Snapshots in Time – 1950

Planning Australia’s First Satellite City

John O’Brien, January 1950

One of the biggest joint town planning efforts in Australian history is now underway in the creation of our first satellite city, 30 miles west of Sydney.

The site will embrace the present town of Penrith, St. Marys, and a number of smaller settlements. Ultimate capacity of the new city will be 40,000 people, equal to the combined population of Goulburn, Bathurst and Tamworth.

The satellite town in the English planner’s solution to oversized cities. As long as 40 years ago, the first garden city was founded on the outskirts of London – close enough to take advantage of the park and other central features, but far enough from the city to retain its own countryside and its own resident population. Since the war, the Newtown movement has been incorporated in nation-wide British planning and has spread to the rest of the world.

Penrith-St. Marys has most of the national advantages for a perfect satellite. Closely tied to the Blue Mountains and Nepean River, soon to be linked by electric railway and express motorway to Sydney, the site already has a huge industrial estate at St.Marys and considerable agricultural industry.

The present planning is the result of the Commonwealth decision to develop the St. Marys munitions factory for private enterprise. For this purpose the Commonwealth has made available a grant of £10,000 to further town planning and its implementation. A special committee, with representatives of the Commonwealth, the Cumberland County Council and Penrith Municipal Council was set up to formulate policy. Major planning work is being carried out by experts of the Cumberland County Council in consultation with the special committee are carrying out by experts of the Cumberland County Council in consultation with the special committee.

One of the biggest advantages of the new project is the existence of the vast £4,500,000 munitions factory at St.Marys with its 900 buildings covering 3,500 acres. No less than 1,000,000 square feet of floor space is available to industry and by the end of 1949 a total of one hundred firms had already been established, producing £2m worth of manufactures annually.

The site is served by internal passenger and goods railways, first-class roads, sewerage, air conditioning, automatic fire sprinklers, cafeterias and hostel accommodation. As the industrial estate develops it will be possible to expand the community sporting and cultural activities.

In the past, many firms have been loath to establish in St. Marys because of insufficient local labour. To overcome this the Housing Commission has been active in building new homes, but nothing less than a greatly expanded town will provide a residential population in keeping with the industrial potentials.

But manufacturing alone will not create a balanced city. The tourist and recreation value of the district is to be far better developed. Already, the towns of the lower Blue Mountains regard Penrith as their local centre. With the expansion of the town, this trend can he strengthened and extended, not only in the Mountains, but up and down the Nepean Valley between Wallacia and Castlereagh, and eastwards towards Blacktown. The Blue Mountains playgrounds are to be augmented by the new National Park on the magnificent Nepean Gorge near Mulgoa, the rugged scenery along the Warragamba Road and the proper development of the Nepean rowing course into an aquatic sports centre.

The broad, deep Nepean River in one of the State’s oldest and most historic streams, yet it has been neglected in the past because of the attractions of Sydney Harbour and the coastal beaches. Not only is it now intended to develop the river for a playground, but to use it as a natural focus and beauty feature of the new city.

In order to create a diversity of employment in the district the agricultural and pastoral potentialities are to be greatly developed. The Nepean Valley is the most fertile area in the County of Cumberland, a region completely surrounded by infertile sandstone. With the gradual disappearance of farms and market gardens in the metropolitan area, an increasing proportion of the city’s food supply is being hauled over long distances and the price of vegetables, eggs, milk and flowers are ever rising. Intensive farming in the Nepean Valley could go far to offset this trend, as well as providing employment for members of local families who are not interested in industry or commerce.

The centre of the new town will be designed in detail to provide facilities of city standards. Not only will there be provision for shopping, entertainment and office accommodation, but these facilities will be set apart from heavy traffic and provided with ample parking space. It is expected that government offices, school, hospital and cultural institutions will be on the scale provided in a provincial city like Tamworth or Wagga, and that the new town will be a true centre of a vigorous district with an ultimate population of 50,000.

The electrification of the railway between Penrith and Parramatta will be an advantage in developing the new tourist resorts but it also creates a new problem. The perfect satellite should not be too accessible to a great city lest the employees of new factories and shops develop the habit of daily travel. For instance, many people may be satisfied to live in Parramatta and work at St. Marys instead of Sydney if the travelling facilities are equally cheap and convenient. This would make it difficult to induce workers to settle in the new town and is the main reason that the planners are aiming at a balance of industry, commerce, amenities and population. The population will grow only if the new town is as attractive as the old.

The Cumberland County Plan has provided for a new eastern expressway to replace the present highway between Sydney and the foot of the Blue Mountains. This road will not only provide a fast, direct route of most modern design, but will put an end to the death traps caused by fast traffic in shopping streets. The expressway will skirt the southern edge of St. Marys and Penrith and cross the Nepean by a new bridge.

The removal of main road traffic from Penrith raises another question common to many areas under the Cumberland County Scheme. What will be the effect on local business when traffic by-passes the town? Investigations so far confirm the experience of Britain and America, that passing cars no longer bring trade. In Penrith it has been established that 80% of traffic passes through the town without stopping at all, and half of the remainder stops for periods of less than thirty minutes. When the expressway is constructed on the edge of town it is reasonable to assume that travellers who wish to call at the business centre would generally turn off the highway, so that the loss of business would be negligible especially since no business development will be permitted along the new road.

In any case, against the threatened loss of business would be offset by the grim fact that 55% of the accident dangers, noise and other nuisances in Penrith’s main street are caused by heavy trucks and cars passing through the town – much of this during the night and early morning. With the growth of long distance road transport since the war, the nuisance lies not only in danger and disturbance, but in deterioration to premises and goods through dust and vibration.

“After all,” a planning officer said recently “we do not build our business centres facing railway tracks, and the modern lighting is equally dangerous and undesirable in the centre of a town.”

With the development of new County roads, Penrith – St. Marys will be closely linked to other large centres at Camden and Windsor, as well as to such beauty spots as Warragamba, Norton’s Basin, Yellow Rock and Hawkesbury Lookout. Good progress has already been made in the planning field. Technical officers have carried out intensive civic surveys of Penrith and St. Marys, determining the objects of the task and the problems, potentialities and the trends of the district.

Working drawings have now been prepared as a prelude to an outline plan, which will be submitted to all the authorities concerned.

One of the most notable features of the work, however, has been the complete pooling of information, resources and energy. It is not only intended to produce a plan to satisfy the Penrith Council, the Commonwealth Government and the County Council’s experts. The plan for the new city must alsosatisfy the people of the old town and the new town, for the success of failure of any new town project hangs by the slender thread of making it the best place for people to live.

The Planning Committee has adopted a vigorous public relations policy so that the public will be constantly informed of each stage of planning and will be given every opportunity to share the problems and solutions while turning a sleepy town into a thriving city.

Source: O’Brien, John Planning Australia’s First Satellite City, January 1950, Penrith City Library, Local Collection Vertical File [LCVF/ Statistics]