By GAVIN GATENBY
Planning Minister Rob Stokes is spruiking a “bold” new post-COVID planning statement for Sydney – a “regulatory instrument” that, among other laudable things, enshrines the creation and protection of accessible open spaces for everyone.
Supposedly, it’s all about the government stepping in to “ensure good design”.
So here’s a challenge for Rob and his fellow ministers: get together to stop Sydney Water engineers ruining forever what should be a triumphal portal to a unique urban bushland experience near the heart of Sydney, and one easily accessible by foot, bicycle, public transport and car.
Some background: after a conservation battle that lasted for a quarter of a century, Inner South-West Sydney’s environmental gem, the Wolli Creek Valley was finally, officially, in 1998, saved from destruction for an 8-lane surface motorway. The Cooks River valley had been spared a similar fate a few years earlier.
With these hard-won decisions, a fine environmental prize – a naturally-flowing creek, 50 hectares of open space and precious bushland – remnants of the pre-European landscape – were saved for future generations.
It’s a four and a half kilometre long oasis of green and an important urban wildlife migration corridor that’s become more valued since high-rise redevelopment reconfigured the inner suburbs.
But Wolli Creek Regional Park, and the Two Valley Trail – a 13.5 km walk that links the parklands along Cooks River with the Wolli bushland – now face a new threat in the form of an odour control unit (OCU), an ugly and intrusive piece of sewage infrastructure that Sydney Water wants to place right at the eastern gateway to the regional park.
It’s ironic that Sydney Water’s engineers have chosen this moment to advance a plan that would mar the experience. Since the COVID-19, usage of the trail, along Cooks River and through the Wolli Valley has more than doubled as residents of the inner suburbs and Greater Sydney flock to locally-available outdoor recreation and opportunities to enjoy natural environments.
There can be no objection to an OCU as such. It will deal with sewage odours and buildup of corrosive gasses within the 125 year-old South-West Ocean Outfall Sewer, the SWOOS, that passes under the Two Valley Trail before crossing Wolli Creek on an elegant, heritage-listed, brick and wrought-iron aqueduct.
The problem is the insensitive and unnecessary location of the OCU.
Sydney Water’s plan would have the OCU sited on a steep slope, astride the Two Valley Trail, bulldozing bushland and cutting into the natural sandstone rockface. When reopened after several months, their design has the trail squeezing past this structure with its industrial tanks, pipes, pumps and barbed wire-topped security fence on a narrow cantilevered walkway.
This location also violates the heritage conservation zone set out in Sydney Water’s conservation management plan for the SWOOS which states that any new feature or service should be “confined to areas of lesser prominence and not impact on the item when viewed from a distance”.
But it does not have to be this way because a few metres from the engineers’ preferred site, right next to the sewer pipelines, there’s a vacant parcel of government-owned land that’s entirely suited to the task and not suitable for anything else. In this location the OCU can be placed out of sight, screened by a planting of native vegetation.
This would clear the way for an attractive entry to Wolli Creek Regional Park.
Sydney water’s preferred site is opposed by the Nature Conservation Council and – by unanimous vote – Inner West, Canterbury-Bankstown and Bayside councils which have called on Water Minister Melinda Pavey to urgently review the matter.
It’s all very well to tout bold vision and sweeping new design principles, but it’s also axiomatic that good urban planning involves coordination between relevant government agencies.
This problem involves three ministers: Water Minister Pavey, whose department wants to construct the OCU in the wrong place, Environment Minister Matt Kean, under whose responsibilities the regional park falls, and Planning Minister Rob Stokes, whose department owns the vacant block.
Can they please gather down the corridor for a quick chat and authorise something better?
If they don’t, the engineers’ casual indifference to detail and aesthetics will otherwise mar forever what should be an accessible, life-enhancing experience for Sydneysiders.
Gavin Gatenby is a past president of the Wolli Creek Preservation Society. A petition to Water Minister Melinda Pavey and a short video on the issue can be accessed at the Nature Conservation Council’s website.