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Urban renewal: the transformation of Australia's docklands

Most Australian port towns and large coastal cities have docklands. Waterfront docks, wharves and quay areas played a significant role in Australia's history. Australia's history of trade, colonisation, and settlement was dependent upon maritime sailing until the 1950s.

Towns wharf Millers Point

Unknown, Towns' Wharf [Millers Point, The Rocks] to North Shore c.1875. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

Today, many docklands have been, or are in the process of being, transformed from industrial and sometimes squalid areas into contemporary cultural spaces. Many customs houses and other maritime buildings are usually prime waterfront locations with architecturally significant buildings.

The transition from industrial use to a public creative use is part of the legacy of the maritime and broader communities. This transition is a process of urban renewal, or public efforts to revitalize aging and decaying inner cities.

Urban renewal often has to consider competing needs. There is the desire to preserve historic locations and buildings, as well as the need to satisfy commercial demands. In the past these have sometimes translated into hard fought battles between developers, residents and governments about the public need.

The use of some heritage-listed sites reflects the histories of the people associated with the site whether as working wharves with commercial precincts or as iconic points of arrival and departure for many Australians. The docklands in Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle were the main arrival and landing places until the 1970s.

rear of Cumberland Streets Rocks c 1900

Unknown, A rear view of Cumberland and Gloucester Streets, Rocks, Sydney, ca. 1900?, b&w photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn3990242.

A difficult rebirthThe Rocks, Sydney

The area adjacent to the original wharves and docks of Sydney and the principal port at Circular Quay, known as 'The Rocks', was established shortly after the First Fleet arrived in 1788. Quickly it became a slum area, full of gangs, thieves, visiting sailors, prostitutes, pubs and cheaply constructed houses. The miserable conditions for women arriving in The Rocks were observed by Caroline Chisolm upon her arrival in the colony in 1838. Chisolm worked hard to lobby for allocated housing upon their arrival, and opportunities for education and employment.

Work on Sydney's wharves in the mid-nineteenth century was gruelling and insecure. Casual labourers, often staying in squalid inns and boarding houses behind the docks, formed the backbone of the import and export trade that built economic prosperity in New South Wales from the 1840s. (State Library of New South Wales, Dockside: Sydney's working harbour, 18401875 )

Despite many of the earliest buildings being made from local sandstone, many of the dockland buildings had fallen into decay by the early 1900s. In 1900, hygiene and infrastructure was so poor that bubonic plague broke out. This areathe mile of wharves between Darling Harbour and Miller's Pointwas known as the Hungry Mile (a name later recognised by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority).

scene on wharves sydney 1935 hood collection

Unknown, Scene on wharves 1935, Hood Collection. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

The New South Wales State Government stepped in with the intention of cleaning up the squalor. During the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1920s additional houses were demolished; the same happened decades later when the Cahill Expressway was built. However, plans to significantly overhaul the site were delayed by both world wars, and it wasn't until the 1960s that the issue of redevelopment arose again.

The Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority (SCRA) was formed in 1970 with the charter of redeveloping the zone with offices, shops, hotels and high and low rise housing. This intention was met with strong opposition from residents of The Rocks who were keen to rehabilitate the area's unique buildings and capitalize on, not destroy, its history.

The Rocks Conservation Area

Australian Information Service, The Rocks Conservation Area, unknown. Image courtesy of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities: rt08655.

The residents were supported by the NSW Builders' Labourers' Federation (19111972), professional planners, academics and architects in what quickly became a politically charged and emotional battle. 'The People's Plan' was developed which was a vision of how the history of the site could be preserved and the area reborn.

Finally, many of these ideas were adopted which has resulted in The Rocks successfully becoming a place of immense historic importance as well as a lively and cosmopolitan part of inner Sydney. The area is now managed by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.

Living historical heritage sites

Today, The Rocks is an area of Sydney that is not only much visited by locals but is one of the city's premier tourist attractions. As well as housing (both privately owned and public), it has historic walks, homes and pubs, a multitude of souvenir and craft shops, vibrant markets, restaurants and cafes, and the Rocks Discovery Museum.

The docklands precinct at The Rocks offers the chance to experience public buildings as living museums, operating as businesses, that harbour the same presence of commercial activities that have always inhabited these buildings.

union bond store 47 George st The Rocks 2009

Union Bond Store, 47 George St, The Rocks, 2009. Image courtesy of the Heritage Conservation Register NSW

The national and state heritage listed Union Bond Store at 47 George Street, now a working Westpac Museum, demonstrates Sydney's mercantile, or commercial, maritime character with ongoing operational facilities. A simple sandstone warehouse built between 1840 and 1841, it retains its 'cathead beam and the roof structure to accommodate this beam and its loading, as well as the internal large floor hatch for winching goods between levels'.

Historically, it also reflects the pattern of the times when merchants lived adjacent to their warehouses within a short distance of Circular Quay. It was used for the most part as not only a warehouse but also as laboratories to prepare drugs, medicines and liniments, as well as a famous local cordial.

Built in 1844, the Susannah Place Museum, a row of four terraces, incorporates a re-created 1915 corner store and offers a rare glimpse into the domestic life of working class families in the city of Sydney who occupied the terraces.

The Sydney Observatory, built in 1858, located at a high point atop The Rocks, was essential to shipping, navigation, meteorology and timekeeping as well as to the study of the stars seen from the Southern Hemisphere. Astronomers worked and lived in the building until 1982 when Sydney Observatory became part of the Powerhouse Museum.

Dawes Point Battery 1875

Dawes' Point battery, 1875. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority and Heritage Council NSW: 4500494h1.

The Observatory has a close association with the Dawes' Point Battery site, located at the southern end of the Harbour Bridge, on the west side of Sydney Cove. The battery site has many layers of significance with a rich documented history. It is the site of the earliest recorded cultural exchanges between the Eora Aboriginals and the First Fleet, especially Lieutenant William Dawes, an engineer and surveyor who began the building of an observatory in 1788 on the site as well as constructing batteries on the points at the entrance to Sydney Cove. It became a strategic defence batterythe first battery was constructed in 1791, then was redesigned as a semi-circular battery by colonial architect Francis Greenway, before its demolition in the 1920s during the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The site still holds five 1850s canons.

The Walsh Bay Wharves Precinct

The Walsh Bay wharves were constructed between 1906 and 1922 by the Sydney Harbour Trust in response to the requirements of maritime trade. Engineer-in-chief, H D Walsh, appointed in 1901, remodelled Dawes and Millers points through the design and construction of a new system of wharves, stores, roads, bridges and hydraulic systems to service the wharves.

Walsh Bay precinct

Walsh Bay precinct, showing the heavy timber construction and the regular grid layout of piles. Image courtesy of the Heritage Council NSW.

The wharves were built on turpentine piles, reaching down to the sea rock, approximately 30 metres below sea level and incorporated an innovative and successful ratproof seawall. (Heritage Council of New South Wales, Walsh Bay Wharves Precinct).

In 1978, the heritage listed Wharf at Walsh Bay became the home to the Sydney Theatre Company. Other performing arts companies followed, including Sydney Dance Company, the Carnivale arts festival company, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Australian Theatre For Young People (ATYP). Audiences now enjoy the contrast between the heritage wharf buildings, the modern choreography of the Sydney Dance Company and the ancient tradition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance in the Bangarra Dance Theatre company.

The Rocks area continues to evolve. In 2006, proposals for the development of an area of the Rocks known as the 'Big Dig Site' were called for. The winning proposal will incorporate a youth hostel and an Archaeology Education Centre to show the layers of the city's history, in situ, one of Australia's largest ever archaeological excavations.

Woolloomooloo Bay Finger Wharf

ernest revell arriving liner

Ernest Revell, Arriving liner c.1950. Image courtesy of Helen Cullen Wells.

The Woolloomooloo Bay Finger Wharf, designed also by H D Walsh for the Sydney Harbour Trust and built between 1911 and 1915, is an icon of Australian social history. It was a place which saw extraordinary historical events unfold and, after a fierce battle to save it, was transformed into a high quality cultural artefact of significant heritage value. In 1956 Shed No.7 was upgraded to a passenger terminal, confirming its place as one of the first contact points for migrants to Australia. (Heritage Council of NSW).

The Finger Wharf combined local building traditions and materials with the most advanced technologies of it's day, and is the largest all pile finger wharf ever built in Sydney. The wharf saw a large range of activities that combined the experiences of poverty and prosperity. 'For the Wharfies who loaded and unloaded cargoes here, working conditions were often harsh, dirty and dangerous.'

It was from here that the ANZACs sailed for Gallipoli and a generation later, the survivors of Changi returned. Here, on luxury liners, giddy socialites and globetrotting millionaires sparkled and caroused. Settlers from a war-torn world brought their skills, their cultures, and their children and stepped ashore into new lives, here. (Maju, The history of the Finger Wharf)

During the 1970's, new container ports, cruise liner facilities and civil airports gradually replaced the Finger Wharf's functions. The work and most of the workers moved with the new facilities. For nearly a decade, this enormous building lay derelict and decaying.

finger wharf woolloomooloo City of Sydney

Woolloomooloo Bay Finger Wharf, 1989. Image courtesy of City of Sydney.

In 1987, the state government decided to demolish the Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf. The Woolloomooloo community who had served the wharf did not agree with the decision. The legacy of that community, in November 1990, was their engagement with the Building Workers Industrial Union, who placed an interim ban on demolition of the Wharf.

Eventually, conservation planning began in 1992 and work then began in 1993 to conserve the wharf. The government leased it as a heritage site to private hands as a hotel and private residential facility. Today the areas adjacent abound in cafes and restaurants, with the board walk around the bay leading to stairs, enabling a climb to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which overlooks Woolloomooloo.

The transformation of the Melbourne Docklands precinct

gollings photo of NAB building Melbourne

John Gollings, National Australia Bank building, sidewalk cafe, Docklands, Melbourne, 2004, photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn3822455.

Not long ago the zone on the western edge of the Melbourne central business district (CBD) was a forgotten, dirty wasteland. Between the city and the old docks area alongside the Yarra River, the docklands were home to no one and not a place where many businesses would want to operate.

Today, the Melbourne Docklands precinct has undergone a remarkable transformation. Incorporating housing, offices, restaurants and cafes, educational facilities, shops, entertainment, sporting and function centres, parks, open spaces, public art, places of worship, heritage sites and of course, marinas; the Docklands area is a community like no other in Melbourne.

Some of Australia's major corporations have relocated to Docklands, including the National Australia Bank, AXA Asia Pacific, Channel 7, National Foods and Lend Lease. The corporations have embraced campus-style accommodation in park-like surrounds. Already, 10,000 people come to work in Docklands each day, and by 2020 the area is expected to be home to 17,000 residents.

The site has been carefully planned with a view to maximizing its potential as a hybrid environment. Different precincts within the area have their own unique character and mix of commercial, residential and retail activities. Commercial buildings have to adhere to ecologically sustainable design principles. Public transport has been extended into the area and the zone on the edge of the city along Spencer Street is also undergoing a renewal, with the new Southern Cross Station being extensively remodelled.

The Webb bridge

The Webb bridge, built in 2003 by Denton Corker Marshall. Image courtesy of Walking Melbourne.

The Melbourne Docklands precinct is home to many architecturally significant buildings. Southern Cross Station was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects' Lubetkin Prize for the most outstanding building outside the European Union. The building known as 'Port 1010' in the Digital Harbour precinct received the Commercial Architecture Award at the 2007 Victorian Architecture Awards. Webb Bridge, a renewed rail link, is an award-winning bridge which links the Docklands on the north side to the new residential developments on the south side.

Fremantlevibrant culture in a heritage Victorian era port city

Fremantle, a big and busy port city, was established in 1829 as a port for the fledgling Swan River Colony of Western Australia.

Fremantle's unique local identity has, in part, been shaped by historical events. Its history as a meeting place for Aboriginal people pre-European settlement; its physical location at the mouth of the Swan River; its history as the Western Gateway to Australia and the first point of arrival for many immigrants; its importance as a working harbour and fishing centre; its significant heritage buildings; its strong labour history; its arts, cultural and sporting activities, and its community spirit all shape Fremantle's identity. (City of Fremantle)

buskers south terrace fremantle

Unknown, Buskers at the Fremantle Festival performing on the South Terrace. Courtesy of the City of Fremantle.

Fremantle's colourful identity is reflected in Fremantle Markets on the corner of South Terrace and Henderson Streets. The original building was opened in 1897. The ornate design shows how prosperous and active Fremantle was at the time of the gold rush. The markets were reopened in 1975 with over 150 stalls: selling seafood, spices, gourmet items, clothes, jewellery, fruit and vegetables, antiques and souvenirs.

Fremantle was reborn in 1984 as a thriving port city when work commenced on Challenger Harbour in preparation for the America's Cup sailing challenge. Between 1986-87 Fremantle hosted a series of world championship sailing events: World 12 Metre Championships, America's Cup Defence Series, and the Tall Ships Race. The city had the opportunity to connect the working and historical port areas with vibrant commercial and residential developments.

Fierce campaigns by residents to conserve the history, heritage and culture of Fremantle saw the City of Fremantle participate in the America's Cup Arts Review in 1986. (Jenny Beahan, Jan Carter, Libby Lloyd and Carolyn Ozturk, A strategy for the Arts in Fremantle, 1986)

sculpture fishing wharf freo

Sculpture, Fishing Boat Harbour, fremantle. Image courtesy of City of Fremantle.

As a result, public buildings have been conserved and become home to artists and arts companies. Warehouses have been converted to specialty shops, art galleries and cafes. It's a good place to watch work on the wharf opposite.

The Western Australian Museum also has an active presence in Fremantle maintaining the internationally and architecturally significant Maritime Museum near the waterfront on Victoria Quay.

Fremantle Waterfront Masterplan

western australialn maritime museum

Western Australian Maritime Museum, Winner of the George Temple Pool Award for Cox Howlett + Bailey Woodland. Image courtesy of Australian Institute of Architects.

In 1993, the negotiated return of the America's Cup winning yacht Australia II from Sydney acted as a catalyst for the development of a masterplan, commissioned in 1997. The Fremantle Waterfront Masterplan identified five precincts to accommodate the industrial, arts, heritage and commercial needs.

The plan has opened up the waterfront to allow a walk along the massive board walk on the main wharf alongside the harbour designed by C Y O'Connor (who designed the Kalgoorlie pipeline as part of the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme) with views of the industrial work, through the commercial area into the heritage listed precinct housing multiple arts projects and past the restored convict-built Commissariat building overlooking the teeming life of the working Fishing Boat Harbour with another board walk and restaurants.

The main wharf area or Maritime Museum precinct takes its name from the newly built modern Maritime Museum. The Maritime Museum themed displays connect Aboriginal seafaring heritage and knowledge with the history of Fremantle as a port town, trading cargo terminals, the local fishing industry, sport and defence.

cliff st gallery

unknown, Shipwrecks Gallery, Cliff St Fremantle. Courtesy of the City of Fremantle.

In contrast to the modernity of the main Maritime Museum, the Shipwreck Galleries are in the restored convict-built Commissariat building. The Commissariat was built between 1851 and 1862 under the direction of Lieut. H. Wray of the Royal Engineers and its function was to supply and store foodstuffs and other necessities for the colony; it was later converted into a Customs House.

The galleries are recognised as the foremost maritime archaeology museum in the southern hemisphere. The displays feature early exploration and shipwrecks along the treacherous Western Australian coastline as early as the 17th Century, including original timbers from the Dutch VOC ship the Batavia, wrecked in 1629.

Heritage sites as living history

child migrants sculpture vic quay freo

Joan Walsh-Smith and Charles Smith, commissioned. Child migrant statue, Bronze, Victoria Quay Fremantle. Image courtesy of Smith Sculptures and WA Government.

The support for urban renewal to transform and revitalise the docklands by the communities associated with them has resulted in today's vibrant dockland and wharf precincts - housing substantial cultural facilities and commercial enterprises - living historical heritage sites.

The public art celebrates the arrivals of families, the working fishermen, the names of all those lost at sea, passers-by deep in thought, the celestial and mechanical instruments of the navigators amongst the great anchors of the timber ships, commercial life and working boats.

The docklands are places for reflection on people's hopes and dreams as well as embedding visitors in teeming commercial activity.

This has contributed greatly to our current-day understanding of life in Australia since 1788.



Useful Links

Look, listen and play

The Rocks

Redevelopment of industrial space

Renewing government buildings

Melbourne Docklands

Some other urban renewal projects in Australia

Last updated: 16th December 2009
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al.