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Sydney Park Life
Sydney Park provides a welcome refuge to busy inner-city residents

Going Green: Oasis of the Inner West

Green spaces are transforming global cities into havens for work, rest and play.

Cities are more than just buildings and people. The most “liveable” cities – and some of the world’s most iconic cities – are as known for their green spaces as they are for commerce and culture. Hyde Park in London, Central Park in New York, the Bukit Timah Nature Preserve in Singapore, Sydney Park in Sydney: all are attractions in their own right for locals and international visitors alike who use them to relax, revive and socialise.

“Green spaces provide the ‘breathing space’ within a city,” says Gabrielle Morrish, managing director of GM Urban Design & Architecture.

“Green spaces provide the ‘breathing space’ within a city.”

- Gabrielle Morrish, managing director of GM Urban Design & Architecture.

“They are critically important as opportunities for residents in highly urbanised environments to relax and interact with nature and landscape and are psychologically important spaces for de-stressing.”

Green spaces in urban environments provide innumerable benefits to the people who live and work there, including sport and recreation, better mental and physical health, opportunities for community engagement, reduced stress levels and more. Add to that the preservation of natural environments, urban storm water management and a joyful, natural environment for children, dogs and families and it’s clear parks and green public areas are much more than just “window dressing” for any forward-thinking global city.

Sydney Park Life
The multi award-winning Sydney Park Water Re-Use Project
“It’s a huge endorsement for the project team’s effort and design vision to create a significant piece of environmental and community infrastructure on one of Sydney’s oldest post-industrial wastelands.”

- Mike Horne, Director, Turf Design Studio.

Thanks to advocates such as Morrish, a new view is emerging that green space must be a key consideration in urban planning if the health of a city and its people are both considered important. This broader view of parks is focusing on how policymakers, landscape architects, and the public can begin to think about greenspaces as valuable contributors to larger urban policy objectives, such as job opportunities, youth development, public health, and community building.

As New York City’s parks commissioner Mitchell Silver has succinctly summarised: “Parks are the haven of happiness in our cities.”

A key reason Lord Mayor, Clover Moore first became involved in politics was to lobby the local council to improve her neighbourhood park, which was a beleaguered mass of asphalt and barbed wire rather than grass, trees and birds. Since 2004 the City of Sydney has spent $270 million on upgrading open spaces, parks, playgrounds and sporting facilities, and will spend another $400 million over the next decade.

The City of Sydney sees the evolution of green spaces as crucial to its Growing Sydney plan, which includes substantial green space as part of the Green Square, Victoria Park and Olympic Park developments.

A person you’ll often find in the City of Sydney parks with his dog is Mike Horne, who doesn’t just exercise his silky terrier there but actually created the multi award-winning redevelopment of Sydney Park, the City of Sydney’s largest environmental project to date. The Sydney Park Water Re-Use Project has received the American Architecture Prize for Landscape Architecture of the Year, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Design award and the Good Design Award for Urban Design and Public Spaces.

“It’s a huge endorsement for the project team’s effort and design vision to create a significant piece of environmental and community infrastructure on one of Sydney’s oldest post-industrial wastelands,” says Turf Design Studio director Horne.

A unique intersection of design, art, science and ecology, the Sydney Park Water Re-Use Project enables water to be harvested in its wetlands, made good and returned to viable use within the park and nearby. It was achieved through a collaboration between landscape architects Turf Design Studio and Environmental Partnership, Alluvium (water and environment), Dragonfly Environmental (ecology) and Turpin + Crawford Studio (public art) that also reimagined the 40-hectare park into a tactile wonderland of lush grass, meandering pathways, playgrounds and quiet spaces for reflection.

Sydney Park Life
Sydney Park sunset

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime project to connect with a place and transform it so people can come along afterwards and enjoy themselves in a multitude of ways,” says Horne.

Local Aboriginal people, the Gadigal and Wangal, originally hunted kangaroo on the grasslands there, and fished and camped at the swamps and creeks, before the land was granted to First Fleet convict Elizabeth Needham when her sentence expired. Needham later became a successful Sydney businesswoman. Later, Sydney Park became the home to several brickworks, then to a major municipal waste depot. The tip was finally closed in 1991. The City of Sydney began the water reuse project in April 2013 and completed it in October 2015. The positive nature of the transformation has prompted Horne to work on another exciting project with HPG Australia that is also aimed at re-connecting the people of Sydney with the park in line with his original brief.

“The project was about turning around a process of use and abuse and creating a park that was meaningful, beautiful and that people could connect to,” says Horne.

His words about the ability of parks to connect people are echoed by Gil Penalosa, a longtime advocate for more active cites and director of the Canadian organisation 8-80 cities.

“We need to think of parks more as outdoor community centres where we need to invest in uses and activities so they can fulfill their potential,” says Penalosa. “When we improve parks, we’re really improving quality of life.”

Those words will be put to the test with the new $3.2 million research project Greener Cities Healthier Lives, devoted to examining and measuring the positive impact of green spaces on pregnancy, child, adult and senior health and education attainment and wellbeing. The five-year research project will be led by two of Australia’s leading green space and public health researchers – Associate Professor Thomas Astell-Burt and Dr Xiaoqi Feng – and developed through the Horticulture Innovation Australia Green Cities fund, in partnership with the Population Wellbeing and Environment Research Lab, part of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong.

“With prior evidence including our own suggesting that exposure to greenery helps us feel well and live longer, healthier lives, this suggests that green spaces do more than ‘pretty up’ our neighbourhoods,” Dr Feng said in a statement.

“This project will address the key overarching research question now for industry and policy makers: what is the ideal amount of local green-space that helps to keep all of us healthy and out of hospital?”

The research will have profound implications for the international landscape, architecture and design industries.

“This exciting project will not only inform the recommendations the nursery and landscape industries make to their clients, it will also enhance awareness of new understandings of green-space and health within the academic community internationally,” Horticulture Innovation Australia chief executive John Lloyd said in a statement.

As the world’s cities continue to grow in the meantime, continuing to value green spaces in them remains vital – and deeply enjoyable.

“I love taking my dog to Sydney Park,” says Horne. “He loves it there because it’s a great socialising park for dogs, and dogs are a great way for people to meet other people. So it keeps me sane too.”

Sydney Park Life
Launching late 2017