Is This Australia’s Most Ambitious Project? The $8 Billion Vision To Transform Woolloomooloo

The concept aptly named "Willy Wonkas” Woolloomooloo is the ambition of local Sydney architect David Vago to create an affordable and edible healthy city.

In the midst of Sydney’s current housing affordability crisis, Vago believes an effective solution comes in the shape of a new urban precinct, converting the Woolloomooloo area into a sustainable “utopian” and “edible” city precinct.

It is a precinct where affordable housing, means-tested housing and upmarket housing co-exist with a plethora of community, work, health and education infrastructure.

Globally there are many philosophical ideologies around how to make cities better places to live however Vago is striving to create reality from philosophy and implement solutions to Sydney’s social and housing problems through the medium of design.

And he believes this can be done in a way that isn’t at the cost of the developer or taxpayer. Due to the high value of land in Woolloomooloo Vago believes this is achievable through a public-private partnership (PPP) between developer and government.    

To better understand this vision, The Urban Developer sat down with Vago who is the Director of Habitat8, a Sydney based multi-disciplinary placemaking studio, and delved further into how the redevelopment of Woolloomooloo stands to set the precedent for edible precincts.

Woolloomooloo At A Glance; From Wharf To Social Housing and The Context Behind The Concept

▲ Boys dive off the Finger Wharf at Woolloomooloo, Sydney, 18 November 1988. Image: Elizabeth Dobbie

Woolloomooloo is located in central Sydney, 1.5km east of Sydney’s central business district and prior to 1905 was predominantly an industrial area focused around The Cowper Wharf.

In 1905, concurrent works began with the upgrade of Cowper Wharf into Finger Wharf and the widening of a number of key roads.

The area underwent an intensification of maritime and shipping activities, and the pubs of Woolloomooloo played an important role in the social life of the area.

Social decline of the area was evident as early as the 1890s and continued through the first half of the twentieth century.

In 1968, a decision to prepare a comprehensive planning scheme for the whole of Sydney was made and an ‘intensive, integrated, multi-level development’ was proposed for Woolloomooloo.

The port was to be redeveloped and residential buildings were to be restricted to the edge of the domain and on Victoria Street.

The Woolloomooloo Redevelopment Central Plan was adopted in 1969.

By 1975, the Housing Commission began resuming property. Less than seven acres were resumed, terrace housing was restored and new dwellings were erected.

By 1979, 68 dwellings were completed, with construction continuing through to the 1990s.  

The area has long been identified as a poorer working-class district of Sydney however in more recent times has undergone a similar gentrification to many other inner city precincts.

It remains to be a complex area as public housing still exist in Woolloomooloo, which is where Vago sees great opportunity to create an inclusive community and battle the likes of mental illness and deprivation of inner city opportunity for low income skill sets. The Program Behind A Utopic And Edible Suburb; What Are The Numbers Behind Bringing The Vision To Life

▲ Urbanist David Vago’s vision Woolloomooloo Sydney.

‘Edible’ and ‘utopic’ all sound like the epitome of optimism however if Vago can make the numbers stack up then this concept becomes a whole lot more achievable for those looking to invest.

Reiterating the earlier point, Vago believes that nobody should lose out at "Willy Wonkas” and there is equally as much commercial opportunity as there is social.

To do this he intends to utilise the following (all numbers are approx);  


5,000 apartments (50% normal/50% means tested/affordable housing) and a 200 room hotel.

Commercial and Retail:

15,000sqm of retail and an equal amount allocated to creative small business office hubs.

Edible Public Realm:

90,000sq m of public open space/edible/native landscapes consisting of 20,000sq m of vertical edible greenwalls and 6,000 fruit trees.

Rooftop Amenity:

  • 17,000sq m of useable rooftop gardens and an additional 10,000sq m of 20th Floor Floating rooftop for public use.  

  • 24,000sq m of rooftop edible/market gardens and 4 x 150sq m rooftop greenhouses.

Public Amenity:

  • 15,000sq m of community facilities incl pre-schools, after school centres, a new primary school, gym/exercise/swimming centres, music/art/dancing spaces and trade training workshops.

  • 4km of internal bike/walking tracks around a 7,500sqm plaza area for markets and outdoor entertainment and a 2,500sqm fresh produce organic supermarket (with produce grown on site)

It's quite the shopping list and is an example of urban hacking at the highest level as Vago attempts to amalgamate urban farming with housing solutions, commercial opportunity and public amenity to create his vision for utopia.

▲ Artists Impression Of "Willy Wonkas” Woolloomooloo. Image: Habit8

Whether the concept is taken seriously or not, it is prompting a rethink of both the prevailing economic and social models.

Below is an outline for the proposed social benefits the redevelopment aims to offer Sydney;   

Housing That Creates New Opportunities

Woolloomooloo would become Australia’s first integrated affordable and means tested housing precinct.

The concept revolves around the federal Government partnering with developers to supply 2500 affordable and means tested housing opportunities.

Housing That Creates New Opportunities

Woolloomooloo would become Australia’s first integrated affordable and means tested housing precinct.

The concept revolves around the federal Government partnering with developers to supply 2500 affordable and means tested housing opportunities.

Sewing Seeds And Reaping Skills; Landscaping With Meaning

Landscapes will be used as a learning and teaching tool.

This will be combined with other essential trades and workshops and TAFE as part of a way to combat the trade skills drain in the city.

Environment And People; A Precinct That Merges Demographic Diversity And Sustainable Design

  • Promotion of  diversity in demographics by appealing to all sections and age groups in the community.

  • 6 star green rated development setting the benchmark in sustainability and green living.

Education And Commerce; Places To Learn And Places To Work For Everybody

New pre-schools and after school care facilities to help working families.

Affordable Opportunities for innovative small businesses and startups close to the CBD.

Affordable opportunities for up and coming bespoke designers to help establish their brands.

‘Utopic and edible city’ suggests a concept serendipitous of merging a New York City block with Singapore City style design outcomes. The artist impressions tend to suggest this and so does Vago’s recount of how the above outcomes will take physical form in real life.     

It’s a city whereby every roof will serve a function and purpose. Some will create communal open spaces, housing native plants and bird habitats however most will facilitate market gardens.

The streets will be bounded by architecture that encompasses thousands of square meters of edible green walls. Public realm will follow suit being planted with thousands of fruit trees and edible plants. Of which all of this will be maintained using water sensitive urban design, bio-swales and recycled water for management and irrigation on the site.

The precinct shall be an advocate for the healthy city where walking and cycling are encouraged along with healthy eating, exercise and organized sport. In addition to this is a large organic supermarket that will promote locally grown produce and sustainable urban farming.

Luxury apartment towers will have green facades and balconies with a linear park that spans between towers like the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore, situated upon their tops will be restaurants and bars.

The existing above ground train viaduct will be converted into a New York Highline type green link from Kings Cross to the Art Gallery and Domain via the new Wooloomooloo precinct. The current train line would be put underground or run alongside or below the potential new green link.

Community facilities are designed to drive upskilling and learning.

Health care facilities will take a particular focus on mental health and the aged and terminally ill.

And the final piece is a large retail offering with supermarket , restaurants and a pop up shop district to showcase up and coming designers and businesses.

▲ Proposed Masterplan Of "Willy Wonkas” Woolloomooloo. Image: Habit8

What Vago is proposing is all the bit a romantic vision for a better world and to many may be seen as architectural ambition however it could well be the beginning of something much bigger.

If he can propose a concept that stands up economically as well as socially then it has the potential to spark thought around how our major global cities deal with densification.

Irrespective of where this idea ends, it’s thought provoking and challenges us to be more considerate of the people who bring life to our cities.  

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