Q&A with Jess Miller

Councillor, City of Sydney Council

Jess Miller is our Sydney Open City ambassador. As a champion of the City, advocating for positive change we look forward to sharing her vision and creativity with you this year.

What projects are you working on now to make the city better?  

There are so many!  

The major and ongoing piece of work we are doing now is formulating the Sydney 2050 community strategic plan. This means going out the community to ask them what kind of city they want Sydney to become in the long-term. The good news is that good environmental outcomes are key to our community, and the idea of a ‘regenerative’ city has really come to the fore.   

At the same time, we are fast-tracking as many major works as possible to ensure that we’re supporting economic growth and taking advantage of there being less people in the city, which means less disruption.  

 In terms of the coming months, opening our streets to enable COVID-safe events is a huge priority.  In collaboration with the NSW State Government, and as part of the ‘Festival of Place,’ our inner-city streets will come to life with live music and a real festival-vibe over summer.  Some of my own personal projects, too, include looking at ways the city can encourage more girls (especially teenagers!) to be visible in the public domain; investigating opportunities to support a local food economy and urban farming; and promoting data analysis and environmental inputs (like air pollution monitoring, for example), to make good planning decisions.   

There is also a great focus on thinking about the Indigenous calendars and narratives in the public domain - from small parks to larger ones, through our indigenous public art programs such as Barra, and the role of the Ochre Grid as part of the cultural ribbon that threads though the city.  

How can good architecture and urban design transform the city?  

Good architecture and design can enormously transform a city for the better. Likewise, poor design can deliver unintended consequences and make places alienating and lonely. Some of the best examples of good design and architecture in the city, in my opinion, are approaches that are sensitive to the fact that the city (and all the people and living things within it) are part of a complex, inter-connected and dynamic system.  

I am especially (and equally) proud of large projects such as Green Square, Sydney Park and Central Park renewal precincts, as I am the small laneways and verges that residents have (rightly) claimed as their own and beautified them. I’m thinking of places such as Rose Terrace, McElhone Place, Cat Alley and the verges of places like Chippendale, say, and Garden Street in Alexandria. There are so many! 

What inspiring new ideas and plans have been initiated in the city during the last six months of the Covid-19 situation?  

We have seen a real surge in outdoor dining and use of public space that has been brought about through a rethink of these policies by Council, in collaboration with the State Government.  

The pedestrianisation of George Street is something that has been fast-tracked throughout COVID, too. It’s the realisation of some key concepts that came about during the Sydney 2030 consultation and on the advice of Jan Gehl.  

I think, too, we’ve seen a radical shift in thinking about active transport and cycleways. The pop-up cycleway experience, while not always easy, has introduced a very practical new approach – iterative design. This is important because it allows a much freer, and more dynamic approach to city making. It takes less upfront investment and invites greater community participation to achieve outcomes.  

And it would also be very remiss of me not to mention the new Sydney Park skate bowl that’s about to open! Not to mention the forthcoming new Greening Sydney policy that will help us better achieve this idea of a regenerative city.  

What should we be doing better as a civic community?  

Extending a more open invitation for all people in our city to see themselves as custodians, carers and creative for the city. The iterative design process is an interesting way that this is being achieved, but as conditions become harsh – either through drought, heat or flood – we all need to play a role in caring for the places we love, and not see it as “Council’s problem”. At the same time, we need to ensure that Council leadership is diverse, effective and has a high level of communication so that people feel empowered to act.  

 What is your favourite spot in the city and why?  

Oh, why do you make me choose just one!? I couldn’t possibly. Bourke Street in Surry Hills has high sentimental value as I spent hours sitting on the stoop at #567 hungover in my 20s selling clothes and eating bakery treats. I love Observatory Park for a calm outlook. It’s such an amazing feeling to sit under the big old figs and soak up that billion-dollar view for free. And then, last but not least, there is a tiny little walk/cycleway near the southern end of the Alexandria canal. Whenever I pass by, I just get this sense of the possibility that exists to bring it back to life.

Headshot in black and white.

Jess Miller. Photo courtesy Jess Miller

Woman and child in colourful clothes in school yard with bicycles.
Jess Miller. Photo courtesy Jess Miller