What a character! The role of people in defining local character

By Sarah Reilly

by Sarah Reilly

November, 2019

With another 1.74million of us by 2036, Sydney’s identity as a city is at a crossroad between its past and its future. Who exactly are we and who do we want to be? Can we slow down and have some time to think about this?

Sydney’s one of the most diverse cities in the world. Around 36% of us were born overseas, speaking over 250 languages. We are changing from a mostly low rise, low density city toward densities more common in Hong Kong. Many of our residents are living in rental housing stress, meaning that while we are growing rapidly, around 40,000 Sydney-siders get out of here every year to find a more liveable and affordable city or region.

Change is inevitable, but change can be hard! Around 60% of Sydney-siders think that overdevelopment is damaging the identity and character of their suburb. But is it actually overdevelopment that is causing their concerns? Or is it that the social infrastructure, places, open space, services, affordable and diverse housing, and activated retail strips that create great places for people are not being delivered? Those social connectors that communities need to feel like they belong, to be healthy, happy and resilient?

Defining local character is a hot topic right now. But what actually makes the identity and character of a place? While the NSW DP&E currently defines it as: “What makes a neighbourhood distinctive..created by a combination of the land, public and private spaces and how they interact..” – local character is so much more than that. Buildings contribute to the physical character of a place, but mostly it’s what goes on inside them and in the public realm that makes a place interesting and gives it its unique character. It’s time we started to consider the special role of our people (or us) in defining local character. The feeling and energy of a place that is created by the people who live, create, work and play there. What we contribute through stories and history (Millers Point, Cabramatta), food and diversity (Lakemba, Fairfield, Chatswood), public and performing arts (Marrickville, Bankstown), music (Surry Hills, Newtown), street life (Darlinghurst, Haymarket, Merrylands), our first people (Redfern, Waterloo) – our social and cultural capital.

The Keeping it Weird movement across the world is one example of where communities are fighting to maintain the unique character of a place by supporting the people that have created it to stay living there – through affordable and diverse housing, music venues and street activity.

If we don’t start planning to maintain and preserve the unique human qualities of our places, we risk growing into a bland and homogenised city. Homogenisation of cities is a big risk to authentic culture – you can take what’s authentic away but you can’t curate it back in – no matter how hard you try or how many resources you give to interventions and activations. Great places for people don’t have to be curated.

We need to start engaging with communities about what is unique and special about the people of local areas for inclusion in our local character statements. And asking what we need to do to plan for the places, housing, streets, music venues and affordable rents to enable diverse communities to keep living, cooking, creating and contributing here – to retain our history and stories.

If you want to read more, you can view my presentation to the DP&E Local Character Symposium on the role of people in defining local character here.