Urban renewal has been a focus of city planning for some decades now across Australia, and the results have in most cases been first class: redundant inner city industrial sites converted into quality residential or commercial precincts, streetscapes enlivened and street frontages once again activated through a mix of uses from retail to hotels to housing. But in that time, the same effort or attention hasn’t in the main been invested into the suburban centres of our major cities. Many are now looking tired – shop windows or high streets filled with ‘for lease’ signs and little evidence of foot traffic. Many stores or premises tell the sad story of economic decline – second hand shops, tattoo parlors or office space being used for storage. Hardly the stuff of economic inspiration. There are many reasons we should be optimistic about our suburban future. The economy is changing and with it, the way we go about work – and where we work – is also changing. Digital innovation means increasingly less reason for us all to crowd onto the same congested roads or trains or buses at precisely the same time of day, headed in the direction of city centres, only to repeat the exercise at the end of the day as we head home.
The costs of doing so are not just a drain on the economy through lost productivity, but a drain on our quality of life. For many of us, it’s also meant making compromises about our housing – choosing options which may not ideally suit us simply so we can be close to where the jobs are. Technology means much more than just some ‘work from home days’ for some of us: it potentially means a fundamental change in the nature of the workplace.
But before this can happen, there are some important upgrades needed for many of our dispersed suburban centres if they are to present as valid alternatives or as incubators for starts ups and innovators. Much in the way our inner cities had been ignored prior to the advent of urban renewal, suburban centres are also in need of renewal and repair. Digital connectivity is one critical element. Civil infrastructure, utilities, traffic management, development ratios and planning consents also form part of a large menu of items on any wish list of suburban renewal initiatives. Some have suggested ‘it’s just too hard’ and many of the initiatives are indeed complex, but some are simple and why we aren’t doing the simple things first is a mystery.
The most glaring simple fix that many suburban centres are in need of is simply some place making in the public domain. Usually, places need to be appealing to the human spirit before they are appealing to commercial instincts. Appealing places attract and retain people, and with them, their wallets and the opportunities that presents. Places with little appeal offer limited shade, minimal pedestrian consideration, ugly commercial signage, few plants, no seating, and other subtle and not so subtle messages that say ‘stay away.’ This could describe any number of suburban commercial centres or strips which have left to their own devices over decades and which are now showing the economic consequences of political and policy inattention.
Improving these environments seems a simple, first step which could go a long way to improving the commercial fortunes and place making appeal of these centres. We are told that “just adding some street plantings isn’t enough” and I agree, much more is required over time. But surely, some relatively simple, relatively low cost place making improvements to our forgotten suburban centres would return a healthy dividend in improved commercial performance? The uplift from additional pedestrian visitation, new commercial enterprises taking space in long vacant premises, increased expenditure in retail stores, newer or higher grade retail or commercial businesses returning to these centres – all must surely mean a reasonable commercial return via increased property taxes? Plus, if this begins to offer enhanced and expanded employment opportunities closer to where people live, surely this will ultimately mean fewer people driving past these centres en route to work in crowded city centres, and instead making use of these as multiple satellite commercial hubs across our cities, reducing trip lengths and congestion at the same time?
Nirvana? Yes maybe, but consider that across our major cities some 80% to 90% of all jobs are already suburban in nature, and a similar ratio applies to where we all live. Achieving a 10% uplift in the economic performance of 80% of our economy seems an easier hurdle than chasing an 80% uplift in the 10% of 20% of our economy which is downtown or inner city. Add to this the fast amassing evidence that traditional CBDs are losing market share of metro wide employment to out of centre premises, and the rationale for turning our attention now to the suburbs seems compelling.
Does this mean CBDs as we know them will fail, or that urban renewal wasn’t worth it? Not at all. CBDs will continue to be the premier centres of cities – the seats of government, the headquarters of major companies and – increasingly – the focus of cultural, entertainment and leisure opportunities designed to service the whole community. But their roles and function will inevitably change over time. Capturing enhanced opportunities for suburban economic development seems a natural, subsequent step to follow from the many successful years of urban renewal focussed on our inner city areas.