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View of downtown Sydney from our Surry Hills apartment

Opera House

Growing up in the 1980s, almost everything I knew about Australia I learned from MTV, Olivia Newton John and Crocodile Dundee. There were also the kangaroo characters in cartoons and koala stuffed animals that my dad would bring me home from business trips. The only things I could identify of aboriginal culture were boomerangs and didgeridoos. In high school, my knowledge of the land Down Under expanded slightly, but only just. As Australia gained more international tourism attention, a generation of youth into bands like Men at Work, AC/DC, INXS and Midnight Oil would see glimpses of an unmistakable structure just by virtue of watching TV. Like giant shells balanced on one end, cascading outward toward the water, it’s an unforgettable image at any scale. Little did we know we were introduced to the greatest Opera House in the world. For me (and the rest of America), the day we saw the Opera House was the day we first met Sydney.

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Construction on the Opera House began in 1958 and was completed in 1973. Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzonørn_Utzon (who left the project mid-build), the enormous structure is home to five performance venues, plus cafes, meeting rooms and a recording studio. Initially budgeted at $7 million in 1957, the project ultimately cost $102 million to complete. The final accounting showed the Opera House was 1,457% over budget and delivered 10 years late.

Apparently, world-class architecture does not come fast or cheap.

Set on the picturesque harbor, with a backdrop of the city’s second biggest icon, the Harbor Bridge, the Opera House attracts over 8 million visitors a year.

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It is situated at the end of Bennelong Point, so seeing from the Opera House from the water yields spectacular views of Sydney’s sandstone cliff faces. Cruise ships regularly dock next to the Opera House for an up-close view of the over 1,000,000 tiles covering the outer shells. Because of its architecture significance, the Opera House was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.

The Opera House and Harbor Bridge, while still iconic symbols of Sydney, reference times past for this city. But Sydney is now experiencing a kind of renaissance. It’s starting to rebuild and reshape itself to remain competitive, attractive, and worthy of international attention.


Last year, Alisa met Anita Mitchell, the General Manager of Sustainability for Lend Lease, a worldwide development company with a strong green streak, at an international C-40  conference on green building and development. Alisa recalled that one of the most impactful moments from the conference in Wuhan, China was Anita’s presentation on the green features of Barangaroo, an unprecedented waterfront development in Sydney in terms of scale and sustainability. It is regarded as one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in the world today.

At over $6 billion (AUS), it certainly feels like Sydney is once again flexing its design muscles to attract international attention. After a walk through the project, I must admit that it’s working.

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Knowing we were making our first visit to Australia, Anita graciously agreed to be our tour guide in Sydney for the weekend and included a personal tour of Barangaroo. Named for the second wife of an 18th Century aboriginal leader, Barangaroo is divided into three distinct projects: Barangaroo South, Central Barangaroo and Barangaroo Reserve.

Barangaroo South, the project spearheaded by Lend Lease, will be Australia’s first large-scale carbon neutral community, composed of new high-rise apartments (for 1,500 people), commercial space (for 23,000 workers) and a new hotel. Over 50% of the site will be public space that includes a public park and pier, waterfront promenade, laneways and ground-level cafes and shops.  There may have been tastings of gin kombucha and donuts at the new waterfront cafes.  Unconfirmed.

The project received a 6 Star Green Star Community rating from the Green Building Council of Australia, scoring higher than any other project in the history of Australian development. At the design phase of the project, Barangaroo South negotiated permission to build well beyond the allowable height restrictions at South in exchange for providing the means to create the Reserve, Sydney’s newest public park, at the far other end of the site. What a radical concept.

Sustainability features of Barangaroo South include: a vertical shading system that follow the sun’s path to reduce cooling needs; metering, monitoring and visual displays of energy use in residences and commercial spaces; a centralized district energy system; rainwater capture; diversion of 97% of construction waste away from a landfill; and that’s just beginning. The full sustainability report can be found here. Have at it, Sustainability Geeks (you know who you are.)

And if you’re not yet impressed, you can peruse their Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation report The report is currently open for public review and comment. It should be required reading for anyone building waterfront development now or in the near future.

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Part of the adaptation design, the stepped sea wall can mitigate against flooding.

Aside from the bullish approach to sustainability, the feature of the project I found most impressive was the community-based programming, including an on-site workforce training program. In partnership with the National Workforce Development Fund, the site is host to the Barangaroo Skills Exchange, a one-stop learning center for courses that range from basic literacy to advanced construction certification programs. Since 2012, about 10,000 workers been trained at the Exchange and have received 15,000 accredited qualifications.  Now THAT’s workforce training.

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While the next frontier for projects of this scale may need to include more housing affordability in order to be truly sustainable, Barangaroo certainly demonstrates a model for future development that is worthy of international study and exploration.

Bondi Beach

The second most famous tourist attraction in Sydney is Bondi Beach (pronounced Bond, as in James, plus I, as in me), where the beautiful people live. Bondi is the LA of Sydney.

On a sunny day, Bondi is crowded with locals and tourists alike, occupying the beach and wandering up the streets to its many cafes, trendy shops, and health food stores. Surfers, swimmers, sunbathers and people who just like to be observed in their swim suits are everywhere.  Public wall art gives visitors something to study out of the sand.

We had the good fortune to visit Bondi on a not-so-sunny day with fewer bronzed bods to contend with. There are a series of beach walks that connect the beaches around Bondi and make for a great way to tour the rugged coastline on the Eastern edge of Sydney.


Bondi is an aboriginal word for “water breaking over rocks”, which is an apt description as you walk the trails. The trail takes you past and under impressive rock formations, some of the native sandstone out of which much of Sydney is built.

Our three local guides for the day, Anita, Natalie and Karen took us to a few different beaches along the trail. The weather never did quite make up it’s mind that afternoon, so we Portlanders were quite content walking along the stunning coast that around one corner was stormy and another clear. You certainly can see how Bondi and its neighbors earned their reputation. It’s a gorgeous place to spend a few hours.

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Surry Hills

The neighborhoods (that locals call suburbs) surrounding the central business district are some of the most interesting in Australia. We rented an Air B&B apartment in Surry Hills, an up-and-coming area chock-full of cafes, restaurants and hipsters. Sound familiar?

What is so striking about the area is the architecture. Down narrow streets alleyways, delicate wrought iron work along small second-floor balconies give the area a French colonial flair. We learned from our cab driver that there are strict regulations about keeping the front of one’s home at least fair condition and it is very difficult get permission to demolish old homes in favor of more modern construction.

Our apartment had a 4th floor balcony, big enough to be an outdoor living room, overlooking downtown Sydney. Our host Michael left us breakfast fixings and snacks in the fridge and decent espresso for the mornings. If you’re looking for a relatively cheap place in a cool neighborhood, we recommend it. It’s about an eight-minute walk to the Central Station and a 20-35 minute walk to a number of sights downtown and the Opera House. Just book well in advance – his apartment is in high demand.

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Same view, different day.

Across the river from downtown in a once-industrial, and now gentrified, suburb Balmain, I spent the evening hanging out with another local who turned up the Aussie charm.

My new friend, Kofi.  He’s a snuggler.

Down Under

Back to the Aussie music of my youth, I had the song “Down Under” stuck in my head for almost two weeks traveling around Australia. (I may need to work out an acoustic version of it when I get back home.)

It took me about 20 years after first hearing the song to figure out what a vegemite sandwich is. Closely related to the British staple, Marmite, it a strong, brown paste made from leftover brewers’ yeast. It tastes like could take the enamel off of your teeth (or the lining off your stomach) if you’re not careful.

Like everything else in Australia, it’s powerful, rough and slightly more intimidating than anything I’m comfortable placing on my breakfast table.

But the Aussie’s love it.

Another great song, “Beds are Burning”, was one of my favorites. Of course I had no clue it was a protest song that demanded that the Australian government give back lands to the Pintupi, an aboriginal tribe forced off of its native lands in the outback from the 1930s to 1960s. The lyrics are at once familiar and foreign, since I heard the song hundreds of times and never stopped to really work out its meaning.

Out where the river broke

The bloodwood and the desert oak

Holden wrecks and boiling diesels

Steam in forty five degrees

The time has come

To say fairs fair

To pay the rent

To pay our share

The time has come

A facts a fact

It belongs to them

Lets give it back

 How can we dance when our earth is turning

How do we sleep when our beds are burning

Four wheels scare the cockatoos

From Kintore east to Yuendemu

The western desert lives and breathes

In forty five degrees

For the non-Aussies, bloodwood is a type of Eucalyptus tree, Holden trucks often driven through the desert and 45 degrees C is 113 F.

Midnight Oil performed “Beds are Burning” at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

They were instructed not to make any political statements since the Australian Prime Minister was attending and several billion people were watching.

So they took the stage wearing black clothes printed with the word “Sorry” since the Australian government had refused to apologize to Aboriginal Australians for 200 years of displacement from their native lands. And then they sang their protest song.

Yep, not at all political.

Given that the landmass of Australia is about the same size as the United States, there is plenty we didn’t see in the land Down Under. If we have the opportunity to return, I could see us getting back to Melbourne and we’d like to visit Uluru in the Outback. A sacred aboriginal site known to Westerners as “Ayers rock”, Uluru is a national park co-managed by the local tribes, Yankunytjatjara (pronounced young-kun-jarrah) and Pitjantjatjara (pronounced pigeon-jarrah.)

Aboriginal history and culture is unfortunately nowhere near as intertwined in daily life in Australia as Maori culture and language is in New Zealand. On my next visit, I’d like to spend more time learning about the people who lived with the land and acted as its stewards for 40,000 years before Europeans arrived.

Perhaps we will return at a time when equality is realized for all of Australia’s people.  A girl can dream, and dance, and speak, and sing until that time comes.

See you next time, Sydney.

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