Community campaigners and landscape designers have all played a role in forming Pirrama Park. A series of oral history interviews commissioned by the City of Sydney document the creation of this new urban park.

Officially opened in 2010, Pirrama Park encompasses what used to be called Pyrmont Point Park to the east, and the former NSW Water Police site to the west. In 2003, as the Water Police awaited the completion of their new accommodation across the water in Balmain, a vigorous community campaign in Pyrmont got underway, opposing plans for the redevelopment of the site as high-rise apartments. The campaign was successful. In the 2005, the City of Sydney acquired the land and preserved it as public, recreational space. Pirrama Park has won several awards for architecture and landscape design. The foreshore esplanade traces Pyrmont’s original shoreline, and the park offers a range of ways for visitors to experience and engage with the element of water.

Pirrama Park is now a key section of a fourteen kilometre foreshore walk around Sydney Harbour, and is part of the general revitalisation of once heavily industrialised Pyrmont and its near neighbour Ultimo. Situated on one of Sydney Harbour’s beautiful coves, the new development provides an aesthetic completion to Pyrmont’s main thoroughfare, Harris St, which follows the peninsula’s central sandstone ridge.

The new, highly designed, recreational space is bounded to the north by Elizabeth Macarthur Bay and to the south by Pirrama Road. Those names conjure both the colonial occupiers of the peninsula and the original indigenous inhabitants whom they usurped. In 1799 John Macarthur, husband of Elizabeth, purchased fifty acres there and named the area Pyrmont after a German spa town. Pirrama was the name used by the original inhabitants, the Gadigal (or possibly Gommerigal) people, who once enjoyed exclusively the attractions of the bay until Pyrmont’s possibilities for European plunder became evident.

The exploitation of Pyrmont is a story of successive layers of destruction and obliteration, prompted by the peninsula’s abundant supply of building-quality sandstone, its immediate access to deep anchorage and waterways, and its proximity to the urban centre of Sydney. The peninsula was once heavily vegetated but was almost treeless by the mid nineteenth century. Briefly imagined as a country retreat for well-heeled city folk, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the peninsula was host to market gardens, slaughterhouses, piggeries, shipyards, boat builders, wharves, factories, ironworks, engine works, tin smelters, timberworks, coal yards, and sandstone quarries that altered forever the shape of the local landscape. The Colonial Sugar Refinery Company (CSR) arrived on Pyrmont Point in 1877, and was situated next door to the area which has now become Pirrama Park. The company stayed for more than a century and became the biggest industrial influence on the peninsula, constructing buildings and wharves, and absorbing land and foreshores as it expanded and diversified.

The land where the park now sits was purchased from the Macarthur Estate in the early 1900s by the Sydney Harbour Trust, to be used for wharves and associated facilities. It was subsequently utilised by various leaseholders, amongst them timberworks owners Goodlet and Smith, who reclaimed some of the bay and excavated at the rear of the site to form a cut stone cliff. Several state government agencies have managed the site over the decades: the Maritime Services Board, City West Development Corporation and the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA) amongst them, the last two agencies having overseen the area’s transformation from a place of redundant industrial sites into the up-market high-rise development typical of late twentieth century urban consolidation. The original Pyrmont Point Park was part of that process.

All evidence of pre-colonial human habitation on Pyrmont Point and in greater Pyrmont – middens, rock carvings, fireplaces – has now entirely disappeared, along with the original tidal shoreline, replaced by the rigid lines and sharp angles of industrial modification. Almost all of the local flora and fauna has also vanished. Through the use of old maps, paintings, other historical sources and informed extrapolation, environmentalist Dr John Broadbent is piecing together a picture of Pyrmont’s geomorphology, and the plant and animal life it might have supported, at the time of first contact.

Bird species would have ebbed and flowed seasonally and included honey eaters, scrub wrens, willy wagtails and magpies, and a wider diversity of lorikeets, parrots and cockatoos than exist on the peninsula today. Around the shoreline water birds such as cormorants, pelicans, herons and reef waders would have lived. Although the peninsula currently plays host to forty or fifty avian species Dr Broadbent believes these birds are mostly ‘vagrant’. Mammalian fauna at the time of first contact would have been ‘quite rich’ and included brushtail and pygmy possums, native mice and rats, grey kangaroos, red-necked and swamp wallabies, dingoes and echidnas. There’d have been limited amphibia species, but rich fish and crustacean populations. Reptile fauna would have proliferated and in limited populations some lizards have survived as have, surprisingly, red-bellied black snakes, albeit in tiny numbers.

A key building block in Dr Broadbent’s reconstruction has been to determine where waterways, essential for all forms of life, would once have run. In the case of the coastline around Pyrmont Point, he judges that there were once streams running into Elizabeth Macarthur Bay on both its western and eastern sides. The former had longish water flows from what is now called Distillery Hill. The length and frequency of the flows, combined with an easterly aspect, implies fairly moist vegetation. But the eastern side of the bay, because it has a westerly aspect, was drier, its waterways more ephemeral and vegetation more sparse. Dr Broadbent thinks that Pyrmont Point may once have supported 200-250 species of plant life (there would have been many more in greater Pyrmont), including such species as red bloodwood, scribbly gum, banksias and casuarinas, and some rainforest elements. He says a very small number of native flora, primarily ferns, has survived on rock faces created by quarrying, although spores for these may well have blown into the peninsula from elsewhere.

(Wharf No.25 Pyrmont, 1929. (State Library of New South Wales GPO1 – 19728) Wharf No.25 Pyrmont, 1929. (State Library of New South Wales GPO1 – 19728)

By the time Otto Kruger was born in 1932 in Pyrmont St, which overlooks Pirrama Park, the Pyrmont that Dr Broadbent describes had long since disappeared and Pyrmont’s industrial landscape was Mr Kruger’s playground. He had an adventurous urban childhood in and around Pyrmont Point: playing cricket in the streets, riding scooters down the Harris St hill and swimming in Elizabeth Macarthur Bay. He built tin canoes with friends in which they played pirates on the harbour and was amongst a band of kids that went to ‘war’ with US troops during WWII when they closed access to the very popular Pyrmont baths, also located on the Point. Irrespective of the levels of local pollution, Mr Kruger recalls that after king tides the water was so clear under the wharf at the end of Harris Street in Elizabeth Macarthur Bay (referred to as No. 25 Pyrmont), locals could spearfish for leatherjackets.

The Water Police headquarters at Pyrmont in 2004. (City of Sydney Archives) The Water Police headquarters at Pyrmont in 2004. (City of Sydney Archives)

However, some practical difficulties remained throughout their stay on Pyrmont Point. For instance, there were no holding cells for prisoners so a truck would have to come across to Pyrmont from Surry Hills to collect prisoners and transport them back for processing. But the main tasks of water police work continued from the temporary demountables on Pyrmont Point: search and rescue, crime prevention, boating accidents, break-ins, deaths on cruise ships, emergencies, boats tipping over, control of demonstrations, and the provision of escort vessels for visiting dignitaries. A friendly relationship developed between the Water Police and their neighbours in the new residential development on the old CSR site, Jackson’s Landing, which overlooks the new park. One resident persuaded the police to dress up as Santa for local kids at Christmas time, a task they continue to perform from their new premises in Balmain.

Developments like Jackson’s Landing have become the economic raison d’être for Pyrmont, and with them have come new residents who are predominantly middle class and educated. They are attracted to this once industrially blighted place because of proximity to the beauty of Sydney Harbour and Sydney’s centre, and have expectations of a congenial lifestyle. Open space dedicated to recreation has been in short supply in Pyrmont since the mid nineteenth century and it remains so as a consequence of both industrial history and, more recently, high-density residential development. Once vacated, the Water Police site was slated for further high-rise residential buildings by SHFA, on behalf of the NSW State government. But when SHFA announced plans to develop the site, rumblings of protest began to develop around the central idea that the site was publicly owned land and that the public should have a say in whatever plans were made for it.

City of Sydney councillor Marcelle Hoff, a ‘new’ Pyrmont resident, became involved in resident action opposing the State government’s plans after hearing public housing tenants complain that they would lose their sunshine because of the proposed new high-rise buildings. Like many others who were involved in the community action to retain the site as open space, Cr Hoff had no background in activism, but with others she formed the Friends of Pyrmont Point (FOPP) and she became the organisation’s president.

One of several community organisations in Pyrmont, FOPP became the prime mover in the push to retain the former Water Police site as public open space of some kind. At its first public meeting in 2003, FOPP passed a resolution condemning the proposed development, and proposing a clear, single goal which became the mission statement for the organisation and those who supported its aims: that this public harbourside land should be retained as open space.

Charles Perry, former vice president of FOPP, is another ‘new’ Pyrmonter who moved to the area from the suburbs because he wanted a more urban lifestyle. Mr Perry had worked formerly in organisational change, from which he gained skills useful in community activism because of a similar emphasis ‘on building consensus, open communication, and also making sure you’ve got your stories right … If you’re going to engage in debate you have to get your facts right,’ Mr Perry says. He says that FOPP was up against ‘significant forces’ and the activists used the successful campaign run by another group, the Friends of Callan Park, as something of a model for their own offensive.

The FOPP campaign was run like a business and people with particular skills were approached to perform specific roles and tasks. The group doorknocked, held meetings, developed proposals, conducted rallies and marches, circulated petitions and created a website. They also fund raised and held sausage sizzles and, whilst they actively recruited members, residents and others of all kinds joined the organisation because the issue and the campaign caught people’s imagination.

Mr Perry says: ‘You have to garner public support, you have to gain media coverage, you have to try and influence people in political circles, you have to try and get allies wherever you can’. At the political level Clover Moore MP (now also Lord Mayor of Sydney) supported the FOPP campaign in State parliament. The campaign was also endorsed by then Lord Mayor of Sydney Lucy Turnbull, who commissioned an infrastructure study for the area, and by then Deputy Lord Mayor Dixie Coulton. Environmentalist Jack Mundey also lent his support to the battle.

Mr Perry says you have to be ‘very aggressive, but responsible about how you do it … You have to make sure that your message is heard and you have to be fairly bloody-minded about making sure you get traction and you get the public alongside, that you create a strong awareness of what the issues are, that you’re more or less in the face … of the authorities, but in a responsible sort of way nevertheless.’

Various compromises were suggested by SHFA and other opponents of the FOPP campaign but, because they all offered high-rise building developments of one form or another, none were acceptable to FOPP and the people who supported the organisation. No-one is quite sure exactly why the tide turned but in 2005 the State government quietly withdrew from the fight. A turning point may have been the green ban imposed on the site by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Engineering Union. In any event the proposed high-rise residential development of the former Water Police site was shelved and an arrangement emerged for the City of Sydney to buy the land from the State government, with the express purpose of turning the space into a park.

Landscape architect Sacha Coles, Director of Aspect Studios, was the lead consultant in a large collaborative team employed to design the new park. Mr Coles says the community in Pyrmont is ‘incredibly educated, enthusiastic [and] active’ and that many thousands of ideas came out of an extensive community consultation process. Wishlists were distilled into several core principles that looked at the site’s morphology, how it could engage with the water that is one of its boundaries, and become a place that renders its history present in its contemporary design. The final design marries ‘social, cultural, historic and environmental layers,’ Mr Coles says.

Pirrama Park under construction 2008. (Paul Patterson / City of Sydney) Pirrama Park under construction 2008. (Paul Patterson / City of Sydney)

The master plan broke the site into a series of zones and one key focus was to make the site an appropriately ‘grand’ conclusion to Harris Street because it is Pyrmont’s major thoroughfare, traversing the peninsula from end to end. There is now a large water basin or court at the end of Harris St, a paved community square and a purpose-designed building, next to a children’s playground, which houses a kiosk and amenities. Another zone, the ‘Grove’, contains a mass planting of local and native trees, including eucalypts and banksias, in an attempt to return some biodiversity to the site and provide flora as habitat for local fauna. There is also a turfed area for active recreation and elsewhere large figs set off the architecture and will ultimately provide height and structure for the park. A series of shade canopies will offer coolness and protection from the sun, and barbeque areas will encourage people to gather. The main route through the park is ‘The Foreshore Promenade’, which roughly follows the pattern of the original shore line, and at the water’s edge there are seats and stairs so that park users can dangle their feet in the water if they want to. Environmental sustainability in the form of water sensitive urban design technology, solar panels, water pits for irrigation and many other features, is a hallmark of the design.

Mr Coles hopes this newly developed section of Pirrama Park will be a recreational space enjoyed by all of Sydney. It measures out to 1.8 hectares but, when it is combined with Pyrmont Point Park, Pirrama Park comprises 4 hectares in total that can be enjoyed by all as part of the public foreshore walk. This makes the park an asset for all of Sydney, a regional waterfront park that happens to be located, and of benefit to, people in Pyrmont. Mr Coles says that public spaces such as these ‘are meters and expressions of our time, like the great squares in medieval cities.’ Like those squares, the new park will offer a place for people to gather but it will also invite enjoyment of ‘simple day-to-day experiences, like sitting under a tree on the grass’, the kind of experience rarely available in the vertical villages of modern urban living. Cr Hoff says that there’s ‘something spiritual … to be by the sea and have space around you, and grass’, and that it adds to everyone’s ‘sense of wellbeing.’ Her sentiments echo one of FOPP’s slogans: ‘trees and grass, not bricks and glass’.

Sacha Coles says the park will be at its best in twenty years’ time, when the trees will have matured, and the space and buildings will be well used. Charles Perry believes that the activism around the park has had a flow on affect into community building, which is desirable in an area where the majority of residents are fairly recent arrivals, many of the old residents have departed, and people don’t have long-term connections to one another. He says it is a bit like building a community from scratch, but another new project has been the opening of a community bank which will return investment to the local area. He says that new Pyrmont has yet to develop a physical ‘heart’ to live alongside its open space and foreshore walks.

The completed park in 2009. (Paul Patterson / City of Sydney) The completed park in 2009. (Paul Patterson / City of Sydney)