Monday’s Fleet Street Heritage Precinct Symposium provided fertile ground for creating an alternative vision for the future of the North Parramatta national heritage site. Throughout the morning, people with expertise in economics, heritage conservation, urban planning and cultural tourism and research offered a range of perspectives to a large and attentive audience. Professor of Urban Planning at Sydney University, Peter Phibbs, warned that UrbanGrowth NSW has no agency if the argument is to have no dwellings on the site. The NSW Government’s proposal for 4000 new dwellings is government policy and only the government can decide if there are to be no dwellings. If that option fails, UrbanGrowth can be lobbied to improve the quality of design, but beware! With the lack of transparency of information, the redevelopment of the Barangaroo headland on Sydney Harbour has already doubled the allowable floor space, since negotiations began.
Symposium facilitator Maire Sheehan noted that there is a business plan, but no access is available. Brian Powyer of the National Trust summarised an overview of heritage perspectives. International interest in heritage structures and landscapes leads to a tourism multiplier effect, from the money spent to the revenue generated. Of roughly six million visitors attracted to Australia each year, half visit NSW. Old Government House in Parramatta is an established core attraction, the Female Factory precinct and the Powerhouse Museum are potential additions. They are surrounded by other major heritage sites like the Female Orphan School, Elizabeth Farm and Parramatta Gaol. A larger outer circle of sites includes The Old King’s School and Brislington House. Quoting from key state government and Parramatta Council documents, Brian argued that tourism is a powerful economic development tool.
Charlotte Allan of Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent gave an inspiring account of the seven year community campaign, which began 18 years ago and led to the preservation of the neglected and historic site, right, as a place of arts, culture and learning. Quite early in the campaign, “learning” replaced “tourism” as the third goal, although tourism has evolved naturally in response to the facilities and programs developed. In a unique response to sustained community campaigning, the Victorian state government ultimately granted ownership of the site to the Abbotsford Convent Foundation – a non-profit company with liability limited by guarantee. As part of the terms of agreement, there would be no ongoing state funding. If it didn’t become self-sustaining, the property would have to be returned to the state government. It was a tremendous challenge, but with deep community commitment and the support of philanthropic trusts, Abbotsford has now become Australia’s largest multi-arts precinct. It welcomes almost a million visitors annually and simultaneously provides a haven and dynamic centre of activity.
On a Q & A panel, director of heritage conservation at Sydney University, Dr Cameron Logan described a robust conservation plan as an essential first step. He also advised starting slowly, allowing interesting ways and ideas to emerge. Avoid theming and make the most of living changes as do Abbotsford’s programs, ensuring the cultural health of everyone, he said. Professor Deborah Stevenson urged lively and engaging means of involving the whole community and agreed with Inara Molinari’s concern that social well-being should be the foundation of good plannning, particularly with inclusion of indigenous people. Public health was the foundation of contemporary town planning in the 19th century, said Peter Phibbs. With $100 million already “on the table” Brian Powyer counselled putting together a plan and setting parameters.
Jon Hillman opened the afternoon session with three case studies of successful heritage tourism sites – Sovereign Hill in Victoria, Tasmanian convict sites and Colonial Williamsburg in the USA. He urged giving serious thought to a heritage lottery, like the opera house lottery that raised funds for building Sydney’s famous landmark. A second Q & A panel delivered brief illustrations of determined and successful ventures in progress elsewhere and the need for further research – Friends of Callan Park, Haberfield Association, Parramatta Female Factory Friends, the engagement of young people in imagining the future of the site, the need to recognise why space within the precinct was as important as the buildings and the vital need to retain mental health in future plans. Historian Roslyn Burge said the value and meaning of “asylums” was currently being re-evaluated.
All this set the scene for a vigorous program of brainstorming around tables of four to six people. The tide of energetic enthusiasm was rising as ideas were formulating. Suggestions like a heritage skills training centre, a place of caring and rehabilitation and survival “against the odds”, links to Western Sydney University courses began to emerge. Dancer, choreographer and arts administrator Carl Scibberas, whose own grandmother had spent a short time in the notorious Parramatta Girl’s Home on the site, urged the incorporation of “new” into the care of Aboriginal, colonial and contemporary experience. The vibe at Abbotsford of energy, strength and inclusion is a great model.
There were many common threads among the outcomes of discussion groups. One spoke of a series of interpretive precincts that could include industries of the future, arts and culture, women’s history, the natural environment. Others urged the importance of the river for the indigenous community, in bringing men and women’s history together, in linking with other cultural precincts. The opportunities for social enterprises, upskilling the community, establishing community gardens, business start-ups. A constant theme was “living cultural heritage”, telling the stories of everyone. An international Site of Conscience that would link to all the other components – indigenous, mental health, women’s rights, the removal of children, incarceration, multiculturalism.
Sheets of suggestions on butchers paper were bundled up for consideration by organisers, North Parramatta Residents’ Action Group committee members. President Suzette Meade expressed their satisfaction that so much had been achieved in the 10 months since NPRAG was formed. The Fleet Street Heritage Precinct, which was largely a secret, was now being reclaimed for community, she said. Engagement with the next generation of young people and schools was now firmly on the agenda as everyone recognised the once in a lifetime opportunity. The need is for better planning, to “press pause” to allow for more time to properly formulate a vision for Fleet Street Heritage precinct. The next stage will be getting together for a presentation of the Draft Vision. In the meantime, Suzette has posted : “Great offers from professionals to develop a business plan. Power to the people !!”