Sydney: Meeting with Peter Nowland and Rafael Chemke

18 11 2009

I met with Peter and Rafael from the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. We talked about the main Sydney wharf and its development over the years, specifically about the pedestrian connection to the water and how the landscape and seawall can aid such connection.

Sydney is a sunken river valley: Over many years, Sydney was carved out by a river and then flooded as the sea level rose. It was once a maritime industrial harbour with many working boats. There is an ongoing debate about the character of the urban foreshore: should it retain its industrial character as a business wharf and allow industrial business to continue? Or should it be restored to its original shoreline? One big argument is that you cannot have industry and people in the same place as it poses many privacy problems.

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An interesting fact about Sydney’s code is that it is based on risk management, not on strict rules. Most of the harbour does not have railings and there are multiple spots where one could fall into the water easily. They view it as a personal risk management issue: you should be able to manage yourself and monitor your children so they do not require a handrail. In spots where rock is exposed or there is a drop farther than 1 meter or heavy pedestrian traffic, they do put up a handrail, typically as see-thru as possible. Signs and buoys are provided as well. They used to have a lot of classic legal cases where people would sue over injury, but the courts take a lenient view and usually side with the city. They think that in reality you could never truly make everything safe, and they would much rather preserve the physical and optical connection to the water.

Naturally, everyone wants to be near the water and the SHFA makes sure the water’s edge is activated with cafes and parks. There is a state policy that all waterfront must be accessible. They have some fights with private owners to preserve the water’s edge as public domain but there is strong documentation that the water’s edge belongs to the state and should be publicly designated.

As far as ownership goes, The Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority owns the bricks, pavement top, and handrail at Sydney’s main neighborhoods, including Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, and the Rocks. Sydney Maritime owns the wharfs, seawall and anything below the median water level. Sydney Ports owns the overseas passenger terminals (cruise ships).

Most of the seawalls around the Sydney Harbour were established 100 yrs ago. They are expensive to maintain and many are beginning to fail. Sydney is known as sandstone country which is why most of the seawalls are made out of such. This poses some problems, as the sedimentary sandstone is much softer than granites and basalts, and over the years it wears down with water and salt.  The councils (or cities) and responsible for replacing the blocks as they wear down.

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Peter and Rafael recommended several sports around the Sydney Harbour that I should visit to study the connection to the water. I will be going to the sites they mentioned and uploading info on each one.


Peter Nowland is a Landscape Architect for the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. Rafael Chemke is a Sustainability Manager and Property and Asset Management. The Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority is responsible for Sydney’s most historically and culturally significant waterfront  locations.




One response

18 11 2009
Lisa Richmond

Great notes, Cristina!

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