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Site readings: four Defence rezoning projects

As is true of good architecture, good master planning is contextual.

It is an unfortunate, but all too common, mistake when designers attempt to apply an innovative or derivative order to a site that already possesses most of the ecological and cultural context required to guide its master plan. Almost always, when urban designers take the time to carefully study a site and identify its history, patterns and connections, the answers come alive before them with a compelling logic and clarity that inspires confidence about being the right fit.

From the late-1990s to the present, Architectus’ Urban Design and Planning team designed several significant master plans for the Commonwealth Department of Defence for some of their surplus land in quite strategic locations. These plans reflect a simple and pragmatic response to their sites and, consequently have become exemplars for repurposing and rezoning large landholdings in urban areas.

Though the projects were all unique, they shared several problems that are common among major rezoning projects. All occupied large sites and had challenging briefs encompassing a long list of requirements. Yet, we found that in each case the brief was best fulfilled through a detailed understanding of the site and its context and a careful and logical step by step process revealing the unique character of each site in its urban response.

Thornton Park master plan: reflecting the history of a site

In the late-1990s, the Commonwealth Department of Defence commissioned Architectus to devise a master plan for 50 hectares of surplus land in North Penrith adjacent the Penrith Rail Station.

The Department wanted to create a new neighbourhood on this large site, comprising well over 800 homes and commercial spaces for up to 1,000 workers. Ease of access to public transport links and establishing a high quality, well organised public domain was critical to the success of such a large new precinct.

For ten years prior, others had proposed schemes for the site, none of which reflected an inspiring or functional vision that captured its full potential and so Penrith Council’s attitude was to land bank the site for the long term. The scale and requirements of the project seemed to be inhibiting people’s ability to see the site for what it was: a place with a rich and fascinating history that could easily underpin a cohesive master plan.

The site held several interesting historical features that Architectus quickly recognised as the basis of a master plan:

Cricket field

Thornton Park contained an original cricket pitch made for one of the stops on the first Lord Sheffield Shield cricket tour held in 1892. It made sense that this historic space would form the village green – a centrepiece open space around which the new neighbourhood would take form.

Two nineteenth-century houses inspire view axes radiating from the cricket field connect the village green to the edge of the site and are the organising linear spaces for the site’s water quality control system.

Aviation history

Early in the twentieth-century, Australia’s first passenger flight took off from an aerodrome located on the site. This significant event was referenced also through the open space of the cricket field.

1920s speedway

In interesting historical note is the 1920s speedway that ringed the site. This road was the place for a notable event when a race between the fastest motor car of the day was pitted against a biplane. The pattern of this old road sets the curvilinear alignment of the new road pattern.


The combination of these intriguing facts of history offered a basic blueprint from which our master plan began to take form. With the circular village green acting as the hub of the neighbourhood, houses and buildings branch out from this centre point in a logical network divided by leafy avenues and infrastructure – providing the place with established character.

The Thornton Park master plan stands as an exemplar of its kind and was honoured with the Planning Institute of Australia’s 2003 Award for Planning Excellence in Urban Design Plans and Ideas. The plan has withstood many years of gestation by others and has been largely constructed by Landcom NSW – with the street block sizes carefully sized to accommodate increased density not marketable at the time of the plan – proving the robustness and far-sightedness of the plan.

Figure 2:
Ermington Master Plan

Ermington Master Plan

Ermington master plan: observing the existing context

After our success in designing the Thornton Park master plan, the Department of Defence commissioned Architectus to create a second master plan for a 20-hectare block on the banks of the Parramatta River alongside the Silverwater Road Bridge.

The site had previously housed naval stores and was one of the first master plans under State Environmental Planning Policy No. 56 for which the Minister for Planning was the consent authority.

Like Thornton Park, the Department sought to translate significant Defence land holdings into a new residential neighbourhood – one that would comprise more than 600 residences including free standing houses, townhouses, apartments and terraced waterfront apartments. Balancing the scale and dimensions of these different building types within the neighbourhood was one of this project’s key challenges.

The Ermington riverside site was of a different character and shape to Thornton Park and called for its own unique response:

Rectangular site and references to the site’s naval history

While Thornton Park’s historically circular shapes informed its village green response, Ermington Place’s rectangular site – with large rectilinear storage buildings aligned perpendicular to the river shore – suggested a more formal grid logic. The site retains its central east-west spine road as a wide boulevard and is broken into a range of rectangular street blocks each with the river at the southern end of each north-south local street. The Plan included a range of four parks including two in the shape of the footprint of the former warehouse buildings, a creek park, a central park and a riverside park with provision for a ferry landing.

Quiet interconnected roads and cul-de-sacs stem off the central east-west boulevard, and open space connections are made with adjacent open spaces external to the site.

The Plan was cited by Parramatta Council as an exemplar plan in its development control plan for the wider local government area.

Community consultation

The Ermington Master Plan was underpinned by a thorough and highly successful community consultation process, which was precipitated by a community meeting attended by more than 500 local people. From this meeting, a community reference committee of 15 people was formed, and the Urban Design team had bi-monthly meetings with this group.

This process led to the master plan achieving 100 per cent community support at an open community meeting of more than 400 people prior to the plan being submitted to Council for approval. The consultation process was cited as a model planning process by the Planning Institute of Australia in its award for planning excellence.

Other Defence planning projects: Stockton Peninsula and Northern Maribyrnong

Much of what we learned over the course of designing the master plans for Thornton Park and Ermington, Architectus has applied to two other major projects.

One of these is for Defence Housing Australia, who commissioned us to lead planning and design services for the future mixed-used master plan for a series of disused sites at Stockton Peninsula. Located within the Hunter Region, not far from Newcastle, the Stockton Peninsula Defence Housing – Master Plan and Rezoning project spans some 32 hectares at Fort Wallace and a further 112 hectares at the former Rifle Range.

Defence Housing wanted to retain a portion of this vast site for defence personnel housing and facilities along with a neighbourhood of private residences, roads and amenities that respect and respond to the coastal landscape and local ecology.

Figure 3:
Stockton Peninsula Defence Housing

Stockton Peninsula Defence Housing

Another significant Defence site project is the Northern Maribyrnong Conceptual Transport and Land Use Study, for which Architectus was chosen as the urban design consultant following a national search by Defence for the best urban design consultants for their largest land parcel earmarked for rezoning to urban densities at the time. It is one of the largest urban renewal sites within Greater Melbourne, the study is the first step towards strategically repurposing the land into a new precinct that taps into and expands on Victorian transport networks.

As is always the case, both these projects hold their own unique complexities and challenges. While rezoning large sections of government land is some of the most substantial and interesting work that urban designers and planners do, projects of the scale and complexity of Thornton Park, Ermington, Stockton Peninsula and Northern Maribyrnong can also be among the most difficult to resolve. Through years of collective experience and wisdom, Architectus’ Urban Design and Planning team know that the process begins with a careful reading of the character, history, geography and ecology of the site. If you can establish an initial concept that respects and reflects this context, the rest follows, and a place of real local character can be established with a great public domain with modern living standards.