About the speaker
Our speaker today is Ms Rachel Healy.
Rachel is the Executive Manager, Culture for the City of Sydney, a position she has held since May 2011. She was instrumental in developing and drafting the City’s first cultural policy and 10-year action plan and the City’s Live Music and Performance Action Plan.
She has been working in the arts and cultural sector for more than twenty years with a career including four years as Director of Performing Arts for Sydney Opera House and ten years as General Manager of Belvoir St Theatre. Rachel has also worked for The Australian Ballet, Handspan Theatre and the State Theatre Company of South Australia.
She was a participant in the Australian Prime Minister's 2020 Summit and has served on many arts boards some of which include the Sydney Opera House Trust and NSW Arts on Tour. Rachel was the Deputy Chair of the Theatre Board of the Australia Council from 1999-2001.
She currently serves on the boards of Hothouse Theatre and the UTS Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building Industry Advisory Board, Chairs the Performing Arts Touring Alliance and is a member of the Major Performing Arts Panel of the Australia Council.
It gives me great pleasure to invite Ms Rachel Healy to deliver the occasional address.
Chancellor Vicki Sara, Provost and Senior Vice President Peter Booth, Deputy Vice Chancellor Glenn Wightwick, Faculty Dean Desley Luscombe and Deputy Dean Tracy Taylor, staff, distinguished guests, families, friends and graduates.
I would like firstly to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of our land, and to pay my respects to their Elders. I also acknowledge the people of 200 nations who live in our City.
I think that this acknowledgement is particularly important in talking to graduating students from the faculty of design, architecture and building as it reminds us immediately of how the past has produced the present and both have an impact on the future, particularly of cities.
As we know more than half of the world’s people now live in an urban area and that proportion is expected to increase to 60% by 2030 and 70% by 2050. That is a total of more than 6 billion people.
This is very much the century of cities and the future of cities is really the future of the world’s population.
Increasingly cities are being recognised as a key driver of national and world economies – the source of many of the challenges and, more optimistically, the source of solutions and opportunities for a better life for our populations.
We can predict our future experience of cities in a number of ways. More urbanisation; more density; more congestion; more vulnerability from more volatile climate change; more or less economic efficiency; more smart infrastructure; more housing-exacerbated household inequality, and more recognition of the potential of cities, through innovation and productivity.
I’m sure many of these things will form the foundation of your future careers.
What I want to talk about is something even more fundamental - that doesn’t lead to a technological deterministic future over which we have little control – and can only respond to as problems appear in crisis situations. What I would highlight is a future in which we can all influence outcomes and achieve a better standard and quality of well-being for our fellow citizens.
That future stems from looking at outcomes as central and integrated with decision-making process and structures. This recognises the essence of cities – they are not just clusters of buildings but social as well as economic entities.
From the time that human beings first huddled together for security, people have recognised that concentrated collectivity can bring advantages, through specialisation of labour and capital. Close proximity of production and exchange encourages the creation of new ideas and the diffusion of productivity-enhancing innovation. Cities as congregations of people and ideas bring advantages to the total ‘pie’ and can lead to higher standards of living for the whole community.
But such demographic congregations can also bring problems and challenges –notably in transport, housing and potentially inequality.
Shakespeare said in Coriolanus: What is the city but the people. True, the people are the city. It is the people, acting collectively, that determine the city and the city’s future.
At every stage of life you have an incredible pool of assets. If you are young, poor and childless as I was when I graduated, you have the riches of time to dedicate to any number of ideas and projects, and cities increasingly rely on the sweat equity of these citizens to transform rooftops into small bars, or reimagine a disused laneway for a children’s film festival or invent new ways of building skateboarding infrastructure into the urban landscape.
Sydney has not always been adept at leveraging its best features or using the untapped talent and opportunity that exists in the city, nor has it fully realised the city’s civic infrastructure as a canvas for creativity. Many feel that red tape, a focus on process, a culture of risk elimination rather than risk management, an impatient preference for ‘picking winners’ rather than building fertile ground for innovation and experimentation has inhibited Sydney reaching its full potential.
Despite this history, there is currently a flourishing of creative experimentation and the opportunities to build on this momentum are manifold. Street greenery is being reclaimed by the community and repurposed as kitchen gardens; ugly car parks are re-imagined as outdoor cinemas; outdoor walls are being claimed as open-air photographic galleries while the hard surfaces of buildings and office blocks and even the trees of Hyde Park are canvases for Sydney’s artists experimenting with new technologies, projecting images, text, and stories of the city’s history and its people with a visual clarity, creative spirit and sense of humour that brings creativity into the urban environment at night.
Internationally, creative and community organisations are reclaiming civic infrastructure in the urban environment for cultural and community use – New York City dumpsters repurposed as neighbourhood swimming pools, pedestrian benches in Belgium elevated on street signs and lamp posts to provide a better view of the city, old public phone booths reborn as open- access ‘libraries’ in Portland, New York and Vancouver. In Sydney, there is no shortage of exciting ideas that see creative potential in the city’s infrastructure: from rooftop bars and supper clubs that take advantage of Sydney’s extraordinary views, to poetry on the sides of the City’s garbage trucks, to new ways of animating our lanes and byways with interactive public art.
The reality is that while our present may be constrained by past decisions and investment, the future remains in the hands of the people. This is truer today than ever before.
As Kim Williams has described it, we are all participants in “the largest power transfer in human history – that from producers to consumers” or in other words, “the largest citizen empowerment change in human history”. With this comes a new paradigm for business, government and personal agency. Agility, creativity, speed, responsiveness and a capacity to use technological tools to disrupt established norms will define success in your work lives. Central to this is the low cost of entry for creative innovation. Never before has it been so possible to have a go, fail, learn and try again. An environment in which the stakes aren’t unaffordably high begets a culture of open-ended experimentation and inquiry. If you do nothing else in your years following graduation, take full advantage of this aspect of our era – trial and error, analysis and learning, trying again.
Today marks a significant milestone for you all, proof positive that you are all occasionally capable of sacrificing parties, sleeping in, going out and drinking and that despite the moments of boredom, uncertainty and self-doubt you have the focus, stamina, and intellectual horsepower to achieve something you can be rightly proud of. You’ve proved you have the capacity to meet client briefs, work to deadlines, defend your creative choices.
There will soon be further opportunities to test not just what you know but how you can take this knowledge into new contexts; how your skills might help tackle the social and cultural challenges of the urban environment.
Local architect Alexandra Stewart of a very young local architectural firm, Stewart Hollenstein, recently won the City of Sydney’s international design excellence competition to design the new Library and Plaza at Green Square, beating a number of established international firms to the job. The practice was concerned not only with the role of the buildings they were designing – in this case, the future of libraries as indoor public spaces and outdoor plaza as an extension of the home environment - but how the public spaces could remain responsive to the cultural needs of the community over the long term. Felicity Stewart and Matthias Hollenstein sought to find solutions for a future public space that could house a rally, a yoga class or an outdoor cinema, recognizing that “architecture doesn’t exist alone, it only exists through habitation.” She has talked persuasively about how their design choices – even the building fabric – are influenced by the kinds of cultural or community uses it will open up.
In this case, and I predict, increasingly into the future, success is defined by the capacity to take the tools from sometimes siloed disciplines into new contexts, and to start imagining new kinds of relationships and connections. It means taking on the complexities and contradictions of these environments too. Inner city noise, for example, where traditional rights to peaceful enjoyment of the private home is in increasing opposition to the communal expectation of inner city vibrancy and dynamism.
It means staying endlessly curious about the problems and contradictions of our urbanised world and knowing that you have the tools, networks and new world order to find the solutions.
Congratulations again. I wish you all careers full of absorbing problems, thrilling solutions, and personal happiness.