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Sydney’s environment: the wins have been tactical, but the losses strategic

Then and now: the 1947 course of Cooks River and tributaries superimposed on today’s airport.

Sometimes I take an hour or two and travel back in time to the Sydney I was born into in 1948.

It’s a fascinating trip, and, at least until the bean-counters and fun police have their way, it’s all free on the NSW Government’s wonderful SIX Maps website.

SIX Maps is like a slow and slightly clunky version of Google Earth, but with superior, up-to-date images. Perhaps its best feature is that you can view contemporary air photos of Sydney and then switch to the same view taken in 1943 (you get to this by clicking ‘Basemaps’ in the top right-hand corner of the window).

In 1943, Sydney was at war, and a lot poorer and smaller than it is now. Its population was just 1.4 million and it had entered World War II impoverished by the effects of the Great Depression. In terms of urban form, not a great deal changed in the five years between when these photos were taken and my birthdate, so when I go back there via SIX Maps, what I’m looking at is very much Sydney as it was when I was born, and even a decade later.

I live in the Wolli Valley, a major tributary of Cooks River and I’ve devoted a great deal of my waking hours over the last 30 years to preserving and restoring this river system. One of the more amazing, and disturbing, things to see on SIX Maps is how the creation of Sydney Airport has dramatically changed the whole landform around the mouth of the Cooks River.

Kingsford-Smith Airport (the original name, Mascot Airport, refuses to die) is now one of the oldest in the world, having started in 1919 as a small private venture on a leased bullock paddock. Much of the site was owned by the Kensington Racing Club, as a hedge against it losing its government-owned site at Randwick. In 1921, the Federal Government purchased 65 hectares of the site to create a public airfield and in 1923, compulsorily resumed all of the racing club’s land (although it didn’t use it all and the old racetrack is still there in the ’43 photos).

In ’43 the airport was a tiny affair with gravel runways, although strangely, the road serving the terminals – now a two-storey affair over much of its length – was there even then, although there were no passenger terminals in the sense that we understand them today. Mascot was then very much a military affair and the photos show a gaggle of DC3 transport planes and even a single Supermarine Spitfire – easily distinguished by its elegant wings. Parked near the Spit are three Australian-built Beaufort bombers.

Adjacent to the ends of the runways one can see eight concrete aircraft dispersal bays – no doubt intended to protect from a low-flying attack – the few interceptors tasked with defending the airport itself, but these are empty. After the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942, the Japanese threat to Australia had receded, there was nil chance of carrier-based aircraft attacking Sydney, and precautions had lapsed.

The 1943 airport was hemmed in by two sweeping loops in the Cooks River which meandered through salty wetlands across today’s airport to flow into Botany Bay more than a kilometre east of the river’s present mouth.

Between 1947 and 1952 these loops were eliminated and the river was diverted to flow in an almost straight line from Cahill Park (across the Princes Highway from the new suburb of Wolli Creek), to the bay, and the modern airport with its parallel runways took shape where the loops of the river had once been. The present International Terminal is located mostly on what had once been a loop of the river. From 1959 the main runway started to be extended into Botany Bay to accommodate larger jet aircraft.

All this had a rotten effect on the ecological health of the Cooks River system and Botany Bay itself. Happily, from the late 1970s on, a local movement to stop the looming threats to the Cooks River system moved haltingly into action (the sort of movement the developers and the Murdoch media term “nimbyism”). The big threats were from freeways: the M5, which was originally to be a surface eight-lane job straight up the guts of the Wolli Valley, and the sonorously-named Cooks River Parkway which would have taken out most of the parks on the north bank of the Cooks River.

Using SIX Maps to compare the ’43 air photos with today’s, it has to be said that Sydney is at least a more “forested” place now than it was then, thanks to decades of tree-planting and intense environmental restoration in limited areas, but the city’s ecological footprint has spread much wider. The environmental wins have been tactical, but the losses strategic.

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