OPINION: The harbour is arguably Sydney’s only true great public space. And, perhaps, its most contested.

Despite this, the harbour has retained an enduring resilience, beauty and value. The power of social activism, conscious design and continued investment in the public domain have all been instrumental in keeping it that way.

But now, more than ever, the accelerated pace of change and the pressure to become a global city have increasingly resulted in the adoption of international development models and a move to market-led infrastructure provision. This is shifting the focus from public to private interests, from government as promoter to government as client, with mixed results.

The harbour’s future is at a critical point if we are not to lose what we value most.

Over 20 years, I have been instrumental in shaping more places around Sydney Harbour than most. I have had many diverse roles and developed strategies, plans and urban projects from Manly to Parramatta, some the breadth of Sydney Harbour, some site-specific master plans and others small-scale interventions within the public domain.

Many have been realised, but just as many remain in the bottom drawer, shelf-ready should the political winds change. Great initiatives often never see the light of day. Some great ideas resurface again and again before the timing is right to be implemented. Sadly but more frequently, an outcome that is less than ideal wins the day.

One of my most significant roles was as part of the Sydney Harbour Design Review Panel established in 1997, to lift the design standards of strategic sites around the harbour. We established and applied consistent design principles that responded to the character of the harbour landscape and terrain, by ensuring new development was scaled down to the harbour so that views were shared and the waterfront was public and accessible to all.

The most successful outcomes of my career have been where the planning and procurement processes supported these design fundamentals. In every one of these roles I have gained insights into how the politics play out.

As a consequence of this long association with the harbour, I have developed a considerable understanding of this unique place – its attributes, its challenges and its possibilities.

Who looks out for this contested space?

There is no doubt the public domain is contested space and Sydney Harbour, being the jewel in Sydney’s crown, is the most contested space in this city. So who is watching out for it?

The provocateurs and civic conscience safeguarding the genius loci of Sydney Harbour have often been architects, planners and conservationists (including resident action groups, greenies and unions) who have not only challenged the prevailing opinions but proposed alternative ideas. Not all good, not all realised, but harbour speculations have been part of our recurring cultural narrative and ensured robust debate that has provoked the government to act.

Much of the development of Sydney Harbour has been achieved with the alignment of successive governments, whose commitment to public policy and projects of vision, substance and design intent have made them happen. As a result, we have a legacy of significant urban projects, like the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House, that have shaped the unique form and identity of our harbour setting and elevated our position on the global stage.

Recent additions to the harbour range from the nature reserves and remediated landscapes of Sydney Olympic Park, to the carefully regenerated Defence lands of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and the nuanced re-interpretations of our industrial heritage at Ballast and Pyrmont Points, Glebe and Cockatoo Island. The latest is the much-debated simulated landscape of Barangaroo Headland Park.

What is clear to me is that the harbour’s enduring resilience and beauty is due, in no small part, to this strategic investment in the public domain by all levels of government, despite often competing political views.

Despite the city’s early focus on the harbour as a place of commerce, transport and industry, we have today our amazing legacy of an accessible and green foreshore setting. It is clear this has been no accident; it has happened by design.

Yet, even with the best of intentions, like all post-industrial cities Sydney has had to deal with the tension of competing agendas throughout its history: economic growth versus environmental protection, public versus private interests, conservation versus renewal.

At key moments, these tensions have spawned civic awakening, discourse and demonstration that resulted in pivotal transformation around the harbour.

A history of conflict, missteps and triumphs

As early as the 19th century, emergent environmentalists were pitted against proposed coal-mining interests in Sydney Harbour and were instrumental in conserving the Cremorne peninsula.

The movement against privatisation of the harbour foreshores strengthened towards the end of the 19th century. With it emerged champions such as Niels Nielsen (the then NSW Secretary of Lands) who resumed key foreshore sites, notably Neilson Park and Bradley’s Head.

This came at a time when the town planning movement was first making its mark with a major focus on open space – by providing it, resuming it and reclaiming it. The public debate across the decades is testament to the value placed on this extraordinary asset.

This chapter in Sydney’s early history was a barometer for the future. An imperative to act, to challenge the status quo, has been born from both threats as well as opportunity.

The slum clearance and redevelopment of the The Rocks at the turn of the 20th century, following the outbreak of plague, was as much an imperative to modernise and to drive economic growth at all costs. The government response included a rationalisation of harbour management through the creation of the Sydney Harbour Trust and the wholesale redevelopment of the deep-water berths in Darling Harbour and Walsh Bay.

Opportunity came in various guises. Major events, such as the Bicentennial and 2000 Olympics, recalibrated our focus on public life.

This was when the pursuit of design quality moved from being a perceived barrier to economic growth to a prerequisite for global competitiveness, international investment and tourism. Both Darling Harbour and Circular Quay were the beneficiaries.

Darling Harbour was a flagship urban renewal project of the time with its iconic maritime-influenced architecture capturing local and international acclaim. It was an ambitious bid by the state government to make Sydney an international convention and tourist destination complete with high design aspirations, as evidenced by the engagement of notables in Sydney’s planning and design community.

While Darling Harbour’s failings are rooted in its disconnect from the city streets that feed it, and its lack of real city uses, it provided an open and egalitarian environment. For 1980s Sydney it was, for all its flaws, a significant achievement, and it brought people to the harbour in droves.

Importantly, it set up the framework for future waterfront connections to Pyrmont in the west and to Barangaroo, Walsh Bay and Circular Quay to the east.

The next-generation urban-renewal project, Barangaroo, has an equally synthetic premise, albeit market-led and at mega-scale. It is distinct and separate from the city, in its form, scale and expression. It imbues an international urban brand more than any recognisable Sydney identity.

Both these waterfont precincts are in sharp contrast to the places around the harbour that are both layered in history and interspersed with new development and public domain that is both well designed and sympathetic with the underlying fabric of Sydney’s foreshores.

The most iconic and authentic waterfront, of course, is Circular Quay. The city’s gateway, is a transport hub as well as a place of public life and celebration.

The precinct has been the focus of a number of makeovers. Both the Bicentennial and the Olympics were a stimulus for improvements to Circular Quay that elevated it from a place of transit into a much-loved destination.

Despite its great DNA and framing by Sydney’s two icons, the bridge and the Opera House, there have been missed opportunities to deliver a compelling, integrated strategy for the precinct. Let’s hope the future of Circular Quay is not just a future of irregular upgrade works and clean-ups.

The most recent drive for Sydney to become a global city has more than ever before resulted in the importation of other international paradigms and a move from locally distinctive to globally ubiquitous environments. This has had mixed results. Witness Barangaroo.

Yet the significance of Sydney Harbour cannot be underestimated, for Sydney-siders and visitors alike. It is one of the places that can and should be enjoyed by all.

So let’s not rely on predictable paradigms to shape our city. Instead, let’s continue to fight for and re-imagine the harbour city we want.

The key to maintaining the harbour’s identity is to sustain the unique and particular, the ordinary and extraordinary, its beauty and delight. All of which make this one of the most liveable cities in the world, and that is Sydney’s cachet.

This is an edited excerpt from the annual Paul Reid Lecture in Urban Design delivered at UNSW in Sydney on Wednesday, March 9, as part of the Utzon Lecture Series.

Helen Lochhead is Dean, Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW.

This article was first published in The Conversation.