Peter Walker’s Point

The Barangaroo Reserve transforms Sydney Harbour’s old industrial landscape.

By Gweneth Leigh, ASLA

The Barangaroo Reserve foreshore and promenade trace the location of the site’s original 1836 shoreline. Photo courtesy Barangaroo Delivery Authority.

When I was a child growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my understanding of landscape was one of changing purpose. Cornfields were converted into housing subdivisions and office parks. Old winding roads were straightened, thickened with extra lanes, and punctuated by traffic lights. It was the small discoveries—an arrowhead in the garden, a bullet lodged in a tree—that revealed the older stories of these fractured landscapes. The layers of roads, power lines, and strip malls made any trace of a site’s earlier history difficult to imagine.

But what if we were to allow a landscape to break free from the confines of concrete curbs, smooth out its industrial wrinkles, and pluck off architectural blemishes in an effort to recapture a semblance of its younger, more picturesque self? Where injections of earth and rock serve as the Botox for an aging landscape, erasing the creases of human development in favor of a more natural topography. So begins the story of Barangaroo Reserve in Sydney, Australia.

This new headland park, opened in August 2015, transformed 14 acres of a flat concrete shipping terminal into an approximate vision of Sydney’s Botany Bay circa 1788. It is the first stage of a $6 billion (AUD), 54-acre urban renewal development planned as a major extension of Sydney’s central business district to bring recreation, housing, shopping, and offices down to the water’s edge.

Barangaroo’s original headland evolved from being an important hunting and fishing area for the Aboriginal Cadigal people to becoming a hub for Sydney’s burgeoning shipping industry. Since the 1830s, successive development of the shoreline required land reclamation and the cutting back of the existing sandstone cliffs. However, as time passed, and the size of commercial ships grew, port facilities were focused elsewhere given the inability of the site to accommodate modern commercial ships. In 2003, the New South Wales government slated the area for redevelopment into parklands and commercial space; existing stevedoring companies were provided three years to relocate, leading to the site’s industrial demise by 2006.

Tiers of bush plantings flag a large staircase that leads to the water’s edge. Photo courtesy Rick Stevens/Barangaroo Delivery Authority.

Designed by Peter Walker, FASLA, of PWP Landscape Architecture, in association with the Australian design practice Johnson Pilton Walker (JPW), Barangaroo Reserve is significant in how it knits an enormous piece of neglected waterfront back into Sydney’s public realm. Standing along the generous outcrop of rocky foreshore, with the waves tickling your toes and fig trees framing the sky, you can almost imagine Captain Arthur Phillip sailing past on his way to establish Great Britain’s famous penal colony along Sydney’s modern shores. This vision is largely thanks to the cunning and uncompromising resolve of the project’s champion, the former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who left office in 1996, appointed himself the guardian of Sydney’s harbor, and battled his way toward Barangaroo’s delivery for more than a decade.

Keating has a reputation as one of Australia’s most cultured prime ministers. He is self-educated in architecture, and has a passion for French Empire clocks and a euphoric appreciation of Gustav Mahler. However, his ability to craft words in ways that can both flog and amuse has also made him one of Australia’s most feisty political warriors. When Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, was delivered a petition with the signatures of 11,000 concerned Sydney residents requesting an inquiry into Barangaroo’s development, she felt obligated to table the appeal in Parliament. In response, Keating ripped into her for bowing to “sandal-wearing, muesli-chewing, bike-riding pedestrians without any idea of the metropolitan quality of the city or what Sydney would lose if Barangaroo were to fail.” When Keating refused to allow cruise ships to dock at Barangaroo, Carnival Australia’s executive chairman, Ann Sherry, told him: “Paul, the trouble with you is you don’t go on cruises.” To which he quickly replied, “Well, Ann, I don’t own a wheelchair.”

Like a terrier to a bone, Keating for years continued his pursuit of the headland by finessing his way from spectator to eventually becoming chairman of both the Public Domain and Design Review committees for the Barangaroo development. An international design ideas competition was arranged to ensure public consideration of the site, as many different agencies were vying to take ownership of it. However, there was never any guarantee that the winners of the design competition—the Sydney firms Hill Thalis, Paul Berkemeier Architect, and Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture—would be given the job, and they weren’t. In 2008, Keating sent a letter to Morris Iemma, the premier of the New South Wales government, accompanied by a sketch drawn up by Keating himself, which stated the premier’s and the treasurer’s agreement to allow Keating to have political authority and provide the “broad guidance needed” for the design and delivery of the headland.

Keating’s resolve to shed the site’s industrial maritime heritage in favor of developing it as a natural domain and headland stirred the ire of many within the Sydney community. In 2011, the Australian Institute of Architects’ New South Wales Chapter put forward an alternative scheme they dubbed A Better Barangaroo, put together by a group of 57 independent architects and urban planners, which addressed several attributes of the 54-acre site—including a rethinking of Keating’s headland park. None of the critique fazed him. “Naturalism has a place in urban design; we don’t have to have parks which are squares, flat, or worse,” Keating says. “The whole profession was opposed to Barangaroo—the Institute of Architects in Sydney all signed up to oppose it. And they all now love it,” he chuckles. “I’ve taught them something about landscape—something they should have known.”

Barangaroo Master Plan. Image courtesy PWP Landscape Architecture.

Keating’s dogged pursuit of Barangaroo has been part of his broader ambition toward re-creating the constellation of Sydney’s naturalistic headlands to emulate the way the harbor existed during European settlement. At the center is Goat Island—also known as Memel, the aboriginal word for the pupil of the eye—which was the central place from which natives would canoe to the surrounding headlands of Ballast Point, Balls Head, and Barangaroo. “This was the intimate part of the harbor where the Aboriginal people lived,” Keating says. “For a city of five million people, to be able to recover that natural intimacy, which no other great city has, is a thing to do.”

Keating has been very aware of the negative impact that European settlement continues to wreak on Aboriginal peoples’ traditional way of life. During his administration in the 1990s, indigenous persons’ yearly income was half the national average, infant mortality was three times higher, and jails had 29 times more Aborigines than non-Aborigines in custody. These statistics have not lessened with time. Today, Australia’s indigenous populations have a life expectancy that’s a decade less than non-indigenous people; they represent only 2 percent of the population, yet compose more than a quarter (27 percent) of Australia’s prison population. Keating’s historic Redfern Park Speech, delivered in 1992, was a powerful reflection of the problems that modern society had inflicted on Australia’s indigenous people:

It begins, I think, with that act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask, how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

When PWP and JPW were brought onto the project in 2010, Keating worked closely with the team members to ensure they understood the cultural and physical significance of the site. He took the design team onto his own boat for the better part of a day, looking at Barangaroo and the other headlands from the water. It was important to him that the team understood what had been lost at the site by comparing it to other headlands that were still intact, and he emphasized the need to reconnect Barangaroo back into the fabric of the city—all the way down to the water’s edge. Walker also understood Keating’s desire to create a design that didn’t focus on creating, as Walker says, “another big white building to make a statement about Aboriginal life.”

The Barangaroo Reserve site before construction began. Image courtesy Johnson Pilton Walker.

To fully understand what it was that the indigenous Australians once had—and what they had lost—required a monumental landscape intervention. So Walker set about to re-create the headland.

My first visit to the site began early one Saturday during a morning full of intermittent rain, but this did not faze the many people who jogged, meandered, and even sang their way through the site (thank you, random mariachi band). I sat perched on one of the sandstone blocks along the foreshore and watched for hours, fascinated. There were painters and picnickers, clusters of mothers pushing strollers; there was a yoga group perched at the top of the headland in precarious positions, as well as occasional elderly visitors pulling themselves along with a walker or cane. Children accompanying their parents walked anywhere but on the path—most preferred to balance their steps along the meandering 1836 Wall (marking the original coastline of that year), while others darted off and scrambled over the rocks along the water’s edge. The site had been open for two months, and it was obvious how readily the public had embraced it.

I bemusedly watched a boy no older than five brandish a formidable plastic sword with one hand while another straightened his paper pirate’s hat. “No, Dad, you stand down here!” he shouted. The boy was insistent, perched atop a slab of sandstone along the upper edge of the foreshore. Hands raised in defeat, a weary-looking father stepped down to the lowest embankment of sandstone until the grade change leveled his gaze with that of his young son, and they faced squarely eye to eye; a smile stretched across the father’s face. Delighted, the boy jumped in place with excitement. “You’re Captain Hook!” he squealed.

Nestled within Darling Harbour, Barangaroo Reserve is a place of green curves, rock outcrops, and tidal pools—a stark contrast to the straight lines and sharp angles of the downtown high-rises that hover in the background. It’s a place where the connection to the water is made tangible through the slabs of sandstone that spill into the harbor rather than being set at a distance by an elevated seawall. This site once had strong industrial edges of its own, but most have been carefully cloaked through some 83,000 tons of rock set along the shoreline, each slab oriented 20 degrees northeast—the natural geological fault line of rocks located within Sydney Harbour. (Keating says, “When you go there, you know it feels right, although you don’t quite know why.”) Where the industrial edges remain, they are either highlighted as heritage features or discovered through sideways glances into the water that reveal the outline of caissons retained for structural integrity, a remnant of maritime days past.

One of Walker’s early observations was the way Sydney residents refused to be denied access to the water. “Everywhere around the harbor where people attempted to fence off the waterfront, everybody just jumps over the fence and they fish. The kids go into the tidal pools. There’s a whole waterfront life of the modern Sydneysider,” Walker says. It was obvious that issues of waterfront access and movement around the periphery of the site needed to take priority. But understanding how to shape and reconstruct a new headland around which to choreograph this activity was another challenge.

The Barangaroo Reserve headland as completed in 2015. Image courtesy Barangaroo Delivery Authority.

Because there were no surveys of the original headland, the design team studied historic maps and French landscape paintings of the area. From these, computer models were generated that layered the terrain into different shapes and gradients. Existing rock outcrops on the seabed floor were also roughly mapped and archaeologists consulted to better understand the geologic processes that had affected the headlands over time. Based on this research, the shape of the headlands approximately reflects the 1836 shoreline. This was affirmed when an old slipway from the 19th century was uncovered during construction.

Once the shape of the headland had been determined, the next challenge was to construct the steep 60-foot cliffs in a way that made them look like an approximation of nature without taking it to the level of Disneyland. So Walker proposed to Keating that the site be designed using a naturalistic philosophy. “I explained that naturalistic is a term which doesn’t describe nature, but it describes the nature of nature. You’re not copying nature; you’re representing it,” Walker says. “And for a long time Paul would say, ‘Let’s talk about that again…that was interesting.’” Keating jokes that Walker was taught naturalism at university, but in his decades of practice never found a client who wanted to use it—until Walker met him.

It was important that the shape of the headland facilitated connections along the waterfront and Hickson Road (the original main road leading to the shipyard), but it also needed to be high enough to link back into the city grid. “The goal was to have a seamless connection, so no matter where you entered, you would form part of the city at that elevation,” Walker says. Of particular concern was to connect the broken streets of Millers Point, a residential community whose rugged ridgeline and high promontory were originally the site of wooden windmills, but were later sheared off during excavation of the headland in the late 1800s and replaced with terrace houses for workers employed at the docks below. For decades, residents in the town houses here—many of which were low-income government housing—only had a small stairwell leading from the top of the cliff face down 60 feet to the concrete apron of the former shipping dock. Now the residences have a stretch of open parkland spilling out from their front doors with magnificent ocean views, increasing not only their amenity but also their value: Many have marketed with a price of more than $4.5 million (AUD).

The existing harbor headlands had an underlying base of preexisting stone to support the sheer cliffs. Walker’s team did not have that to work with. They needed to achieve a vertical profile that provided structural stability without the benefit of existing geology. The solution was to establish a series of terraces made of hollow precast concrete units that were filled with aggregate and tied back into the hillside. The units were colored with a sepia finish to help them blend in as the plantings grew and provided greater coverage. Behind these walls, the intention had been to backfill using recycled fill from nearby development works—approximately 490,000 cubic yards’ worth. However, soil contamination issues significantly reduced the amount of dirt available for creating the mass of the headland. What resulted was the creation of the Cutaway, a 21,500-square-yard void within the belly of the headland to serve as Sydney’s largest function space and future cultural center.

With walls extending 60 feet high, the Cutaway is built up around the original cliff face of the shipping yard, where ventilation openings in the roof structure allow natural light to spill onto its roughened surface with great effect. However, this is where the charm of the space ends, as the rest of the interior is boxy and clad in enormous swaths of drab concrete, giving it the feel of (ironically) a shipping container warehouse rather than a space to host cultural events like the Venice Biennale. There had been an original proposition for the Cutaway by JPW (a study separate from the work undertaken with PWP) that put forward a more sculptural and considered proposition toward the shape and function of the Cutaway. But it was a latecomer to the design brief, and a more conservative approach was taken toward its construction, which saved on cost, but sacrificed the creation of what could have been one of Australia’s largest and most inspiring interior spaces.

The design of Barangaroo Reserve’s waterfront was easily the most time-intensive part of the headland’s creation. Local Sydney stone yards were initially investigated to provide the sandstone, but that would have required carving by highly pressurized water jets to give the stones the desired naturalistic appearance. However, a fortuitous discovery was made when sandstone was found beneath the Barangaroo site, and plenty of it.

Over the span of one year, 10,000 blocks about four feet wide and up to 16 feet long were strategically hewn from beneath the space of the Cutaway with the extraction pit laid out in the shape of the site’s required parking garage. Because of Sydney Harbour’s geological fault line of 20 degrees northeast, the sandstone harvested from the site sheared naturally when hewn from this angle, providing a naturalistic rock face. No jet-spraying of the rocks would be needed.

Each of the extracted sandstone blocks was labeled, sized, and bar-coded to identify where it should go in the foreshore. This data was entered into a custom-made 12-D computer modeling program that mapped out the waterfront and ensured each individual block could be slotted into place like a giant 3-D puzzle, while also certifying that fall heights and joint widths met Australian safety standards. Initially, the blocks were limited to 75 different sizes, but this number was increased to more than 200 as it afforded more flexibility in the foreshore design. Each was set upon a bed of gravel and basalt designed to accommodate tidal movement.

The design team faced a lot of unknowns when it came to the construction of the waterfront. “We asked a lot of bold questions and kept getting bolder answers in response,” Walker says. Troy Stratti, a Sydney sandstone extraction expert, was brought onto the project team to provide guidance on how to best use the extracted sandstone. The discussions between the design team and Stratti were like a tennis match that played along through the development of mock-ups for building the waterfront. Eventually, Stratti developed a 1:20 scale prototype to test the foreshore design and created unique tools for handling the 11- to 13-ton blocks that allowed each one to be placed in close proximity to another. The variation in color and markings between the individual stones required an intensive amount of time and coordination between PWP and Stratti to determine the best way to distribute the sandstone blocks across the site.

While establishing the terraces and rocky foreshore was critical to the headland design, so was the need to incorporate a planting strategy to shroud the headland with vegetation using a 200-year-old planting palette. There was also heavy pressure to deliver a landscape that provided instant impact, particularly when it came to hiding the concrete terraces. An earlier headland park initially championed by Keating, Ballast Point Park, had been established using tubestock, resulting in a stark landscape during the park’s early years, which drew attention to the hard lines and extensive walls used throughout the site. The park still draws Keating’s ire. “It’s an archie park, done by an architect…terrible, all hard concrete design,” has been his most frequent critique. To avoid a similar outcome, Stuart Pittendrigh, a landscape architect and horticultural consultant who specializes in Sydney’s native botanic species, joined the design team in 2010 to help build the bush.

Pittendrigh met me on site early on a Monday morning after what had been a blazing weekend, with temperatures soaring over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. He had been informed that a marine vessel had sprayed saltwater toward the northwest corner of the site in an effort to cool off visitors over the weekend; he wasn’t happy about it. “The water saturated all my plants,” he lamented. “Apparently the staff has been washing down the furniture and light poles, getting all the salt off.” When we made our way to the affected area, many of the Hardenbergia vines were already browning off. “I’ll have to speak to the BDA [Barangaroo Delivery Authority] about this,” Pittendrigh said, his brow furrowed.

As the lead horticultural consultant on the project, Pittendrigh has been deeply involved in the sourcing, design, production, and installation of plants across the site, but more in the capacity of watching over the works rather than superintending the job. Since Barangaroo’s completion, he has been commissioned to monitor the park over the next two years, spending time twice a month to observe maintenance contractors, address concerns, and report back to the BDA. After practicing for 47 years, it’s the first time he’s been tasked with undertaking such follow-up work on a project.

Walking through the site, Pittendrigh gestured to a cluster of grevilleas that were flowing over the rock walls and onto the rim of the paths. “Maintenance wanted to shear them off initially, said they were trip hazards,” he said, his eyes sparking. “I gave them a piece of my mind.” Farther along, he pointed out a fig that’s more compact and squatty in shape. “You can tell that one was container grown from birth,” he commented, then paused by some of the larger fig trees at the water’s edge, their sprawling habit an indicator the trees were transplants from another site. To maximize visual impact by the opening date, 16 mature fig trees from southern Queensland and 89 cabbage palms had been relocated into the park. As a way to avoid breakage of the branches, particularly during transport, the trees were deprived of water for a few days before transport, which allowed the leaves to wilt and made them more flexible. The trees were then heavily soaked once planted as a way to help them recover.

Plant losses at the site have been minimal, with just 1 percent of the plants failing—a success rate Pittendrigh is incredibly proud of. (“Not bad out of nearly 76,000 plants,” he says). Out of the 84 species integrated into the site, only five weren’t indigenous to Sydney Harbour. A total of seven plant communities were planted according to their edaphic position in the landscape with regard to topography, aspect, environment, and moisture requirements. The subtle variations of these plant communities are noticeable when walking through the site, from the rich undergrowth nestled within the steep terrain of the damp southeast slopes of the gully forest to the smaller, more spindly plants enduring the windy and exposed conditions of the ridgetop woodland 60 feet above at the promontory.

Barangaroo’s foreshore promenade passes grassy “beach” areas that allow visitors access to the water. Photo courtesy PWP Landscape Architecture.

Although the site had been open for only three months, the vegetation was thriving thanks in part to the careful attention to the soil substrate of the plantings. As a way to overcome common interface problems (“plant shock”), great effort was made to grow the nursery plants in the same soil as was present on the site. A soil scientist, Simon Leake, developed a mix that simulated the weathered Hawkesbury Sandstone soils commonly found in Sydney by taking the waste sandstone from the site excavations and crushing it into a fine aggregate. Added to this was glass from recycled bottles, with fragments reduced to the size of a match head to add silica content. Organic material and nutrients were limited to between 4 percent and 10 percent of the mixture, while phosphorus was excluded completely, as Australian plants tend to resent it, and Leake figured it would build up naturally over time.

In addition to careful soil planning, Pittendrigh also took great effort in establishing the trees by developing them with a very shallow—but broad—root plate. Some of the planting containers were eight to 10 feet in diameter, with root tips at a maximum depth of 18 to 32 inches. The technique has been highly successful, as the root plate allowed the trees to establish quickly and withstand gale-force winds off the ocean. Pittendrigh prides himself on an encounter he had with two engineers visiting the site who were astounded to learn that the trees didn’t have any additional anchoring keeping them rigid; so far, there haven’t been any blow downs.

Toward the end of our walk, Pittendrigh meandered down to a fig tree close to the water’s edge where a main branch dangled unnaturally at a sharp angle. “This is the first tree we planted,” he mentioned while gingerly inspecting a break halfway down the limb. “Every time I come here, there’s another badly damaged branch. Kids play on it—a crying shame.” Looking at the surface around his feet, he noticed some tendrils of green emerging. “Ground covers—like an edible spinach. Dies out in winter.” I couldn’t help but smile. Keating may have been the champion of Barangaroo’s headland, but Pittendrigh was certainly its protector.

Some within the Australian design community are still unconvinced that a design that discarded the site’s industrial heritage was the best possible outcome. But the success of Barangaroo Reserve is a testament to the talent and dedication of its many midwives—and a budget in excess of $250 million (AUD). And without a Keating counterpart to drive an alternative option, movements against the headland design failed to gain traction. “The aspirations of the designers are important,” Pittendrigh says, “but the main function of a park is to meet people’s needs, and this place does that. People feel relaxed in this space; no one’s in a hurry, and they’re strolling around and taking it in.”

For Walker, the success of a project is like a work of art, where the idea needs to catch people’s attention—and their imagination. “The most important thing you have to do,” he says, “is make it good enough so people love it.” Based on the constant use of the headland so far, the park is doing its job. It’s a place where visitors can take cultural tours to explore the site’s Aboriginal history. It’s where Sydneysiders can go to stretch their legs, touch the tides, and taste the salt air. And, perhaps most important, it’s where a weary father can take his young son to play pirates by the water—and be awakened by the vision it reveals.

Gweneth Leigh, ASLA, is a landscape architect and freelance writer based in Canberra, Australia. Contact her at

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