Despite misty eyed nostalgia in some quarters, we do new greenfield communities much better these days compared with the rampant, unstructured, suburbanization which gripped our cities for 30 years till the mid 1970s.
Right across Australia, contemporary growth areas are carefully planned with due regard to landscape, walkability, shopping convenience, community facilities and ample open space. Leaving aside, for the moment, the bigger picture question of access to jobs and opportunity, these communities are great places to live. This is repeatedly affirmed by residents in post occupancy surveys.
But there is an unrelenting sameness to these places. Save for the sand, a new suburban community in, say, Mandurah WA looks and feels much the same as its counterparts in Melton Victoria, or Blacktown in NSW, or Logan in Queensland.
In particular, the town centres of these communities have a formulaic character. They feature the usual array of national retailers anchored by the supermarket duopoly, discount department stores and the hardware megastore up the road, supported by equally familiar national chains of specialty stores.
Without doubt, the presentation of these centres has improved no end with the embrace of ‘new urbanism’ over the past three decades. You can expect high streets, laneways, mini-piazzas, pocket parks, promenades and coffee kiosks, all intended to engender that special feeling of ‘going to town’.
Nevertheless, they feel the same. And planning is probably to blame.
One of the core town planning principles applied in new suburban communities is establishment of a ‘centres hierarchy’. An array of new suburbs will be served by a network of retail nodes of different scales designed to maximise convenience and minimize travel for residents. Town or ‘regional’ centres will host the comparison good retailers which attract customers on less frequent trips from an expansive district, while smaller community and neighbourhood centres provide for the every-day or every-week shopping needs of a local catchment.
Planning rightly guards this hierarchy. If disrupted by, say, a higher order retailer going into a smaller centre in competition with the regional hub, all manner of external costs can arise. These include additional car travel and a diminished capacity in the designated town centre to generate the footfall required to support non-retail uses, such as libraries, leisure centres and other co-located community facilities.
A by-product of embedding these hierarchies into the structure planning of new communities is that the land set aside for each activity centre will be controlled by one or a small number of owners. Each of these land owners will know that the planning system will protect the appointed role for the centre in their custody. In effect, they will be granted an exclusive trading licence over their designated retail catchment.
This tight control of developable retail floorspace in particular places militates against disruption, innovation and idiosyncratic expression in the formation of suburban activity centres. There is either no incentive or capacity for those in control of these sites to deviate from a standard retail mix. Hence the sameness in look and feel, notwithstanding design refinements.
This is a problem. Intuitively, the quality of life for residents could well be enhanced if their local centres were interesting as well as convenient. If these centres had more of an ‘x’ factor inspired by the qualities of the place or the distinctive characteristics of the host community, residents might be more encouraged to walk to them as much for the cultural experience as for retail fulfillment. Indeed, with on-line retailing inexorably on the rise, these centres will have to offer a cultural or otherwise place-distinctive experience if they are going to remain worthwhile long term investments.
Another problem with tight rationing of developable space in line with a planned retail hierarchy is that it leaves little or no room for local business formation. The only way in is to become a tenant in the standard specialty store mix determined by somebody else – usually a corporate investor.
Overall, there is likely to be substantial foregone value in the replication of ‘cookie cutter’ activity centres across our burgeoning greenfield suburbs.
This value is beyond the reach of those building and owning these centres, so they are unlikely to provide a solution beyond further urban design refinements. Stronger public sector action is warranted in the development of centre hierarchies. Structure planning and development rules could require the break-up of designated centre land into multiple ownerships.
Robin Goodman, Emeritus Professor in planning at RMIT and leading researcher on suburban malls, has suggested to me in conversation that some of the land designated for retail centres in greenfield master plans should be retained in public ownership for ultimate release to SME developers and retailers. The intention would be to boost competition and enable innovation in built form and retail offering reflecting the cultural characteristics of the local district.
Rules governing the master-planning of higher order centres could also provide for multi-purpose public realm which can host retail and hospitality activity in quasi-competition with the standard local offerings. For example, each regional centre could have a space which, amongst other things, could work as a municipal market for 4 or 5 days of the week. This would improve local food diversity, boost walkability and provide low cost opportunities for local business startups in retail and hospitality.
Dr Marcus Spiller
Principal & Partner, SGS Economics & Planning Pty Ltd
Associate Professor (Honorary) University of Melbourne