Swimming in the Harbour

On Monday 18 October, I addressed the Sydney Water Innovation Festival, and shared some of the thinking we've been doing around opportunities to swim in the Harbour.

Greater Sydney Harbour is one of the world’s greatest Harbours and is a state, national and global asset.
It stretches from its upper tidal limits on the Parramatta River downstream to the ocean entrance between North and South Head. Its catchments are the home of 3.07 million people (projected to go to 4.35 million by 2041).
It has been a magnet for tourists the world over and a source of great ecological diversity.
However, its waters have also been home to industry and pollution – most sediment contaminants entered the Harbour prior to 1970, when industry practices were poorly regulated. While we have seen some improvement, our Harbour is continually threatened by possible adverse impacts of population growth and development.
It is also susceptible to the impacts of climate change including high rainfall intensity and resulting catchment runoff.

In order to make the Harbour swimmable, it will require a whole of government approach.

Our focus on water recycling and stormwater management is a key ingredient in improving the quality of water in the Harbour. The City is reducing stormwater pollution entering into the Harbour by installing and maintaining stormwater treatment systems such as Gross Pollutant Traps (GPT), raingardens, wetlands and swales in our stormwater network. The City’s 250 raingardens and 47 GPTs prevent hundreds of tonnes of litter from entering our waterways.
The City is also a leader in integrating water sensitive urban design (WSUD) in all urban development. For years we have included water access in our harbourside renewal projects, such as at the Glebe foreshore, Pirrama Park in Pyrmont and Beare Park in Elizabeth Bay. Swimming opportunities could be easily realised when the water is clean and safe.
When the City built Pirrama Park for example, we future proofed this possibility in its design and construction, so the addition of a swimming pool would only require minimal infrastructure along the existing harbour edge to allow for swimming.

In 2019, the City commissioned Andrew Burges Architects to look at options for bringing to life a swimmable Harbour – and highlighting what is possible in iconic parts of Sydney Harbour.

These are not firm plans, scoped and ready to go – they’re a visual representation of what’s possible, over time, if we can improve the Harbour water quality.
The treatment at Beare Park shows how short term, minimal intervention might look to get people swimming safely as soon as possible. 
Pirrama Park in Pyrmont demonstrates re-use of existing infrastructure in the medium term. 
This imagined floating pool on the Glebe Foreshore speculative idea for further down the line!
This vision rests on improving water quality. Some parts of our harbour are highly polluted and cleaning up these waterways so they can be used for recreation and to improve biodiversity will require cooperation across all levels of government. The City will continue to play its part to make this happen through our stormwater management initiatives, and through our growing collaboration with Sydney Water.
Over the next 30 years, the population of Sydney will dramatically increase, with the climate also expected to change to resemble that of Grafton.
Our city will be hotter, there will be more people, and there will be more competition for space for recreation. Turning the harbour into a safe place where people can swim, exercise or relax is the logical next step.
Being able to swim safely in the harbour is a wonderful symbol of a healthy water ecosystem. If we can clean up the harbour, we will unleash enormous potential for community recreation and wellbeing.
Swimming in the harbour is no pipe dream. Cities around the world are turning to their natural harbour assets rather than building more infrastructure. Copenhagen spent 15 years transforming its harbour from a highly polluted waterway to a swimmer’s paradise where wildlife is thriving. Once a polluted industrial port, Copenhagen city now invites people to swim in its waterways and enjoy a clean and thriving aquatic environment.
Sydney Water’s renewed focus on liveability is makes them a great partner in focusing on aspects of our city that makes it enjoyable for residents and visitors, such as a clean and swimmable Sydney Harbour.

You can read my full speech to the Innovation Festival here.