Sydney Morning Herald

By Edward Blakely

Last month, Parramatta was named by the Urban Development Institute of Australia as NSW’s best suburb. This is an important recognition for Parramatta as the city moves to become a globally competitive community, shedding its heavy industry past.

Parramatta is no longer just a regional adjunct to the Sydney CBD. For Parramatta and the rest of the western suburbs, this award and the measures it uses are a clear signal that Sydney’s regional economic thrust must shift from making things to thinking things. More people in Sydney’s west will work with their heads and fewer people will be employed working with their hands.

As Parramatta is showing, good people are located in good places, creating the competitive edge for Sydney’s regional economy. Places like Newcastle and Parramatta get it. As much as the nation bemoans the demise of the auto industry and other manufacturers, looking to the past will not create the future.

Parramatta is much like the city of Pittsburgh in the US, known for its industrial might and the strength of its sports teams. There was and still is something gritty about Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It still has the sense of home town with fine neighbourhoods, great parks and hardworking, smart residents in a city wedged between two river systems.

At Pittsburgh’s heart are two universities, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. So when Pittsburgh fell on hard times in the 1970s, it didn’t cry about its past. Instead, city leaders used Pittsburgh’s universities to create a new education-medical precinct to generate new technology firms repositioning the city’s industrial base. Parramatta is following a very similar approach along the Parramatta River, using universities linked with health to shape a new exciting future.

Parramatta’s remarkable turnaround is like Pittsburgh’s resurgence. It is not an accident. Parramatta is taking a path like the US’s great steel city, which moved from producing rolled steel to producing world-leading software, robot systems and medical products and services. Similarly, Parramatta is assembling a new education-medical complex in Westmead, combining with the University of Western Sydney and the University of New England to drive a creative incubator that will spin out new biomedical and related micro-industries in Rydalmere on the old oil refinery sites near Rosehill racecourse.

If some of these approaches sound more like San Jose, California — home turf for Silicon Valley — than Pittsburgh, that’s no accident. Parramatta lord mayor John Chedid and his fellow councillors have not used Pittsburgh alone as a template for rebuilding the city. Cr Chided and members of the council, along with senior staff travelled the world from China to Europe and the United Kingdom, as well as a study tour to the US, often on holidays or their own personal expense, to see and learn how to transform their community so it could compete with the world’s best.

The biggest lessons the Parramatta leadership received from their living and learning experiences is that revitalising the city is not merely attracting government offices. Parramatta’s focus must be on making the city a great place to live. Parramatta is creating a civic heart based on arts and entertainment, with two universities anchoring its civic centre.

Parramatta’s leaders are also fashioning a lively civic community supported by mixed-use housing undergirded by the one of the world’s best Wi-Fi systems to support any form of digital hardware and software. Along its riverfront, Parramatta is building living environments for the 21st and 22nd centuries, with light rail to surrounding districts like Rhodes, Castle Hill and Ryde-Macquarie, and bringing it close to all the amenities and transport it needs to generate the services required to be globally competitive today and tomorrow.

What can we learn from Parramatta? First, sitting and waiting is not going to shape the future of any community. Second, all civic leaders must learn from others places, not by imitation but by seeing the ingredients that will create a better future and mixing them together to fit their local circumstances. Finally, people, quality and community amenity attract jobs, not merely good plans or available land.

Strong leadership with a well-articulated vision helps create the market conditions that both attract and sustain a strong local economy.

Parramatta is a lesson for all NSW on how to build tomorrow’s urban industrial future by attracting and retaining the quality human resources who will create and attract the new jobs that will sustain the region’s and the nation’s economy.

This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald