Building on top of Walter Burley Griffin’s initial vision, the Back to the Future - North Arm Cove (NAC) competition affords architecture students the opportunity to masterplan an ‘ideal’ city on the Port Stephens coastline.

Organised by DESIM-ARCH in collaboration with the North Arm Cove Ratepayers Community and SONA , eight student teams were tasked with creating an urban community that channeled the work of 20th century city-planning architects, that aligns with existing NSW strategic planning framework. The winning proposal, titled ‘Back On Track’, is innately influenced by the work of Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, that couples the original vision with modern design principles to thoughtfully craft a community of resilience. 

The NAC lies on the north shore of Port Stephens in the Mid North Coast area of New South Wales. At the turn of the 20th century, the NSW Royal Commission cited the area as a potential site of the nation’s capital. Despite losing out, Walter Burley Griffin dubbed the site ‘the New York of Australia’ and saw it as an opportune place for a city due to its seaport capabilities. Burley Griffin was tasked by And Limited to create a master plan for the area. Burley Griffin’s vision for Port Stephens City was never realised, and roughly 200 people live within the area today.

port stephens city burley griffin

Back On Track’s submission was built around a deep understanding of the environmental context of the region, and forming a carefully planned city that was future-proofed for various technological advancements and major events, such as a pandemic in a similar vein to COVID-19. Circular economics and being environmentally conscious were cornerstones of the plan, with a linear axis that enabled the township to be organised in a more structured manner, that follows a similar vision to that of Burley Griffin’s.

The team, comprising Noah Watson, Iina Lohi and Sofya Savenkova, put their proposal together in the summer holidays in between university semesters. With a clear focus on establishing and reinforcing the current community of North Arm Cove, Back On Track utilised modern, sustainable infrastructure measures coupled with employer betterment levies to draw funding for current and future facilities.

Lohi says the opportunity for the team to further their opportunities outside of tertiary studies was too good to turn down, and that working within the confines of certain boundaries proved a challenge the team believed they could overcome.

“The real challenge was to develop a project that would reflect the current issues of the area, Indigenous heritage, Walter Burley Griffin's initial ideas, and the technologies and possibilities of the present and future. The design process and all the discussions and arguments that we had with all the ups and downs is what drove this project and made it to the end,” she says.

“We were inspired by the chance to explore how Indigenous history of the area can shape urban design, the way that town planning speculations can impact on investment, how politics can influence and shape the way that land is managed, how forsaken plans can be revived in new ways, and how to develop sustainably to protect the social and marine values of the region and the natural environment itself.”

The interactions Burley Griffin shared with the Indigenous peoples of the area shaped much of the Back On Track submission, says Lohi.

“We were particularly inspired by the records kept by Marion Mahony Griffin about the way that Walter Griffin spoke to and interacted with the local indigenous people and the insights they gave him, especially about the differences in cultural burning and environmental practices of the Europeans and Aboriginal people.”

The submission features the utilisation of Pavegen, algae and photovoltaic technologies, as well as e-bikes, aged care facilities, primary and high schools, and the implementation of a sustainable water plan. 

Lohi says these measures were put in place after the team developed a set of design principles.

“To ensure a ‘future-proof’ city, we identified that there were certain aims which would need to be met: that no water contamination occurs as a result of any new development, that rising sea levels be taken into consideration, that there is an infrastructure network that makes use of closed loop green technologies, and that any development would be staged through a pathway that embraces community-led needs with evidence-based decision support.”

The linear axis adopted by the team was a logical one, as it reflects Burley Griffin’s original plans and works with the topography of the site.

nac back on track

“The emphasis on the linear axis provides a strong connection to the landform as it loosely follows the natural overland hydrology of the site in a way that is able to both connect and dissect the site into two catchments while following the Burley Griffin plan,” says Lohi.

“We can learn from Walter Burley Griffin's ability to shape curvilinear plans that follow landform and community-inspired spaces.  We can also learn from Marion Mahony Griffin’s graphic style that is based on an earthy appreciation of the Australian landscape through use of colour, foregrounding, and texture.”

To view the project in full, click here.