knowing when to jump for urban development

At an urban development luncheon a decade ago a politician from Penrith bravely announced: “until you developers ‘get’ Western Sydney, stay away!” She was right, and her passionate stance was admirable. She was resisting the temptation at the time to treat western Sydney as the dumping ground for low quality, quick fix, quick buck overflow of the tail end of the baby boom suburban experiment as it tightened its grip around the throats of outer middle ring suburbs (the ones not protected by a pre-boom heritage substance, quality and amenity)… anyone who couldn’t afford real amenity and lifestyle could just be exiled to the west!

The politician, however, represented people who had chosen  to live in Penrith, who were part of a community, related through shared experience and ideal… people who, over generations had discovered and created much of what their ‘place’ had to offer.

In the intervening decade the leaders of the Penrith community have invested a good deal of effort into studying both what Penrith is  and what it might become . A decade ago one might have presumed this answer and described it in ‘suburban’ built form or semi-rural romanticism. But this is not where the leaders of the community have arrived.

At a similar development luncheon recently, a former Mayor of Penrith equally unapologetically announced to the audience: “the days of the quarter acre block are over, people don’t live that way anymore, kids don’t play that way anymore!”. Penrith is continuing as a location of choice for a new generation of ‘locals’ who’s kids and grandkids kick or throw a ball in organised sport on new community playing fields. Meanwhile the appreciation of access to natural assets – river, mountains, lakes – has increased and been better enabled. Transport services have improved and are no longer entirely private car based. Cultural heritage and development is celebrated and fostered. Retail has become sophisticated and employment is possible close to home. The local entrepreneurs are turning their attention to substantive opportunities in their own town centre rather than looking east to make their opportunities in other LGAs.

The work is not complete, indeed the journey is only really just beginning, but ‘after the moratorium’ the development of Penrith is of a very different shape than it might have taken 10 years earlier. This difference in shape comes with a realisation that the world is changing, the priorities of society are different, and the generation that drove so much of the form of sprawling cities have moved on to a different phase of life, with different needs and aspirations.

“Medium density and diversified housing has been a hard transition, but critical for affordability, for society and for accommodating a growing population” the Mayor told the Urban Development Industry luncheon. Penrith is now the spiritual home of the “21st Century Terrace”, the love child of urbanGROWTH NSW and Council, as ‘Thornton’ (a new residential community adjacent the railway station) arose from the rubble of an abandoned military site and reclaimed significant pieces of the history of an important early outpost of the Nation. New options for housing, gingerly tested in the marketplace have taken that market by storm and are now the exemplar instructing developers and council’s across the Sydney basin.

So does the Penrith story have value for others? Indeed it might, especially for those finding themselves on the new fringes of megalopoli. Proximity to a booming city can be a curse for those not thoughtful or strident enough to resist the societal backwash. The value and character of a place is easily lost if it is not well studied and understood. It is also easily lost if it is seen only in the form of its present expression. Penrith is not preserving itself by doggedly maintaining a now outmoded expression of post war Australian lifestyle, but rather by appreciating it’s real assets and leveraging those in considered experiments to serve a (rapidly) changing social order. Penrith is not booming as the camp of disenfranchised refugees clambering away from the sinking suburbs, it is making itself a destination of choice, on it’s own terms and largely in it’s own good time, albeit powered by the inexorable force of global population and a seismic demographic shift as boomers chase an altogether new phase of life.

Proximity to a megalopolis is now not just a physical assessment, but with technology connecting the world, it has become a far more potent threat to seemingly more distant places. Anywhere that is ‘connected’ to the new global order is ripe to become either the ‘refugee camp’ or the ‘darling’ of a modern society. Penrith shows that the former is not necessarily destiny and bears out the CSIRO research into megatrends that will shape Australian society: “global connection” and “local community” are 2 of 6 key drivers… It just so happens that Regional Australian towns and villages now have both in bucket loads. The question is whether they will know themselves well enough, and stand for themselves resolutely enough to both preserve and  develop their own identity.

Tony McBurney

Tony McBurney

Tony McBurney is director of integratedDESIGNgroup, an architectural practice founded in Bathurst and grown across offices in North Strathfield and Penrith. The practice has been intimately involved in the regeneration of Sydney’s outer areas and is keenly engaged in a bigger question of Australian regional development. As program chair of the ARDC tony is overseeing this years conference taking a positive view of the transition of regional centres from mining to a “real economy” of engagement in a globally connected society.

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