Designing the city – how a bowling club became a sustainability focused food destination


Sometimes living in the city can be hard going. It’s noisy, there’s too much light at night, and the traffic can be beyond crazy making. And then, something amazing happens in the midst of all this that changes things. In a good way. Imagine if you will, the idea of a giant vegetable garden and a beautiful restaurant serving its produce landing like a space ship in the middle of a dense, urban and somewhat gritty setting. A mix of residential apartments and light industry. And only a short distance from one of the noisiest, busiest, and dare-I-say ugliest main roads in Sydney.

I’ve just described the wonderful new development that is Camperdown Commons.

This new design initiative has completely transformed what was a dilapidated bowling club. Those passing by stop in their tracks, mesmerised by what exists now. Camperdown Commons comes in two interrelated parts. Pocket City Farms runs the garden while Acre Eatery manages the restaurant that has a farm-to-table philosophy.

There’s nothing quite like seeing what’s growing in the gardens (growing on the old bowling green) to understand what seasonable produce looks like. To do that Camperdown Commons has created a 100 square metre urban farm and 200 square metres of edible garden. All of this is visible from their 350-capacity venue. Completed in June 2016 the garden is steadily growing and with the spring weather turning up the warmth, we’ll see more and more greenery over the next few months.

From a design standpoint this inner-city Sydney initiative wins lots of stars. The designer, Surry Hills based Pony Design Co work with the appraoch that ‘design is where science and art break even’. Not surprisingly, the 2016 Eat Drink Design Awards has shortlisted Camperdown Commons for the Best Restaurant Design.

There are many interesting aspects to this example of design innovation. One is that Pocket City Farms developed start-up funding by running a Pozible campaign. Their approach was to explain that they are ‘taking to Sydney’s neglected spaces, from spare plots to rooftops, in an effort to make good use of all that unused space by growing fresh organically-grown produce for the city’s residents!’ And their vision: ‘Our farm will be a productive hub where the local community can gather to learn about all things farming and food growing, buy super-local, chemical-free produce, participate in our composting program, and take part in many workshops and events. Importantly, the farm is set to become a place to visit, enjoy productive green space in the city, sink your feet in the soil, and learn all about where exactly our food comes from and how it’s grown!’

They explained the rationale for the project and shared their vision. They were explicit about the challenges. And they succeeded in raising the funding needed.

Camperdown Commons provides inspiration for urban gardeners and cooks. It hooks into the gardening resurgence that’s happening everywhere and beautiful places like Collingwood’s Loose Leaf contribute to fuelling. It taps into the wellness movement. The dynamism and desire for sustainability. It allows city dwellers to connect with the origin of vegetable produce and see what is possible even in parts of the city where you might least expect it. And its design helps to lift and inspire. It’s a magical place to encounter as you walk off abrasive Parramatta Road onto Mallett Street.

Resilient City, a not-for-profit network of urban planners, architects, designers, engineers, and landscape architects claim that things need to change if we are to plan to ‘meet the conditions and realities of a Post Carbon, Climate Responsible world’. Central to this is ‘a shift in our current understanding of what constitutes good urban design and planning’. In helping to shape and inform this shift they offer 11 urban design principles:

  • Density, diversity and mix
  • Pedestrian first
  • Transit supportive
  • Place-making
  • Complete communities
  • Integrated natural systems
  • Integrated technical and industrial systems
  • Local sources
  • Redundant durable life safety and critical infrastructure systems
  • Resilient operations.

Even if what you know about Camperdown Commons is based on the little I’ve shared here you can see how many of these principles are addressed through this project. Bring it on!

Let’s create and support more urban design projects that inject sensible and sustainably driven design thinking to address the needs of cities and their inhabitants. After all, cities exist to enable contact. But it’s the nature of the contact and how it relates to the (human and non-human) environment that can make it either barely tolerable or a wondrous place. Making it the latter takes thoughtfulness and commitment, and a penchant for the seemingly impossible.