Re-imagining Parramatta

Negotiating the arrival of Australia's next great city

THERE ARE JACKHAMMERS everywhere. A new Parramatta is emerging out of the rubble, seeking to make real its tag line: ‘Australia’s next great city’. Thickets of new residential and commercial towers are rising – testament to the city’s ferocious ambition – overshadowing what remains of the squat, 1970s office blocks built during Parramatta’s previous development boom.

Over the next five years, more than $10 billion will be poured into this city. A city that has long tried to overcome its outer suburban reputation can ingest this volume of cash when its empty skies take on an actuarial sensibility, recalibrated in square-metre portions and sold off to the highest bidders. A city can be transformed this quickly when it is finally revealed to be pivotal to the workings of the vast conurbation that is Greater Metropolitan Sydney, whose spaces of flow increasingly clog without a profitable and attractive ‘second CBD’ to ease the blockages mounting daily around Sydney Cove.

There are many today who loudly proclaim Parramatta’s centrality to the story of Sydney. ‘The stars are aligning,’ says Lucy Turnbull, CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission, who recently rebadged Parramatta Sydney’s ‘Central City’ – no longer subsumed by, but on equal footing with, the sparkling ‘Eastern City’. Mike Baird, when premier of NSW in 2015, called Parramatta nothing less than ‘the infrastructure capital of the world’, its fortunes tied closely to those of the state and the nation. We have a ‘once in a generation’ chance, he said, to transform the city. ‘There’s always been a belief on the ground of how important, significant and great Parramatta city and region is but today it has gone beyond that, we are starting to see something quite transformational taking place’.[i]

Baird was acknowledging the efforts of the well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual planners of the twentieth century, who tried repeatedly to reorient Sydney’s growth around this place where salt and fresh waters meet. When the agricultural settlements of the Cumberland Plain became the outer suburbs of Australia’s largest metropolis, forming a new urban region called ‘Western Sydney’, Parramatta ought, the planners urged, to have been treated as Sydney’s geographical heart. And yet, despite their sensible attempt at long-term urban re-engineering, the money stubbornly refused to flow.

Things have changed. The investors have finally arrived; the cranes are everywhere. The west is booming, as the NSW Government releases huge tracts of land in the north-west and south-west of Sydney for development. ‘Smack in the middle lies Parramatta,’ says developer Andrew Young, explaining to Domain in March 2017 why developers are now cashing in on Parramatta’s rise.[ii] National Australia Bank is setting up its new headquarters at the $2 billion development that is Parramatta Square. A new light rail network is on the way. Western Sydney University has completed its $220.5 million high-rise campus. A new $1 billion health precinct at Westmead is coming.

All this, seemingly, at once.

So, Parramatta is a city on the make. And the numbers tell us why. The NSW Government’s population projections show Greater Sydney growing by more than 1.5 million people over the next two decades. More than forty thousand people are expected to move to Parramatta in the next five years. Numbers like these provide our city leaders with irrefutable evidence to defend the current rate of redevelopment. Presented as objective fact, too often it’s forgotten that such numbers are primarily expressions, not of a certain future, but of a recent past, projected forward in time.

Today’s population projections are comprised, to no small extent, by yesterday’s migration policies. They are not an inevitable future, but an intentional one, a story about where we want to go. In the twelve months to March 2017, the total number of arrivals, measured as part of ‘net overseas migration’ reached 540,300, exceeding any previous year.[iii] As levels of net overseas migration increase, population projections are continually adjusted upwards.

Western Sydney attracts a high proportion of Australia’s migrants, and Parramatta, in particular, is a city being radically reshaped to meet the volume of demand projected off the back of this recent, record-breaking intake. Between the 2001 and 2016 census dates, the city welcomed almost twenty thousand more Indian-born residents and sixteen thousand Chinese-born arrivals. Over the same period, the number of Parramatta’s Australian-born grew by just six thousand. Today, the proportion of Parramatta’s population that identifies as Australian by ancestry is just 13 per cent, compared to 23 per cent for Australia as a whole. Fewer than five in ten Parramatta residents were born in Australia, and for at least seven out of ten, both parents were born overseas.

Clearly, Parramatta’s $10 billion transformation is preparing the city for a future that will be culturally distinct from its past. Australia’s next great city is emerging as a beacon of our nation’s hopeful, cosmopolitan future, built on growth, multiplied. But what kind of city will it be?

A city, after all, is more than the sum of its speculative real estate investments and projected demand. Cities, as Leonie Sandercock reflected in her essay ‘Practicing Utopia’, are ‘neither organisms nor machines. They are flesh and stone intertwined. They are “built thought”.’ Surely, to be great a city must capture our imaginations? It must offer, all at once, a place to get lost in and a place in which to belong. In great cities we seek both refuge in the crowd and a sense of connection with something bigger than our selfies.

The greatest cities of the world also immerse us in experiential encounters with the archaeology of other eras. They are storied landscapes. Walking through these cities, we quite naturally absorb the daily integration of archaic infrastructures – horse troughs, cobblestones, ceramic piping – with the computationally connected services of our emergent present. It is through the remnant traces of past eras that we can imagine a sense of physical connection with those who came before us.

We hear a lot about the challenges that population growth brings to Australian cities. Mostly, we are conditioned to thinking of these challenges as infrastructural, or monetary. As demand outstrips supply, roads are getting clogged and houses too expensive. We need more roads, more transport, more housing, to accommodate the swelling numbers of people coming here from across the globe.

But as our new, denser urban forms are rapidly realised, with forests of cranes and thickets of high-rise apartments replacing the sleepy suburbs that once represented the Australian dream, we’re also going to need to rebuild, as it were, the narratives of place and of belonging that define our cities. Without such narratives, our instant cities will struggle to be more than a duplicitous rendering in a real-estate brochure.

For those who have learned from the failures of twentieth-century modernism, there is now widespread recognition that what Jan Gehl famously called the ‘life between buildings’ – the shared social spaces of our cities extending beyond their built form – is vital to the success of a city. The life that happens between buildings shapes a sense of place and a sense of urban dynamism.

As Robert Hughes once said, delivering a National Trust lecture in 1998 on Australia’s forgotten histories: ‘An urban culture that predicates itself chiefly on an obsession with development is not worth having. A city needs deep memory, without which it becomes merely a stage set.’ It is the accumulation of stories and experiences inscribed in built form that gives a place its distinct identity. Such stories are not only for the culturally sensitive: they drive real-estate investment too. When a city is rebuilt from scratch, we risk losing these stories and connections.


TODAY, ARRIVING IN Parramatta on the train, it’s not easy to find your way. Familiar routes are boarded up. Wrong turns may leave you trapped between hoardings, being shunted down a path that leads only one way to where you don’t want to go. A homeless man offers directions to confused pedestrians.

As the Parramatta-based writer Felicity Castagna observed recently in the Sydney Review of Books:

Living in a city that used to be a suburb and which, at every moment, is being torn down, rebuilt and reimagined can be terribly disorienting. Last month, all the houses on a street I walk down all the time literally vanished. Its fibro and weatherboard houses were demolished in an afternoon to make way for more of the apartment buildings that are coming to redefine Parramatta’s landscape.[iv]

‘I have to wonder,’ she writes, ‘in the face of all this development, where all [Parramatta’s] stories will go to live now.’

The thing is, of course, that Australian cities have never been particularly good at celebrating the stories of people and place that have shaped them over time. Robert Hughes, in his National Trust lecture, lamented Australia’s poor record in preserving its built heritage. Sydney Cove, he remarked, the primal site of European memory in Australia, lacked any kind of recognition of its symbolic importance to the nation’s fledgling beginnings. Ours, he said, is a culture of forgetting, one built in direct denial of a difficult past, in the interests of what we consider progress.

Is this still true? More and more, our planners, designers, architects and developers seek to use the resources of the past to cultivate a contemporary sense of place. Decades of urban sprawl and featureless, automobile-dependent suburban landscapes have led to a renewed push for the creation of ‘liveable’ urban identities that celebrate place and community. The art of city building is now the art of place-making. In this context, local heritage becomes an asset; an important contributor to both economic and cultural vitality. You can see this in the prices paid for the converted warehouse buildings and sugar mills dotted across the suburban landscape.

So, if it’s going to be Australia’s next great city, the radical rebuilding of Parramatta is also an opportunity to ask questions about how we make use of the past as a resource for building the future. Propelled skyward by a boom predicated on the intensification of cultural diversity, it’s necessary to address the city not only as a set of complex infrastructures, but also as a shared cultural imaginary. What kind of great city will Parramatta be? What stories about itself will it tell?


IN A SENSE, Parramatta’s transformation today can be seen as a direct translation of Australia’s increasing orientation to Asia. And looking back at the city’s place in the Australian imagination, it is perhaps no exaggeration to think of Parramatta as a place where Australia has historically imagined into being different potential futures for itself. We might think of it as an ‘arrival city’ of sorts: not a slum-like urban enclave described by Doug Saunders in his book Arrival Cities (Knopf, 2011), but a place where different experimental forms of Australian identity are continually realised.

This is the story of Parramatta’s emergence as the city’s population increasingly identifies as non-Australian. It is a pivot away from a colonial past towards a more culturally diverse future. So often celebrated within historical accounts as the ‘cradle of the colony’, Parramatta’s history has been synonymous with the story of Australia’s beginnings as a nation.

This, after all, is where Australia’s identity as an agricultural nation was first forged. Having followed Arthur Phillip down the river in search of arable land, it is where early convicts successfully proved not only the economic viability of the fledgling colony, but their worthiness as free citizens. It is likewise in Parramatta that the British government first tested its limits of moral and administrative governance in its new colony through the building of not only the first Government House, but also of prisons, factories, asylums and ‘native institutions’.

The arrival accounts of early settlers (fashioned from their letters home to England, paintings, watercolours and diary entries) form the primary material used to capture the heroic role of Parramatta in the story of Australia’s origins. The abundance of these British arrival accounts has furnished a narrative of origins, where early colonial and convict history constitutes the core of Parramatta’s story.

This heroic story about Parramatta’s colonial foundations continues to be told through sites like Experiment Farm, the Parramatta Female Factory, and the many other colonial administration buildings that remain. You walk into the Parramatta Heritage Centre and you will learn much about this story. And yet, cleaving to the notion of European founding, somehow standing in for the beginning of time, has in turn obscured other narratives.

Parramatta’s founding is a big story, particularly when it helps forge the identity of Australia as a largely Europeanised nation. But the cradle story has also contributed to a certain blindness about the experiences of people in Parramatta since the days of Phillip and his men. It has locked Parramatta’s history into a particular image of its past, closely linked to the institutions of convict settlement. It excludes millennia of Aboriginal occupation, their custodianship of the environment and continuing urban presence, as well as the great diversity of people who have arrived here from nations across the globe.

Rich as it is, Parramatta’s story requires considerable rethinking and public conversation in order to bring it into a stronger relation with the present. As Australia’s next great city appears in view, this dialogue is beginning to happen, and new evidence is being found within the rubble. A cultural plan for the new CBD released by the City of Parramatta in 2017 acknowledges that Parramatta ‘always was, always will be, a gathering place’. An archaeological analysis recently undertaken by Comber Consultants as part of the redevelopment of Parramatta Square has tentatively found the area may have been used as a gathering place for at least some five thousand years. Such discoveries prompt a reassessment of the nature and experience of early interactions between settlers and Aboriginal peoples.[v]


WHEN WE GATHER, we come together on equal footing. Gathering allows for the continued possibility of difference within an assemblage. Indeed, in gathering, as with assembling, there is a certain precariousness of being. A crowd will always disperse again. Importantly, a gathering is not spatially fixed; it is not a forced or permanent union. It is an event, a happening. A gathering will always imply a kind of heterogeneity of its own volition. To adopt the language of geographer Tim Cresswell in Place: A Short Introduction (Blackwell, 2004), the idea of Parramatta as a gathering place presents an idea that is as much temporal as spatial; an event ‘marked by openness and change, rather than boundedness and permanence’.

Imagined as a gathering place, the position of Parramatta in Australia’s story begins to shift. We were commissioned by the City of Parramatta in 2017 to offer an account of Parramatta’s many ‘waves of migration’, inspired by this revived notion of Parramatta as a gathering place.[vi] This was an opportunity to reassess Parramatta’s history through the lens of what Grace Karskens has called ‘deep time’, stretching back well beyond the arrival of Governor Phillip in 1788. A focus on continual movements and migrations allowed the ‘foundational myth’ of Parramatta’s beginnings to be recast as a wave of late-eighteenth-century British migration – albeit one with cataclysmic consequences that transformed the place and its people in decisive ways.

This foregrounding of movement and migrations to the story of Parramatta has offered a more fluid conception of its history, allowing us to explore many kinds of arrival and departure, under very different conditions, rather than a linear story focused on the ‘settling’ of people. It was through this lens that we began to understand the place of Parramatta not just as the ‘cradle of the colony’, but also site of experimentation for many different ways of being Australian. This, too, is an important story, though not as well documented as were the administrative buildings created under British colonial rule.

Encountering Parramatta through the lens of its many waves of migration, we found ourselves tracing the routes of many different kinds of travellers who have arrived at this place through time. We saw that the arrival of Europeans to Parramatta was at once the expression of a convict system characterised by transportation, hard labour and discipline, but also a reflection of the desire on the part of transported convicts to live a reformed life of self-sufficiency on the land, often in stark contrast to the lives they had lived previously in Britain.

We saw that the arrival of the British was accompanied by different kinds of gathering and encounters between settlers and Aboriginal people – many violent, but not always so. In the first years of European arrival in Parramatta there was much sharing of fish, vegetables, bread and rice. Not long after his arrival, Phillip befriended a young Darug boy called Baludarri, who came to act as guide and translator to the Governor, and traded fish with the settlers. When he, like more than half of the Darug people, died of fever some months after contact with the Europeans, he was buried in his canoe within the grounds of Phillip’s garden in Sydney, his funeral accompanied by the presence of English drummers. Today, Baludarri embodies the fragile – and ultimately failed – attempts at co-operation between the people of the Darug nation and the colonists during the early years of the European settlement at Parramatta.


AT THE ANNUAL Parramatta Native Feast hosted by Governor Macquarie from 1814, Aboriginal people were invited to travel into town where a dinner would be offered freely to all. Seeking to ‘civilise’ – or Europeanise – the children, the feasts were used by Macquarie to entice them to attend his new school for Aboriginal children, the Parramatta Native Institution, forerunner to the stolen generations. This gathering place likewise witnessed the ‘Battle of Parramatta’ in 1797, when a hundred Aboriginal warriors led by Pemulwuy arrived in formation down George Street. They were fighting against the many injustices inflicted upon them by the new arrivals. Pemulwuy would be shot, his warriors dispersed.

We found that not all the convicts who first settled here were European. Africans and Indians were among the first convicts. John Randall, an Afro-American who arrived with the First Fleet, had a house in Parramatta and married an Irish woman at St John’s. The different nationalities caught up in the convict system reflected a number of diverse political struggles being fought at the time of European arrival in Sydney. Political activists from around the world included the Scottish ‘martyrs’ of 1794 and 1795; Irish rebels of 1798 and 1803; trade-unionists and insurrectionists from Canada; military prisoners from India; and rebellious slaves from the West Indies.

In the footnotes of Parramatta’s story, we found evidence of many non-British people forging new pathways with the spread of Empire. In the early years of Parramatta’s settlement there are records of the presence of various Maori, Afro-Americans, Indian, Chinese, Maltese and others. There is a long association in Parramatta with Maoris connecting to the colony through trade, shipping, whaling and missionary activity. Mary Bruce (Te Atahoe) may have been the first Australian-born Maori; she died in 1810, aged eighteen, after spending time at Parramatta’s female orphanage. Mak Sai Ying, or John Shying, the first known Chinese immigrant to Australia, arrived in 1818 and operated the Lion Inn Hotel.

Links with India and China were vital to the colony’s early survival. Food and vital materials were provided by shipments from Calcutta and Guangdong. Colonial links with India especially provided many components of the lifestyle afforded to better-off people in Sydney. The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm had an Indian servant – a ‘Mussalman’ – named John Bono. The house and furnishings assembled borrowings from India from its built form (bungalow and verandas), textiles (chintz, muslin), Calcutta mats, curries, spices and tureens. The gardens and grounds reflected the Macarthurs’ fascination with India; there was an exchange of seeds between Botanical Gardens in Calcutta and Sydney. For Ian Simpson, writing in the Journal of Australian Colonial History in 2016: ‘The imprint of India, its technologies, handicrafts, techniques and expertise, can be traced throughout the house and gardens at Elizabeth Farm.’ He observes it was Anglo-India that served as a desired cultural model for the Macarthurs, who sent their children to Calcutta for ‘improvement’.


PARRAMATTA WAS ALSO central, we found, to the story of Australia’s embrace of immigration after World War II. ‘Populate or perish!’ exhorted Arthur Calwell, Australia’s first Immigration Minister. A bigger Australia would be a more secure Australia, capable of resisting the spread of communism and fascism, and building a stronger economy. The formation of a federal department for immigration after World War II, and massive growth of European migration from the late 1940s through the 1960s, would alter the fabric of Australian life in decisive ways. Parramatta, where experiments in European food production were first tried and tested, is also where our early experiments in migrant support took place.

It was here that many new arrivals from war-torn Europe first settled. An American naval-base hospital, established in Granville Park in 1942, was used after 1945 as one of the first hostels for migrants. Other migrant hostels were located in nearby Ermington, Dundas and Villawood to accommodate displaced persons and recent migrants. They found work in the nearby factories of Silverwater and Clyde. In turn, the city was radically expanded to house Australia’s newest postwar immigrants.

Following the Indo-China war and the gradual dismantling of decades of immigration policies now known as the White Australia policy, the Australian Government established in Parramatta one of two migrant resource centres. The influx of new arrivals at this time highlighted the need for improved resettlement programs, with growing recognition that Australia lacked appropriate support mechanisms for newly arrived refugees and other migrants. In 1977, the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence reported that there was a ‘complete lack of policy for the acceptance of people into Australia as refugees rather than as normal migrants’.

In response, the Department of Immigration established two new migrant-resource centres, one in Victoria run by the Catholic Church and one in Parramatta, which it ran itself. Existing migrant hostels such as the Villawood Migrant Hostel also housed migrants from Indo-China and East Timor. As Stephen Castles and Mark J Miller write in The Age of Migration (The Guilford Press, 2003), these migrant resource centres would play a critical role over the coming decades in supporting recently arrived migrants as they settled in Australia.

We saw that over the twentieth century, processes of ‘chain migration’ would shape Parramatta fundamentally. Chain migration – the term used to describe how migrants follow others from their town to a new host destination – was most strongly practised by Lebanese and Greek communities. We learned of the significance of two women from the Lebanese village of Kfarsghab, Rosie Broheen and Zahra Youssef Assad Rizk, who were among the first to have settled in Parramatta, after arriving in Australia in the late 1890s. Since their arrival, families from the Kfarsghab village continued to migrate to Parramatta, a process that intensified as part of the post-World War II wave of migration to Sydney. Chain migration was actively supported by Australian migration policy at this time, which placed strong emphasis on family reunion. By 2008, an estimated ten thousand people in Parramatta could trace their ancestry to the village of Kfarsghab. Indeed, the importance of Parramatta to this community was commemorated when the main street of the village in Lebanon was renamed ‘Parramatta Road’. Another Lebanese village of importance to Parramatta is the Maronite village of Hadchit in northern Lebanon. There are now about five hundred Hadchiti households in areas such as Westmead and Harris Park.

From the 1990s, the ‘settler-citizen’ approach to immigration typical of the postwar period would shift as Australian policy began to prioritise temporary and skilled migration, and place stricter controls on family reunion. The previous, almost exclusive, focus on promoting permanent settlement gave way to policies that produce, in the words of Peter Mares in Not Quite Australian (Text Publishing, 2016), ‘extended periods of temporariness and uncertainty’. In Parramatta, we found the demographic profile of the city to have dramatically changed in response to these altered policies. Today the central Parramatta suburb of Harris Park is colloquially known as ‘Little India’. Before the arrival of the Indians, it was a predominantly Lebanese area. Indian students living here in 2009 experienced violence towards them by Lebanese gangs who wanted them out. The former Consul-General of India, Amit Dasgupta, recalled his experience visiting the area at this time:

An elderly Lebanese with whom I had struck up a friendship told me that when the Lebanese came they ousted the Greeks, who were long-term residents in the area. Greek newspapers and restaurants disappeared and the Lebanese took over. Now, he says, it is impossible to find a Lebanese newspaper, as the people who run all the stores are either from India or from Bangladesh.[vii]

Like the restaurants and newspapers of the area described, much of Parramatta’s migrant heritage remains hidden from view. In a sense, the importance of Parramatta’s ‘colonial moment’ to Australia’s identity has, perhaps inadvertently, resulted in much less attention being placed on the various different historical experiences of movement and migration that have shaped the city over time.

In seeking to uncover these patterns, our work involved sifting through newspaper clippings, essays, websites from churches and community groups, seeking any reference to Parramatta dotted across different histories of Australian migration. It is clear that many stories of arrival here taking place after the British – relating to the experiences of the Lebanese, Chinese, postwar European migrations and more recent Indian and Chinese communities – are simply absent. We found great gaps in knowledge about the continued presence of Aboriginal people after the initial years of contact (gaps that are beginning to be addressed). One woman we spoke to said she was sick of hearing about ‘her culture’ being thousands of years old while not being listened to in the present.

And so while we did gather together diverse stories of migration and movement in and around Parramatta – sometimes free movements, some under adverse circumstances – what was ever-present was the invisibility of lives not previously deemed of any real importance to the evolving story of Parramatta, and its role in accommodating different ideas about Australia’s place in the world.

In her Sydney Review of Books essay, Felicity Castagna reflects on the many stories of Parramatta now being lost. Her piece is a call for wider recognition that what is removed at such times of rapid redevelopment is not simply personal stories and fibro shacks and big backyards, but also the cultural maturity and vitality made possible when life-long connections are celebrated, not severed.

For a city like Parramatta – not just the cradle of the colony but also a gathering place for many cultures – stories about diverse ways of arriving and departing, gathering and dispersing, remembering and belonging, matter more and more. In commissioning our research, the City of Parramatta Council has sought to fill some of the gaps in its historical knowledge of migration impacts on the city. It plans to acknowledge and celebrate these many experiences – of both gathering and dispersal – through interpretive artworks within new developments like Parramatta Square. There are hopes for a ‘Keeping Place’ that acknowledges stories of Indigenous lives, including their dispossession.

Through ongoing practices of interpretation, documentation and storytelling, as well as continuing important and open dialogue about the most appropriate future uses of significant historical sites such as Parramatta Park and the Parramatta Female Factory, we hope Australia’s next great city can also be a place where new cultural imaginaries of place can be celebrated. Looking beyond the exaggerated localism of much local history and the ‘foundational narrative’ of colonial beginnings, Parramatta is a place where many different versions of becoming Australian can be cultivated and explored.

Not all its stories are happy ones, but we think they are still worth telling.





[iii] It is noted that changes to methods of collecting migration statistics make historical comparisons difficult over time.

[iv] Castagna, Felicity 2016). We are here and we are significant. Sydney Review of Books, 6 October 2016. Accessed 20 February 2018 at


[vi] Sarah Barns and Phillip Mar Making Parramatta Home. City of Parramatta, 2018.

[vii] Amit Dasgupta, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Journal, Vol.7, No.3, 2015

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