If the City of Sydney were to be founded today, with a bevy of modern urban designers to plan it, 90 percent of all harbour foreshore land would almost certainly be designated public open space. Things have changed since Sydney started its erratic growth from the quay outwards along the harbour edge.
Like most European towns and cities Sydney was not planned in a long-term cohesive manner. There is no orderly grid such as the ones that formed the basis of Melbourne and Adelaide. Instead, the topography determined to a large extent the shape of the city.
Wealthy landowners soon recognised the area east of the new town centre as being suitable for their large houses and gardens. These plots, in Kings Cross, Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay, commanded views over the bustling port but were far away from the stench and noise.
Over the years this trend has continued eastwards through Darling Point, Rose Bay, Point Piper and Vaucluse along the harbour, and now expensive homes occupy most of the harbour edge, jostling with each other to enjoy the best views over Sydney.
I remember being very surprised and disappointed when visiting Sydney to find there was no coastal walk along this part of the harbour. It seemed perverse that these vistas were not available to tourists and reserved for those who could afford the real estate. Even sites not occupied by luxurious private homes were inaccessible to the public and used for defence or industrial purposes.
Slowly but surely this trend is being reversed. Thanks to a change in mindset at the top end of town, as well as developments in urban design and town planning, the foreshore is being recognised as an asset that should be shared by all.
In recent years there has been discussion of a raised boardwalk that would allow visitors to enjoy the harbour foreshore without walking over private land. Less than popular with foreshore land owners, this idea has since been shelved but local governments, along with the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, are always looking for ways to open up foreshore sites to the public.
Several proposals by private developers, for example, to develop the old Caltex Site at Ballast Point as housing were loudly opposed by local residents and activists, and the Authority is currently in the process of transforming the site into a harbourside park.
The SHFA is also working with the state government to create a continuous 22-kilometre public foreshore walk from Woolloomooloo to Rozelle Bay. The City of Sydney has launched a project to create a 2.2km walk from Glebe to the Pyrmont Fish Markets.
Reversing the process of foreshore dominance by private interests is sure to be long and difficult, but the potential benefits to all Sydneysiders and visitors in opening up our beautiful harbour coastline are immense.