Back in 2005, when Sydney’s Cockatoo Island was opening up as a venue for music and arts festivals, Jeff Angel from the Total Environment Centre cast doubts as to the amount of toxic material still remaining on the old World Heritage listed naval dockyard. The site had undergone a considerable clean up since its heavy industrial days but still housed large areas of questionable residue, notably in the vast turbine hall.
Some 15 years later and the island presents a far more environmentally friendly appearance, with large areas of lawn and additional greenery as well as little evidence of the layers of dark grey dust from the early 2000s. Much has been done to make it a more attractive destination for visitors including overnight accommodation and glamping.
However, despite this post industrial gentrification it’s clear that many Sydneysiders have mixed feelings when it comes to setting foot there. Whilst the venue has worked well for events such as the Biennale and various corporate functions, it’s been a graveyard for the promoters of a number of music festivals as well as the ill-fated Cockatoo Island Film Festival.
If you are a history buff and keen to embrace its early convict history or naval dry docking it’s a fascinating excursion. For others it has a somewhat isolating, Alcatraz like feel to it – after you’ve been there for two or three hours, all you can think about is getting the next ferry off. Even allowing for the family style glamping and amenities like the Marina Café & Bar, it still presents as a somewhat lifeless concrete mausoleum.
It was recently revealed that the Federal Government was considering overriding existing planning rules for the island and selling long term leases to private investors. A group calling itself the Cockatoo Island Foundation Limited had put forward a plan to turn the ‘rock’ into a permanent art precinct for Sydney, taking control from the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. The proposal involved the Federal Government stumping up the cost of remediation (around $200 million) which the Foundation would match with around $80 million of philanthropic cash. Paramount to the pitch was the granting of an exclusive long term lease over the whole island.
The idea of Cockatoo becoming a centre for the arts is not a bad one, but suspicions arise when that suggestion is put forward by a private group wanting complete control of the island. Does their plan for example include facilities that would be accessible to all income levels or even the possibility of luxury units?
Personally I would love to see the island opened up as a new living suburb for Sydney, with affordable housing offered to not only those in the arts community but a whole range of people interested in making Cockatoo their own unique sustainable community. There is plenty of space on the island to develop low rise apartments and accompanying infrastructure without infringing on the historical elements.
It might sound at first fanciful but surely the island could eventually accommodate a permanent population of say four to five hundred, with further greening and community gardens, a sustainable energy source like solar, shops and other community facilities. There are other successful island communities in Sydney like Dangar on the Hawkesbury and Scotland Island in the Pittwater and essentially Cockatoo would be no different, apart from a helluva lot of concrete.
A thriving community on the island would surely attract more visitors, as bars and coffee shops opened up and Cockatoo felt less like a prison and more like a friendly, inviting destination. Ferry services would be increased and the island would be very much commutable for those who chose to live there but work elsewhere.
Over the years Cockatoo Island has served a number of purposes from its early days as a penal colony, through its conversion to a naval dockyard in 1857, to its current arts, history and tourism destination. The idea of it becoming a living, thriving addition to Sydney’s suburbs, might seem almost utopian but it’s certainly worth a look.