A walkabout with Sydney’s lord mayor Clover Moore is not without interruptions.

When Hamish McDonald spent three hours with her traversing the city’s Green Square project there was a lady worried about a Give Way sign needed on a cycling track, and a gentleman objecting to neighbours sunbathing in their undies, all complaints carefully noted. Green Square meanwhile is visibly taking shape: a $13 billion urban renewal across 278 hectares of derelict factory sites on flood-prone former wetlands, halfway between Sydney’s CBD and its airport. Handsome apartment blocks are going up, aesthetics and standards enhanced by the Design Excellence strategy adopted under Moore’s 16 years in office, whereby developers go through a competitive evaluation of designs, rewarded by up to 10 per cent extra floor space.

Established architects like Peter Stutchbury have pitched in to retask heritage buildings. New faces emerged like Stewart and Hollenstein with their Green Square Library. The country’s most lavish aquatic and fitness centre opens in the new year. With 30,000 residents already, the centre is halfway to the target of 62,000. New roads, a trunk water drain, a recycling plant harvesting run-off for non-potable water for toilets, laundries and gardens, and sustainable buildings make it a model. Corridors await new transport links, and a site a new school, pending NSW state government decision.

Hamish McDonald (HM): This must feel tremendously rewarding to see all this coming together at last?

Clover Moore (CM): This was huge. When I became mayor in 2004, as well as dealing with a re-amalgamated council [the former South Sydney merged back into the City of Sydney]  we had to take on Green Square. We were given the numbers by the government. If you look back to that time , there wasn’t anything like this. So we really wanted to create an area where people want to live as well as work. And the City Council’s policy of design excellence, where developers have to go through a competition process and they do get various things like more floor space, ensured that this development was going to design beautifully. So we embarked on this, and it’s been huge. It’s very exciting now seeing it come to fruition. We’ve done other huge things right across the city: renewed Prince Alfred Park, Hyde Park and created Harmony Park and Pirrama Park. At Harold Park [the disused trotting drome] the local community wanted only parkland, but we said we had to fulfill the targets that given to us by government. But all the private open space had to become public space, which it did, and that’s all beautifully landscaped now. And we worked with developers to get excellent design there too, as well as affordable housing, just as we have here. We’ve got a fantastic team in the city, and I think it’s a testament to vision and longevity that you can get things done. They’ve been seven premiers while I’ve been doing this work.

HM: Could you tell us about the sustainability aspects you are trying to build into schemes like this?

CM: When I became mayor, not only did I inherit these big renewal sites, we also joined the C40 Cities group, started by Ken Livingstone in London and Michael Bloomberg in New York, and supported by the Clinton Foundation, bringing together mayors who would work together to reduce emission across the globe. That was because 70 percent of our emissions are in our cities, and so we could make a major contribution to addressing climate change. So that’s our over-arching policy: sustainable city by 2030, getting our emissions down by 70 percent by 2030, being inspired and inspiring other cities too. The emissions are comely mainly from buildings. So if we can get sustainable buildings, emissions down in building we are making a great contribution.  I got together with the CEOs of the major building owners in the CBD, in about 2008. By 2011 they had all undertaken to commit to our goals of 70 percent reduction  by 2030 -- we called it the “better buildings partnership” – and they’ve already got their emissions down by 56 percent  and we’re on track by 2030 to reduce them by about 80 percent. They can see the sense. They are not short-termers, like politicians and political parties who think about the next three or four year term, they’re thinking about the next 30 or 40 years. They know that climate change is a reality.

HM: And gradually you’ve managed to persuade developers to adopt better design standards?

CM: It’s really interesting, because there’s a bit of competition there now, about who’s got the best design. We’ve raised the bar. My experience of developers is they want to know what the rules are. It’s only certain people like Harry Triguboff [founder of apartment builder Meriton] who fight you over them. The others understand these are the rules, and if they want to get approval, they’ve got to go through these steps.

HM: In terms of the aesthetics of buildings – you’ve shown me on the walkabout the difference between what was put up in 2004 or earlier and what is being completed now, you must be very pleased that is happening?

CM: I really am, and I am really pleased that someone like Triguboff is doing design excellence on his other sites in other areas. Environment is so important to people. You can see that what we are trying to do in that area we inherited was to get lots of landscaping and tree planting to try and soften the edges. If you’ve got good buildings , with landscape that complements the buildings, it’s just a great place to be, where people want to be. It’s incumbent upon leaders to create those great places.

HM: Are there regrets you haven’t been able to do the same in other parts of the city?

CM: I think it’s terrible. The Labor Party used to do a Part 3A to take sites out of councils’ control. This government makes sites “state significant” and really, state significant should be a hospital, or a university, it shouldn’t be a residential apartment block, it shouldn’t be a casino. I guess it says something about the government that these are ‘state significant’ projects. When they do that, they don’t have to jump through the hoops that developers have to do with the standards we’ve set. All those complaints people have about Barangaroo: they got good architects in but unless you have the sort of controls that we’ve developed and apply, that’s the result you get. It’s tragic that sites are taken out of our area because you need to involve the community – business and residents – in developing the plan. The plans about the vision for the area, and all the different projects contribute to that vision. We’ve been able to achieve that with our beautiful street plantings and our design excellence standards, and our beautiful parks. The Green Square town centre site had 18 owners and they were government state and local, agencies and private. We had to negotiate with all of them to get the sites for all those facilities that we want and also put in all the infrastructure, the roads, bike lanes, the undergrounding of wires.

HM: Do you think COVID-19 is going to have a lasting effect on the demographics of the city?

CM: COVID is going to change things, in the future. We’ve been through a remarkable period. People were just directed to go home, and they’ve gone home, and they’ve reconfigured their lives. I don’t think it will be the same. The thing about the City of Sydney is that it’s where the action is in terms of start-ups, people working in clusters. It’s where we have the universities, the parliament, the international headquarters. So there are a lot of things that will continue to be a drawcard for the city. The CBD of Sydney is the economic engine of the state, about 20 percent of the state’s economy, about 9 percent of the national economy, so it will continue, but it will be different. When I was elected in 2004 our platform was a city of villages, getting light rail into the city, and commitment to design excellence. We’ve been able to give identity to the villages: Crown St in Surry Hills, Redfern St in Redfern, Kings Cross, Pyrmont, Ultimo. Now with people working from home, those villages have been reinforced, and that will continue. It could mean some people will work in the village three days a week and go into the CBD for two days. Now we’ve completed George St , it’s so beautiful and so successful and it’s been embraced by people, and we extending  now right up to Central. It’s an attractor of people being in the city, and enjoying their city, and that’s important. It’s a natural instinct to want to engage with other people, to be with other people, to be in the excitement of the city. It could be different in terms of people walking into the city from their different villages, cycling from their villages, and spending part of their time in the village.

HM: How will we get life back into the city post-pandemic?

CM: We’ve worked hard during the height of the pandemic to support business and creatives because they’ve taken such a hard hit. We’ve signed up on a $20 million project -- the state’s put in $15 million and we’ve put in $5 million -- about having live stage in the city, probably in Cathedral Square, roving musicians, musicians and performers in our bars and cafes. We will pay them to perform. That gives a boost to the cafes and bars, and work for our creatives. The state has agreed, at least on a trial basis, to remove regulations that made it quite a lengthy process to get an outdoor dining licence. We’ve waived outdoor dining fees to at least next October. The government has also been identifying road space that could be used for outdoor dining and that’s really started in The Rocks. So we’re calling it “Sydney’s al fresco summer”. It will complement what the Festival of Sydney is doing. It usually brings international artists so we can see what the rest of the world is doing, but this year that’s not happening, so all that money that would have gone to travel and accommodation for international artists is going to local artists.

HM: What about the lock-out laws that were introduced in 2014 to limit violence at all-night drinking areas like Kings Cross?

CM: I was also local state member for the area that included Kings Cross when that was introduced, and for a number of years beforehand. We lobbied the government over the deteriorating situation in Darlinghurst Road. A lot of that was historic: successive governments had just been handing over licences. There were too many venues, in a small area, with totally inadequate public transport to get people home. The result was the bloodiness we were seeing every week. We lobbied to get 24-hour transport, for planning policy that was about saturation zones. What was wrong with Kings Cross was that there was too many people with nothing to do but drink. Our experience that that you can provide people with somewhere that is interesting to go to, where’s it’s all happening, and it's safe and you don’t have to just knock yourself out on alcohol. But the government went ahead. [Former NSW premier] Barry O’Farrell came in with his sledgehammer to crack a nut and locked down everything. It really killed live music and social life for a lot of young people. Anyway the lock-out laws were lifted after five years, apart from Kings Cross. But over that 5-year period things have changed at the Cross. A lot of the high-risk venues have gone, people go to the gym now rather than get drunk in a bar. Now Kings Cross is catering much more to the residential population. It’s got civilised, back to its Bohemian character and history. One of our grants during the lockdown was to a bar called Dulcie’s who kept going by serving takeaway cocktails. Their primary customer base was gay men and old ladies.

Image: Supplied