Architecture in Sydney

On October 30 2023 I delivered a keynote at the Australian Architecture Conference in Canberra. This is the full speech, with a selection of accompanying images.

Architecture in Sydney

Hello everyone, thank you for your invitation to speak at this conference.

I want to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of our land, and to pay my respects to their Elders. I also acknowledge the people of the many nations who live in our country.

Life in politics

To set the scene, I didn’t plan a life in politics. I did an Arts degree and began my life as an English and history teacher in Sydney, before moving to the much wilder east end of London.

After almost five years, I returned to Sydney with my husband and young family and we bought our first home in Redfern. And I couldn’t believe how rundown the area was – relentless through traffic ran down most streets, playgrounds were covered in bitumen with broken equipment surrounded by rusted chainmail fences.

My petitions to the council and to State Representative were unanswered. So it was a community need that got me pacing local streets gathering support for better facilities, it was a need that led me to form a community action group, and it was a need that inspired me stand and be elected to local council.

It charged me, l loved it. While I had no power, when others were behind closed doors doing the numbers, I was out getting trees planted.

I had been at South Sydney Council for a year when it was forcibly amalgamated with the City Council. This was a larger stage with a bigger budget and a more professional environment, which broadened my view to city concerns and governance. But after six-and-a-half years, and possibly because of the growing number of progressive independents, the State Government sacked the City Council.

This spurred me to stand for the 1988 State election and I became the Independent State Member representing the electorate of Bligh, which was later named Sydney following boundary changes. 

Balance of power

As an Independent holding the Balance of Power with John Hatton and Peter McDonald, I was involved in reforms described as the most progressive in any Westminster system in the 20th Century.

Our groundbreaking Charter of Reform – which we negotiated with both the Government and the Opposition – included the introduction of four-year fixed Parliamentary terms and greater independence of the judiciary. We achieved the Royal Commission into police corruption, introduced whistleblower legislation, increased the independence of the Ombudsman and Auditor General and established a Legal Services Commissioner.

In 1992 I was the first Lower House State MP to march in the Mardi Gras and have participated in it most years since then. I introduced the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill so the children of same-sex couples could be adopted by both their parents.

My Boarding Houses and Lodging Houses Bill defined boarding houses as ‘residential’ instead of ‘business’ which cut their council rates, and my Land Tax Legislation (Amendment) Bill extended boarding house land tax exemptions to low-income rental properties. Even 25 years ago, we needed to do more to develop affordable and social housing.

And at the 1999 Drug Summit, I moved the motion which led to the establishment of the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross. To date the Centre has supervised more than 1.26 million injections, successfully managed close to 11,200 overdoses without a single fatality, and made more than 22,000 referrals for people to receive health, counselling and welfare services.

Lord Mayor

In 2004, history repeated itself and South Sydney Council and the Sydney City Council were sacked and amalgamated by the NSW Labor Government in another attempt to get control of the City.

I had not contemplated a return to local government. However I was outraged by this further manipulation of democracy and concerned about the future of our city, I gathered a team of like-minded community representatives and – after a three-week campaign – we won with a majority on the new City of Sydney Council, and I became Lord Mayor.

For eight years I served as both a State representative and Lord Mayor, which was lots of work but very effective, until 2012 when the Government passed the ‘Get Clover Bill’ making it unlawful to hold both positions.

I chose the City because there was so much to do.

George Street – from traffic-choked street to pedestrian boulevard

Sticking to the theme, I’ll highlight a few of Sydney’s major transformations that have links to the past, and are leading to a better future. 

Sydney had had a history of ad hoc interventions rather than considered planning when I became Lord Mayor in 2004, and I wanted to change that with a long-term vision and an implementation strategy. 

I led the development of Sustainable Sydney 2030, the first long-term vision and strategic plan for Sydney since the George Clark Plan for Civic Reform in the 70s. Our plan has not only led to Sydney becoming more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable, but has elevated Sydney to global-city status.

Developing the strategic plan involved the largest consultation in the City’s history involving close to 180,000 people.

We also commissioned the renowned Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl to develop a landmark study that found Sydney needed a coherent, attractive, walkable north-south link. All great cities have such a street – think the Champs Elysees in Paris or Las Ramblas in Barcelona. He identified ours as George Street, the city’s most historic street linking Circular Quay, Town Hall and Central Railway.

But to unclog George Street, we needed a complete overhaul of the bus network, which had remained essentially unchanged since the 1950s, except that there were now 40 buses clogging the street on a daily basis.

A light rail would be the catalyst for the transformation of our city.

Without the light rail, Sydney risked dying in its own congestion. With it, we got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real transformation that would benefit everyone – business owners, residents, workers and visitors.

We lobbied, negotiated and fought hard, and finally, NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian agreed. And as part of the deal, the City contributed $290 million for high-quality public domain. The 12-kilometre long CBD and Light Rail has earned ASPECT Studios with Grimshaw and the City of Sydney the excellence award for infrastructure in the NSW Landscape Architecture 2021 Awards.

Sixty years after the tram network was demolished, light rail returned to George Street and beyond, and we have the start of a new light rail network across Sydney.

On George Street alone, the light rail has resulted in a tremendous uplift. Now, it’s a people’s street. Polluting and noisy buses, trucks and cars have been replaced with a light rail, tree canopies that provide shade and comfort; new street furniture and lighting; interesting lane ways and small bars. And it has attracted $8 billion in private investment.

Inner city to the suburbs and back again

The dominance of the private car led to that demolition of Sydney’s trams in the late 50s and early 60s. Increasing car ownership in the post-War years, spurred by the end of petrol rationing and a recovering economy, persuaded the State Government of the day that freeways were the way of the future.

Families who could afford a car couldn’t wait to leave the inner city for a quarter-acre block in the suburbs. As people moved and the west sprawled, the city became a dead zone outside of nine to five.

It was the oil price shock of the 70s along with rising inflation, unemployment and interest rates that saw families return to the affordable terraces in the inner city areas like Paddington, Balmain, Glebe, Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and even Redfern. Suburbs that had been degraded and deserted were again repopulated, renewed and upgraded.  

In Sydney there has been nothing bigger or more significant than the conversion of the former industrial areas of Waterloo, Zetland and North Rosebery – 278 hectares of land, 3.5 kilometres from the CBD and 4 kilometres from Sydney Airport – that have been redeveloped by the City of Sydney into the largely residential and high-density neighbourhoods of Green Square.

Development of Green Square

By 2036, Green Square will have 63,000 residents and up to 22,000 workers – at a density of about 22,600 people per square kilometre – and it will still be growing. About 50 apartments are finished every week, and 33,000 residents have already moved in.

However, when the City took control in 2006, the project was virtually moribund:

  • The town centre alone was in 18 lots owned by 12 state, local and private owners.
  • The industrial land was heavily contaminated and significantly affected by flooding.
  • There was no State or Federal government commitment for essential infrastructure.

The consortium developing the Green Square town centre argued that higher densities were needed to make development viable. The City made a strong case to the community which supported the densities.

Another hurdle was securing drainage to stop the flooding in this former land of creeks and swamps. This was clearly a State Government responsibility, and Sydney Water finally agreed to a $140 million, 2.5-kilometre trunk stormwater drain, but only if the City funded more than half of it. It went on to win a silver International Water Association Project Innovation Award last year.

With the drainage fixed we could start delivering on a $1.8 billion infrastructure plan for other services and facilities including roads, footpaths and cycleways; new parks and playgrounds; public art and childcare; a major library, creative centre, sustainability centre, a community shed and public school.  

Award-winning public facilities

I have taken State and Federal politicians, and others, on excursions to Green Square showing them the range and the quality of award-winning community buildings and facilities; and public spaces and streets that are safe and accessible with wide footpaths, landscaped verges and tree shade, bike lanes, street furniture and eco lighting. 

This year, the Green Square Town Centre was awarded the Government Leadership Award at the Property Council of Australia’s Innovation and Excellence Awards on top of others won previously.    

The 6,200 square metre park – the Drying Green – designed by McGregor Coxall is one of 40 parks, sports and recreational facilities in Green Square and this year received the Open Space Award of Excellence in the 2023 NSW Landscape Architecture Awards.

The Drying Green is a short walk to the Green Square Library and Plaza which was designed by Stewart and Hollenstein Architects. The library’s flexible spaces for books and technology, meetings, performances and events link to the plaza. It won Australia’s National Property Awards – Woods Bagot Award for Best Public Building in 2020. And in 2019 it won the NSW Architecture Awards – NSW Premiers Prize, and the John Verge Award for Interior Architecture and Awards in Public Adventure and Urban Design.

At the time it was very brave to agree to an underground library in a seriously flooded site.

A short bike ride will take you to Gunyama Park Aquatic Recreation Centre which was opened in 2021. Designed by Andrew Burges Architects in association with Grimshaw Architects and Taylor Cullity Lethlean, among its many architecture and design awards, are the 2021 Australian Institute of Architects National Award in Public Architecture, the 2021 Facility of the Year award and the 2022 Access and Inclusion category award for the Australian Recreation Institute.

There are way too many facilities and awards to list here, I’ll just say the $22 billion Green Square renewal is probably the most architecturally awarded precincts in the country. 

But Green Square still needs dedicated surface transport, and the City has spent $40 million preserving the Eastern Transit Corridor for light rail or electric buses in the immediate term, and the Sydney Metro West in the longer term.

I’ve told the NSW Premier that we will work with him to identify appropriate land and a construction area including consideration of leases, stratum land sales and public domain upgrades to reduce the cost of a delivering a metro station to Zetland.

Density Done Well

Green Square demonstrates that density can be done well.

Today, 75 per cent of the City’s residents live in apartments and by 2036 we expect this to increase to 80 per cent.

With population growth, housing affordability, and climate change contributing to the return to sustainable urban living, there is a marked shift in how Sydneysiders think about living in apartments and raising families in them.

Increased densities and heights can be supported by communities if they lead to public benefits like good infrastructure, design excellence, high-quality public spaces, parks and recreation areas, affordable housing, public transport, walkable streets and bike lanes.

Since I became Mayor, across the City of Sydney, our strong financial position has enabled us to invest $2.6 billion in more than 800 projects including new and upgraded parks, playgrounds, pools, libraries, theatres, childcare centres, community spaces and separated cycleways. And we are on track to deliver more than 4,700 new affordable rental homes in perpetuity by 2036 via developer levies and working with community housing providers.

The city has worked well with developers by using infrastructure contributions where they have been collected.

For example, the City recently approved Meriton’s revision to the planning controls at the four-hectare former Suttons car yard in Green Square which will provide 814 homes. While there were no deviations to the floor space ratio or mixed-use zoning, the proposal included public benefits like a new park with increased sun access, a plaza, new streets for through-site links, a supermarket, childcare, and a voluntary planning agreement for 25 affordable homes on site, in its own building, in perpetuity.

Design Excellence

We are in a housing affordability crisis and there is an enormous demand for new housing, particularly affordable housing, but this should not lead to poor quality homes or developments that wreak neighbourhoods. 

I’ve had legendary battles in the past with Meriton’s Harry Triguboff who used to resist our design excellence requirements, but to his credit, he has recognised the value of it to his customers and his reputation. I was even invited to open one of his new buildings.  

We have achieved greener, more humane, innovative and beautifully designed buildings and public domain areas through our Design Excellence and Competitive Design Policies, which many of you would be familiar with.

Design excellence has been an integral part of the City’s vision for private and public developments.

Since 2004, we have hosted 146 design competitions, and we have won more than 208 significant national and international awards for our projects since then.

In 2007 I established a Design Advisory Panel made up of eminent practitioners who advise on private and our public developments.

In fact, our Design Excellence Strategy and Competitive Design Policy applies to all private and public developments in the City over $100 million, or meeting certain height or land area criteria. It is resulting in environmentally sustainable, innovative and humane buildings and public domain areas.

Quay Quarter Tower

One of Sydney’s latest landmark buildings, Quay Quarter Tower in Bridge Street, designed by Danish firm 3XN with BVN, was this year awarded World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in Lisbon. I also awarded Quay Quarter Tower the Lord Mayor’s Prize in the NSW Architecture Awards this year.

These are just some of the accolades for this stunning building which was realised following negotiations with the City. The overshadowing of Macquarie Place had been a sticking point. Working creatively with the developer we arranged to transfer foregone floorspace from the Loftus Street site to the tower site. This was the first time in NSW that floor space was transferred between discontinuous sites over a public street, and it was secured with an airspace covenant on the title for the completed buildings.

Also, we required the bigger tower to not overshadow the important, surrounding open space of the Royal Botanic Gardens or Macquarie Place. And again with creativity and goodwill, this was achieved by shaping of the crown which, together with the shifting directions of sections of the tower, contributes to the building’s unique appearance.

Quay Quarter Tower is in one of the most historic parts of Sydney and it works well bringing together residential, retail and office spaces, with vibrant new night life and early morning businesses with fine-grain retail to extend the City’s life beyond nine to five.

Salesforce Tower

We also collaborated on Sydney’s tallest office building, the Foster and Partners and Architectus-designed Salesforce Tower in George Street with great results. The development now includes a new public plaza, a beautiful community building designed by Sir David Adjaye, 20-metre-high artwork by Aboriginal artist Daniel Boyd, end-of-trip facilities for 200 bikes and connected retail and hospitality laneways. 

Under a Voluntary Planning Agreement, the first three floors of Salesforce Tower have been provided to the City for 20 years for a climate technology hub – which I opened last week. Known as Greenhouse, it provides space for up to 400 innovators, investors, climate action groups, academics, researchers and committed corporates to collaborate on solutions to the world’s most serious climate problems.

Developments like these humanise, and bring diversity to, the CBD. They are sustainable and inviting as the city centre again becomes populated day and night with people networking and co-creating as they mingle among the public spaces.

Creative Studios

The City of Sydney Creative Studios in the heart of Sydney within a 67-storey residential tower designed by BVN and Woods Bagot were the result of a unique collaboration with developer Greenland Australia.

Greenland acquired the former Water Board offices in Bathurst Street consisting of a 1960s office tower and a 1930s heritage-listed art deco office building by Budden and Mackey. The plan was to convert the heritage building into a hotel and demolish the tower for residential.

As an alternative to the controls for podium and tower setbacks, Greenland agreed to reuse the steel structure of the 1960s tower, saving tonnes of embodied carbon, and graft a new tower on top of it.

When they struggled to obtain approvals for the multi-storey below-ground car park over the future metro rail easement, the City agreed to lift the car park above ground – which was by then unheard of – but only if it was fully sleeved with active floorspace at the lower levels.

As they had no floor space to spare for this purpose, the City granted them additional floor space but only if it were used for a public benefit.

Our research identified an acute shortfall of affordable, rehearsal spaces for the arts in the inner city. Even before the pandemic, our creatives were being priced out of the CBD, leaching life and vitality from our city.

So we negotiated for a five-storey state-of-the-art creative centre that the City would manage for a peppercorn rent for 99 years. The City’s $1.7 million fit-out of this space resulted in 2,000 square metres of dance, theatre, music, film and visual arts facilities, as well as rehearsal spaces, customised studios, offices and production rooms.

A year on, the Creative Studios have had more than 8,000 bookings by individual artists and arts organisations, and are 100 per cent occupied.

Net zero performance standards

In terms of size, cities occupy only 2 per cent of the world’s land mass, but they leave an enormous footprint – 75 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions derive from cities.

And across the City of Sydney, about 76 per cent of emissions are from electricity used to power buildings.

To support the transition to net zero, the city developed Net Zero Performance Standards, which came into effect this month. This means developers must improve the energy efficiency of new office buildings, hotels and retail developments, and achieve net zero from 2026. The performance standards are mandated in our local planning controls.

For over four years, the City collaborated with State Government agencies, other metropolitan councils, developers, property owners and industry bodies sharing technical data and analysis, and practical information about how to implement these performance standards. This information is now freely available on the City’s website. It helped inform the NSW Government’s new State Environmental Planning Policy (Sustainable Buildings) 2022 which also commenced this month.

Already, many DAs that the City is currently assessing are achieving net zero standards. This is three years ahead of time and shows the progress we can make from working together.

Leading by example

However, we lead by example. We were the first Australian government to become carbon neutral in 2007, we have switched to 100 per cent electricity from renewable sources for all our operations including our streetlights, sports fields, depots, libraries, heritage buildings…even our parking meters are solar powered.

We reached our goal of a 70 per cent reduction in emissions in our operations in 2021 – nine years ahead of our target – and we are now tracking at 77 per cent.

And we have committed to an ambitious net zero target for the whole of our local government area by 2035.


Transport is another major emitter of carbon, contributing about 20 per cent of Sydney’s emissions, with the majority from private vehicles.

We have an Electrification of Transport in the City Strategy and Action Plan which will expand electric vehicle charging points across the city and look at how to retrofit strata-run apartments with EV chargers to encourage electric vehicle use and reduce traffic emissions. But the only true solution is to shift from private vehicles to modes of transport with lower emissions like public transport, walking and cycling.

Since I became Mayor, we have installed 25 kilometres of safe, separated cycleways, 60 kilometres of shared paths and 40 kilometres of other cycling infrastructure. And bike trips in the City area have more than doubled since 2010 when independent counts began.

In the past financial year, the City opened 5 kilometres of cycleways, filling many gaps in our bike network.

Of all our City projects, building separated cycleways has been some of the hardest. In The Sydney Morning Herald last month, even the Secretary of the Department of Planning and Environment, Kiersten Fishburn, the said the only thing more controversial than a proposed motorway is a proposed cycleway.

In 2004, there were no separated cycleways in Sydney. The Bourke Street cycleway – linking Woolloomooloo, Surry Hills, Redfern and Waterloo – was one of the first that I opened, and the reaction from some media and the State Government was vicious and hysterical. You would have thought I was opening a nuclear reactor.

But residents and local businesses loved it. The Bourke Street Bakery handed out thousands of the City’s cycling guides and maps, and new businesses opened along its route including a bicycle café and two bicycle shops. And at the following election, my primary vote increased at the Bourke Street booth.

By prioritising walking, cycling and public transport, we have reshaped mobility, transformed local neighbourhoods and created a city of villages. We have main streets and other public places that are thriving with their own distinctive characters and focal points for social interactions, creating communities.

A giant of urbanism, who I’ve met and have been inspired by, the former Mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa said: ‘A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.’

He said a separated bicycle way is a symbol of democracy. ‘It shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally as important as one in a $30,000 car.’

Penalosa’s work underscored the principle that footpaths and cycleways are basic human rights, that streets are for people and that bike paths reinforce equity.

Eora Journey

Two weeks ago following the referendum, many people were profoundly disappointed that Australia could not say Yes to its First Nations people. We could not say Yes, we will walk with you, we will recognise you in the Constitution, and you will have a Voice to guide Parliament in actions that affect your lives.  

I was a strong supporter of the Voice and that truth-telling about Australia’s history is at the heart of meaningful relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities which benefits the whole country.  

We established an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Panel which, since 2008, has been the City’s ‘voice’ providing guidance on projects, plans, policies and strategies that affect Indigenous communities in our area.

This includes the Eora Journey – a series of major artworks marking out a route from the site of first contact on Sydney Harbour to the home of Aboriginal activism in Redfern. Already Indigenous artists have completed four of the seven powerful and stunning artworks in the journey including the latest, bara in the Botanic Gardens by Judy Watson. This 6.4-metre marble representation of a fishhook that Aboriginal women made for fishing in Sydney Harbour won the National Trust Heritage Awards, Aboriginal Heritage prize this year.

bara and the many other artworks, events and celebrations recognise, empower and celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture across the City. This is part of truth-telling and rebalancing our city’s heritage to reflect all its history and heritage.

While the referendum is over, our work for First Nations justice must continue. In the words of lawyer and one of the architects of Uluru Statement, Noel Pearson: ‘It falls to our generation to unite the three stories of Australia: our ageless Indigenous heritage, our esteemed British institutions and our glorious multicultural unity.’

Sydney’s future

Cities all over the world have large civic spaces where people can come together, and we are pursuing the creation of great city squares to provide world-class locations for local, national and international celebrations and further boost Sydney’s reputation.  

A new square in front of Customs House reconnecting the city to our spectacular harbour would involve removing the Cahill Expressway. Ironically Jo Cahill, the Premier who gave us the magnificent Opera House, also gave us the Cahill Expressway.

Once the Western Harbour Tunnel is completed in 2027, the roadway can be removed.

We recently announced a $35 million revitalisation of Sydney Square which is between the Town Hall and St Andrew’s Cathedral, and its surrounding public areas. The transformation of this pebblecrete space into a lively square between two important sandstone buildings is a natural extension of our George Street boulevard.

And Central Square will be the centre of an expanded Central Station and part of the Tech Central innovation precinct. The scale of development planned at the southern end of the city will make this Sydney's strongest drawcard for attracting new talent, researchers, investment, startups, and global companies looking for an international office location.

This will link to our vision of green gateways into the city from Broadway, with wide footpaths, trees and landscaping, a cycleway and a light rail, subject to feasibility.  We also envision major improvements to our Oxford Street and Botany Road gateways.

In Conclusion

Unlike Canberra, Sydney’s development has evolved relatively piecemeal to house and support a growing population, and to suit the ideology of the governments of the day.

However, since 2004 the City has had a long-term vision, underscored by guiding principles, implementation strategies, transformative projects and targets to measure progress. Sydney is Australia’s global city and our vision sets us up for even greater environmental, social and economic success.

We continue to learn from the past and look to the future.

We have high ambitions. Sydney’s future is exciting, and we are all part of that. There is still so much to do.