafes, filling the 83 heritage buildings on the Cumberland Hospital site with artists’ studios, sustaining and expanding the biennial Parramatta Design Excellence Awards, and reintroducing traffic flow into the top half of Church Street Mall by Christmas. This last ambition could test him, since putting flow back into streets is every bit as difficult, politically, as putting flow back into rivers. And, of course, there are the fish ladders, busy taking Parramatta from a place where the eels lie down to one where the eels stand up and walk.

Speaking of rivers, it might be worth looking to nature for clues. Parramatta began experimentally, as James Ruse’s last-ditch experiment in 1789 in colonial survival. My feeling is that a bold, necessity-driven eco-experiment could pay off again. Cleaning up the river, say. Liberating it from that grey storm-drain straitjacket, lining it with organic and growers’ markets (modelled on London, not Fox Studios), and giving the city the bright, green, truly urban heart it should always have had.

Meanwhile, I am flattered to find my first column in this spot blogged by Sydney City’s lone Liberal councillor, Shayne Mallard. “Familiar and boorish cynicism,” writes Mallard. Well, “cynical” I graciously accept, but “boorish” is just too kind. For the truly boorish and cynical, not to say downright dopey, one need look no further than the Libs themselves, unanimously supporting Bob Carr’s totalitarian amendments to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act in the House, then whingeing because democracy doesn’t get a look-in to the new de-salivation, sorry, desalination, plant that would pump hot brine into the bay. No raw prawn for Kurnell. All crustacea to be thoroughly boiled.


THREE PHOTOS: MAIN PHOTO: DOMINO POSTIGLIONE In flux … (clockwise from above) Church Street Mall; NSW police headquarters interior; and a Nepean River fish ladder.


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