Time to repeat the urban legacy of the Great Depression

Every day, residents of Sydney’s Inner West enjoy historic public spaces which were built during the Great Depression.

Some of these places are discreet and hidden, others are teeming with life on any weekend.

These places were funded to help generate work for Australians during the 1930s, at a time when the nation’s unemployment rate reached 30 per cent.

Apart from creating jobs, the places provided well-built and useful local infrastructure which has stood the test of time and helped deliver a distinct and enduring Inner West character.

Today, we have an opportunity to repeat the Great Depression’s urban legacy.

The economic crisis generated by the coronavirus shutdown can be used to once again reshape and strengthen parts of our urban fabric.

Works funded during the Great Depression

It only takes a quick stroll or bike ride around Marrickville, and a little local knowledge, to find reminders of the tremendous outcomes of the local infrastructure upgrades undertaken during the Great Depression.

The works were funded by the Australian Government, after being vetted by the NSW Government’s Unemployed Relief Council.

In 1931, Marrickville Council received a grant of 500,000 pounds to fund public works, which in today’s dollars, represents around $4.7 million.

Many of South Marrickville’s charming split-level streets, divided by stone walls, were built during the Great Depression.

These walls can be seen in thoroughfares such as Ruby, Schwebel and Junction Sts.

Schwebel St split level street wall built in Great Depression
Ruby St split level street wall

In addition, Henson Park, the Sydenham Stormwater Detention Basin and Richardson’s Lookout in Marrickville park were completed as part of these works.

Before the Great Depression, Henson Park was a water-filled and abandoned brickpit.

With the support of around $5,500 from the Unemployed Relief Council, it was transformed into a unique sporting field, including the construction of a cycle track and the quirky two-storey King George V Memorial grandstand there today.

Henson Park, Marrickville
Sydenham Stormwater Detention Basin

A further example of Depression-era works can be found in a quiet corner in Lewisham.

Stone terracing and rest seats were constructed to improve a bank alongside New Canterbury Rd. The works are relatively minor but help to give a sense of place and civic pride for a small area that would otherwise likely to have been abandoned and forgotten.

Depression-era stone terracing in Lewisham

In addition, many Inner West street footpaths were laid with bricks during the Depression, as part of these works. These bricks are the perfect match for the brick Federation homes which also line these streets.

Brick paving  Llewellyn Street Enmore

All the above are local features which are embraced by today’s community and help add to the Inner West’s gritty industrial-era charm.

What’s more, these works have taken on new significance and meaning, given we are currently going through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

So why can’t we do it again?

The delivery of unemployment-busting local projects could be a combined effort between local, State and Federal governments.

Already Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne has got the ball rolling by writing to Premier Gladys Berejiklian, seeking funds to undertake local employment-generating upgrades. But there’s no reason why the council couldn’t act on its own.

Below are a few ideas of projects which could be funded:

Dulwich Hill station public domain upgrades

Despite servicing both a train and light rail line, the public domain around Dulwich Hill station is rundown and dangerous.

The biggest problem is the hideous Wardell Rd station pedestrian crossing, where commuters take their life in their hands every time they try to cross the road.

Dangerous Wardell Rd crossing

This crossing is in a terrible location, where drivers are known to speed. It also offers no protection to pedestrians, being little more than a few zebra lines.

Inner West Council has done its homework – preparing a study for the area – and is proposing a series of public domain upgrades, including a new crossing.

But has only set aside $1.6 million of the $7.5 million total cost.

Funding the entire works would generate employment and reshape this area for the better.


There was a huge community campaign to build the Iron Cove and Cooks River GreenWay, and it is exciting that the project has now been approved.

The GreenWay project is definitely moving along. In April, the Inner West traffic committee approved the construction of the on-road elements of the GreenWay.

However, of the anticipated $57 million cost of building the GreenWay, to date only $25 million high priority works are funded. Even some of these so-called high priority works are not due to begin construction until the end of 2021.

The works which remain unfunded are some tunnels under main roads which would make a significant safety improvement, including at Old Canterbury Rd and Hercules St.

A number of open space and environmental upgrades are also unfunded, including naturalising the Hawthorne Canal (currently a concrete stormwater drain).

How the Hawthorne Canal could look once naturalised

It would be terrific to see this city shaping project fully funded.

Dulwich Hill and Marrickville street and footpath upgrades

Some parts of Dulwich Hill and Marrickville are looking disappointingly tatty.

Footpaths in Dulwich Hill are still scarred by what appears to be NBN-related works.

Strips of cheap bitumen have been used to cover trenches uncaringly carved through stone pavers.

Degraded footpaths Dulwich Hill

Meanwhile, the pavers in Alex Trevallion Plaza in Marrickville are stained and don’t look like they’ve been cleaned in ages.

There is an opportunity to give our major public centres a refresh.

What do you think?

The above are just a few ideas – there are undoubtedly many others good ideas that the community could generate to strengthen our community and area.


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