Green Square: How this $13 billion investment is changing the face of Sydney

High-density housing is an absolute horror show to some, an alarming vision of overcrowding and a lack of space that’s a template for the slums of the future.

For others, it can be a thing of beauty, a source of limitless opportunities for quality lifestyles, a vibrant commercial mix and carefully planned community riches.

And so we have Green Square, one of Australia’s biggest urban renewal projects, which sits 3.5 kilometres south of the Sydney CBD and four kilometres from the airport and is set to have among the highest population densities per square kilometre in the world.

With a predicted 70,000 residents by its completion in 2036 – with a population density of just more than 25,000 people for each square kilometre of its 2.78 square-kilometre area – Green Square is now on track to end up even more densely populated than Karachi in Pakistan, China’s Macau and even Mumbai, in India.

The $13 billion Green Square precinct is one of the largest redevelopment projects in Australia. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

But then again, while everyone can quote examples of bad density, with cheap, shoddy unit blocks in poor areas of cities jostling against each other with no room to breathe, there are plenty of good examples of density done well. Magnifique Monaco, for instance, is more densely populated, at 26,150 persons per square kilometre.

There’s no doubt at all on which side of the argument Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore stands. Her vision has been the driving force for much of the development of Green Square.

“I’m a keen urbanist, having lived in London for a number of years and travelled a lot, enjoying cities like Rome and Paris where you can walk the streets and sit in cafes and watch the world pass by,” she says. “I love city life and prefer it to suburban life.

“I love seeing people on walkable streets and enjoying parks and being sociable together and having lots of shared facilities, good transport options and great amenity. It’s also a much more sustainable way of life than having development sprawl out further from the cities. And if the density is well planned with lots of open spaces, green parks and community resources, then it can be a very exciting way to live.”

Portman on the Park, Green Square.

There’s an increasing number of people who agree with her, too. Doctor and cosmetic physician Dr Danae Lim, for one, who’s just put down her deposit on an off-the-plan apartment in the town centre’s newest apartment development, Portman on the Park.

“I never thought I’d ever consider moving to Green Square,” says Dr Lim, 42, who currently lives in nearby Waterloo. “I came to look at it a few years ago when there were only a few developments and no hospitality facilities, and it was all a bit of a wasteland.

“But I was visiting a friend there the other day, and I thought it was looking really good. There were cafes and restaurants and supermarkets and parks and a primary school planned, and the apartments were quite big and have lots of great space. And the atmosphere of the place is very good.”

The concept of the new residential and commercial area was first discussed in 1996 but didn’t come to mind until 2006. Photo: Supplied

Green Square is now a $13 billion project with many of its apartment blocks and community facilities winning NSW, national and, in one case, international awards. More than 30,000 people have already moved in, and plans are well advanced for the creation of 21,000 jobs.

It’s a world away from its start as marshland where the Gadigal Aboriginal population fished and hunted, and then its use as an industrial hub for the manufacture of sheep products, soap, tallow, fertilisers, asbestos, batteries and paint, among many others.

The idea of redeveloping the heavily contaminated, flood-prone land at the interconnection of Zetland, Alexandria, Waterloo, Rosebery and Beaconsfield into a new residential and commercial area began in 1996. It only really kicked off, however, when Moore and her independent team came to power at the City of Sydney in 2006 and spearheaded the project in partnership with the NSW Government’s Landcom. Developer Mirvac joined them in 2012.

Today, Green Square is a flourishing area with an average of 50 apartments completed every week, the creation of more than 40 parks and recreational spaces, a train station, a light rail corridor and a proud array of public facilities.

These include the Green Square Library, which has won a slew of national, and international awards. “Who could ever have imagined a library being built underground in one of the most flood-prone areas of Australia!” says Moore. Also among the facilities are the Gunyama Park and Aquatic Centre, which has also won design awards, the men’s shed Banga Community Shed, an early education centre occupying the heritage-listed outpatient building and the eye-catching transformation of the former nurses’ quarters into The Joynton Avenue Creative Centre, by leading architect Peter Stutchbury.

“The development demonstrated pioneering place-making principles inspired by some of the world’s leading cities,” says Landcom CEO John Brogden. “It has successfully balanced the needs of a growing Sydney while revitalising the industrial edge of Sydney’s inner south into a vibrant global village, forming a hub of residential, retail, commercial, and cultural amenities for the community.”

The goal of the redevelopment is to revitalise the inner south’s cultural amenities whilst housing a rising number of Sydneysiders. Photo: Rhiannon Hopley

Next off the blocks will be the new Green Square Primary School for up to 600 children, after a design excellence competition won by architects BVN and currently going through the planning process, which will also be used by the community when the kids aren’t there.

“There are opportunities in a dense urban environment to have a shared use of facilities, which is fantastic for the community and good for the school, too,” says BVN principal Ali Bounds. “Density allows a community to be self-sustaining; you couldn’t have all these facilities without plenty of people to use and support them. Density is good as long as it’s balanced with amenity.”

There are some, of course, who aren’t so keen on the density. Karen Levin runs the Green Square Community Facebook page as well as the Rotary Club of South Sydney from its HQ in Green Square and says she has some misgivings. She’s also worried that a number of new apartments are empty and being “land-banked” by their owners.

“It looks pretty, but does it function well?” she asks. “We have lots of apartment buildings and are getting lots of offices, but there isn’t really a shopping precinct or any street with shops. We have Woolworths and the East Village shopping centre, but most have to go to Broadway or Bondi Junction or Eastgardens to shop properly.”

As more residents move into Green Square, the new dining spots, amenities and retail prospects have been welcomed. Photo: Brett Boardman

The retail is coming, responds Stuart Penklis, head of residential at Mirvac, which acquired Landcom’s ownership of the future stages of Green Square Town Centre in 2020, including future apartments, commercial and retail space. “The retail is being delivered progressively in order to be as flexible as possible,” he says.

“What we thought about retail five years ago, for example, wouldn’t be as relevant in today’s situation. The retail offering has to support a vibrant, resilient and strong community.”

Now, work is ongoing at the 12-storey Portman on the Park on a new park to be delivered next year. Known as The Drying Green, it is named after the fleeces that used to be laid out there. It follows Mirvac’s buildings Ebsworth and Ovo already delivered, which will take the company halfway to its 1600-apartment total by 2030. Sales are strong, they report, despite lockdown.

“Everybody is starting to realise how good Green Square is going to be in the next few years,” Mr Penklis says. “As more people move in and the amenities and links come together, I’m amazed by how many people are saying they want to live in this lively, 18-hours-a-day environment with well-designed, good quality homes.

Portman on the Park, Green Square

“I think in two to three years, it will be considered one of the most liveable locations in Sydney and will be the benchmark of great gentrification for other projects around Australia and the world. It is dense, but you need that population to support a great level of amenity and the social and physical infrastructure.”

Portman on the Park was designed by CO-AP Studios as the first residential building in Australia to seek WELL V2 building standard certification. It is one block divided into four buildings, all a little different from each other but sharing the same DNA.

CO-AP co-founder Tina Engelen says she sees Green Square as a village, like the Barbican Estate in London, or with the feel of closer suburbs like Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay. “It’s this big European idea of walking and gathering and living in villages with all facilities on your doorstep,” she says.

“People need people at the end of the day, and big cities need to be broken down, so we have small thinking along with those big ideas. It’s not enough to just put up apartment buildings; there have to be lots of opportunities for different generations to interact and live and work and socialise together.”

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