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City Shaping Icons of Greater Sydney

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Eleven crucial projects, conceived or constructed amidst challenge and adversity, that have shaped Greater Sydney over the past 100 years.

John Bradfield's bird's eye view of the harbour CBD Courtesy: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW


Chief Commissioner's foreword

Chief CommissionerChief Commissioner Geoff Roberts AM

The forces that have shaped, and continue to fashion, Greater Sydney are not always immediately obvious. For eons the region provided the home and continues to provide meeting places and cultural heartland of the First Nations peoples, before its colonial and modern histories of settlement, harbourside town, emerging city and now, global centre.

This paper will focus on the past 100 or so years, where Greater Sydney has been shaped by world and regional wars, economic depression and recessions, drought, bushfires and flooding, the rise of social and economic inequities, crises of identity, growing pains, and many more pressures that a global city faces as it grows and develops. Not once, but many times. The past two years have delivered a 'triple whammy' of drought, bushfires and COVID-19 and their impacts are not yet behind us.

But we have always found ways to rise to our challenges to create a better, more resilient and inclusive city. This is what has made our city what it is and will shape what Greater Sydney will become.

While the impact of stresses and shocks might be intangible at times, and sometimes left to the distant corners of our memories as we humans tend to do as we move forward, the legacy of these challenging periods is often found in the physical infrastructure that has given shape to how we move, interact and exchange across our city.

The popular image of Sydney as a laid back yet successful place wonderfully positioned between the bush, harbour and beaches, often belies the many decisions made - at times in extreme stress - that enable, and even define, the way five million (and counting) people experience our city daily.

In the past year, Greater Sydney has experienced a turbulent summer and joined the global community in adopting new ways of working and living under health-focused restrictions as the threat of COVID-19 has taken centre stage since the southern autumn of 2020.

The long-term influence of the pandemic remains to be seen, but the response of our leadership and our citizens is emerging.

I believe that the decision by the NSW and Australian Governments to jointly fund and accelerate the delivery of the Sydney Metro - Western Sydney Airport, in time for the 2026 opening of Nancy-Bird Walton Airport, will deliver a legacy that defines our city for generations.

In the context of the new airport metro and the collective efforts of governments, councils, businesses, community organisations and the community to positively shape the Western Parkland City, I have been reflecting on what I see as the key major city-shaping decisions taken across Greater Sydney over the last century or so. Some are 'hard' infrastructure - like the Sydney Harbour Bridge - and others are 'soft' - housing, health and parklands.

There is a common thread of crisis, adversity, uncertainty, risk and controversy around such major decisions (many of them visionary but some unpopular at the time).

What follows is a personal list, developed through a career in the private and public sectors focused on city-making and cityshaping. I've had close personal associations with at least two of them - the Sydney 2000 Olympics and the Sydney Metro - Western Sydney Airport so I have a good understanding of the thinking, planning and politics that will have played key roles in each of these projects.

As with any list of this type, your first reaction might be to point out the missing city-shaping decision that defines Greater Sydney for you. I readily admit, there are countless noteworthy investments, reforms, people, laws, movements and moments that make a city.

Here are the 11 that I think have made Greater Sydney. Let's call them the City Shaping Icons of Greater Sydney.

Download City Shaping Icons of Greater Sydney (PDF, 18 MB)


Acknowledgement of Country

The Greater Cities Commission acknowledges the traditional owners of the lands in the Greater Sydney Metropolitan Area and the living culture of the traditional custodians of these lands. We recognise traditional owners have occupied and cared for this Country over countless generations and celebrate their continuing contribution to the life of Greater Sydney.