THE NSW GOVERNMENT ARCHITECT AND HASSELL CREATE WATER RESPONSIVE PARKS, STREETS AND PUBLIC SPACES FOR VICTORIA PARK PRECINCT.
AS A FUSION OF constructed ecology and contemporary urbanism, Victoria Park is the most innovative outcome to date of the rezonings and redevelopment of the former industrial lands of South Sydney, which stretch from the CBD to the airport. Centred on the Green Square station of the Sydney-Airport rail link, the overall renewal scheme is decades from completion, but individual landholdings are currently being transformed into new residential and commercial precincts. Victoria Park, 25 hectares in extent, is one of the largest of these.
Developed by Landcom, the NSW Government land development agency, the site is located three kilometres south of central Sydney, bounded by South Dowling Street and the airport motorway on the east, and the terrace-lined streets of Zetland on the west.
The new work here, including the new landscape and streetscape work recently completed by the Government Architect’s office and Hassell, is best understood in relation to the site’s history – both its distant past and its recent history of competitions and masterplans.
Prior to European settlement, the site was a lagoon and swamp, part of the sand dune and swale formations of the Botany sand beds which drain from Centennial Park and Moore Park to the tidal estuary of the Cooks River and Botany Bay. Around 1910, the lagoon was drained and filled to create the Victoria Park Race Course, a private pony track promoted by the newspaper proprietor, property developer and gambling man, Sir James Joynton Smith. After World War II the flat, filled site was acquired by the British Motor Corporation for a car plant which produced the Morris Minor and other triumphs of British engineering until the P76 debacle of the 1970s. The site then passed to the Commonwealth of Australia and was used as a Naval Stores depot for twenty years. By the 1990s, structural change in Australia’s manufacturing sector had led to further plant closures in the vicinity and the beginnings of redevelopment pressure, increased by the Olympics-influenced decision to build the Sydney-Airport rail link through the centre of this declining industrial belt. Enthusiasm for a new, transport-oriented urban quarter minutes from central Sydney was tempered by the realization that any form of urban renewal would require large-scale land remediation, large-scale infrastructure investment, new approaches to flood control and a totally new urban pattern.
The dimensions of this challenge were presented in clear and compelling terms by Chris Elliott in his winning entry in the 1995 Visions for Green Square competition conducted by South Sydney Council. The Elliott scheme proposed water-based ecological corridors integrated with strong urban form, retained industrial “armatures”, and a fine-grained street grid. However, implementing these ideas at overall district scale has proved exceptionally difficult. The establishment of regional eco-corridors and a new urban grid has been thwarted by the persistence of old property boundaries, a dysfunctional road network, and the creation of a central steering body, the South Sydney Development Corporation, without benefit of a land bank. In terms of effective urban renewal, progress has been limited to a disconnected series of individual sites. At this scale, Landcom – with its strategic land holdings and state government backing – has emerged as the principal instigator of inner-city change, very different to its main role as a broadacre developer on the urban periphery. Victoria Park is Landcom’s first inner-city project, and, as a site design experiment, it has demonstrated the immense possibilities of the green matrix/urban grid solution anticipated in Chris Elliott’s 1995 district study.
Victoria Park is planned as a mixed-use urban neighbourhood with 612,000 square metres of residential, commercial, retail and community floor space; 1,800 dwelling units in a variety of configurations from terrace houses to walk up, mid rise and high rise residential flats; 15 per cent of the total site area dedicated as open space; and a population of 3,000 residents. Early plans also called for 3,000 office workers and 25 per cent of the total floor space allocated to commercial uses, but expectations for a strong commercial zone along the airport motorway have not been realized and this part of the site has been largely reallocated to residential use.
The first version of the masterplan, prepared by Cox Richardson in 1998, established the road system as a rectangular grid, oriented north-south, embellished with a somewhat mannered crescent and circus suggestive of American new urbanism, if not Bath and Regent’s Park. The scheme did reject the possibility of a gated community and proposed a public domain network integrated with the streets and open spaces of Zetland. The built form elements were designed to step in scale from terrace houses and walk up units on the Zetland frontage to feature towers along the airport motorway. The Cox Richardson scheme conserved the superb plantings of over-arching fig trees on Joynton Avenue and located a prime-view park on the central sweep of the crescent, configured as a dual use recreation zone and flood detention basin, edged by a stormwater canal.
In 1999, a competition for the detailed design of the public domain thoroughly tested the water management issues and highlighted the need for a revised masterplan to integrate flood control, aquifer recharge and water quality measures with the physical design of the streets and parks.
A team from the NSW Government Architect’s office, headed by Penny Allan and Margaret Petrykowski, proposed a radical re-working of the Cox Richardson scheme.
The north-south grid, central park and crescent were replaced with an east-west grid aligned for maximum fall across the flat terrain, with street verges configured as bioretention swales connected to a detention basin/park at the lowest point of the site, adjoining the figs on Joynton Avenue.
A more conservative solution, proposed by a team from Hassell headed by Ken Maher and Tony McCormick, accepted the practical limitations of the Cox Richardson street pattern – then in documentation – and sought ways to work with the alignment of the north-south grid, crescent and central park across the fall of the site by introducing filtration beds and porous paving.
Selected as joint winners of the competition, the Government Architect’s office and Hassell collaborated to infuse radical storm water systems into the prevailing street pattern of the Cox Richardson scheme. The integrated design of the public domain turned to advantage the inherent constraints of the site – the sand formations of the Botany Basin, the impermeable peat beds of the ancient swamps, the high water table, and the slight fall of the flat terrain – to overcome problems of ponding, flooding and a generally marshy land surface.
The key to the revised masterplan, developed in association with environmental engineer Dr Tony Wong and ecologist Dr Peter Breen, is a wide cross-section and re-worked profile of the east-west streets. The conventional approach of a central camber graded kerb-and-gutter edge along the footpaths, then to drainage pits and stormwater pipes, is inverted so that dual carriageways drain inwards from the footpath edge to a saw tooth, permeable kerb, then to a bio-remediation swale located in the median.Water flows into the swales and is filtered and infiltrated by sand beds, grasses and groundcovers which remove most of the particulate matter and contaminants suspended in urban stormwater. The plantings, selected for drought and flood tolerance, assist in the uptake of nitrogenous wastes and create a root mat which keeps the sand filters stable and free draining.
The swale system is designed to treat first flush stormwater on the principle that the first flush after a dry period is the most contaminated. Flows in excess of a one-infive- year event are captured by a system of weirs and inlets set beneath pedestrian bridges which are built across the swales. Peak flows are channelled through subsurface pipes to the dished excavation of the detention basin located in the central park, which falls to a sedimentation pond and constructed wetland set within a grove of paperbarks.
Due to the location of the detention basin in the centre of the scheme, rather than the low point on the western boundary, the system needs a pump-out capacity, which is also utilised to draw irrigation water from the aquifer during long periods of low rainfall.
To express the artifice of this solution, a water sculpture by Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford is installed as a surreal series of steps set into the slopes of the central basin – a controlled cascade of recycled stormwater. The water for this strange work seems to well from an unknown source – but it is drawn from the final stage of the water treatment process, a storage tank and reed bed integrated with a pocket park at the western entrance to the neighbourhood.
At all times, the landscape is configured as an abstract, urban composition, re-presenting streets, avenues, parks and promenades as a series of inflections of traditional types. This quality is reinforced by the housing schemes completed to date, which reinterpret perimeter block and courtyard patterns in the abstract language of neo-modernism, with more than a nod to Northern European prototypes. In the bright sun of Sydney, the necessary overlay of fins, screens and hoods somewhat revitalizes this design language and demonstrates a capacity to make something of pattern book solutions and urban design guidelines. Built works by Turner Associates, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, Crone Nation, LFA, Neometro, Synman Justin Bialek, GroupGSA and the NSW Government Architect are generally urbane, inventive and successful at street level, with blade walls, planters and entry steps resolving the grade change to a consistent firstfloor level. This level is set throughout the estate half a storey above the footpath, a design control which reinforces the human scale of the street and makes manifest the high water table of the site in the practical provision of a naturally ventilated, partially excavated car park.
East of the crescent, and along the airport motorway, the next wave of development will see the completion of tower block/podium schemes designed by Turner Associates/ Bolles + Wilson and Johnson Pilton Walker. These projects will put to the test the feature tower concept of the Cox Richardson masterplan, in addition to filling out the crescent as a series of articulated wedges, in muted defiance of the Regency models. The formalism of these large-scale works is provocative, but incidental to the big idea of Victoria Park – the water-responsive design of the streets and public parks. The development of this idea by the Government Architect’s office and Hassell, despite the constraints imposed by the original masterplan, has produced a distinctive streetscape and a distinctive expression of constructed ecology – one-dimensional in terms of the true demands of sustainable design, but certainly significant as a development scheme shaped by the creative manipulation of water.
JAMES WEIRICK IS PROFESSOR OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES