A series of well-known terms are used to describe desirable urban form – fine-grained, street-based, active-frontage, mixed-use, activity centre . . . these terms just roll off the tongue. It is a vocabulary developed in response to post-war degradation of cities, and the development of that most pejoratively described of all human settlements – suburban sprawl. However, these terms alone are not sufficient to define ‘real’ places which foster local communities, lifestyles and economic opportunity.
More than aesthetics
Most new activity centres which claim to be a success are indeed mixed-use with street-based, fine-grained built form and active-frontage. However, they are also generally associated with four characteristic failings:
✘ limited and formulaic use mix, with standard tenancy listings; ✘ ownership in the hands of few, and often only one entity; ✘ privatised open-space masquerading as public realm; and, ✘ absence of significant and diverse employment opportunities
New Activity Centre / Old Activity Centre – the difference is more than aesthetic.
These characteristic failures are common to most new activity centres in Australia, and the United States. The projects have often succeeded on urban design grounds, but the focus has been too heavily on aesthetic outcomes.
Diverse local business and employment
A significant claim for the mixed-use activity centre is that it will reduce travel distances. This leads to reduced carbon emissions, less commuting time and, as we know from Robert Putnam, much healthier and happier communities. However, unless opportunities exist for diverse local business and employment to occupy the vast majority of a centre, residents will be guaranteed of a commute elsewhere. Workers commuting take a large portion of their spending power with them, and in doing so further compound the geographic dispersion of their communities.
So what are we trying to describe when we use the term mixed-use activity centre? How can activity centres be delivered to foster great community places and true local economies? Such places are more than just attractively designed shopping-plus centres. They are underpinned by the following critical attributes:
✔ Density of Tenancy – as well as the quantum of floor area, there is a need to consider the number of tenancies. The higher the number of tenancies per overall area, the smaller the tenancy will be. Small tenancies provide for small businesses which employ the vast majority of Australians.
✔ Diversity of Tenancy Type – a focus on small is good, but this should not be to the exclusion of medium and larger sized businesses. The resilience of any economy is assured only by the balance in variety, size and function of its participants. Diversity of tenancy types also provides capacity for a more complex mix of uses, and ability for these uses to adapt and evolve over time.
✔ Density of Business Ownership – more owners per activity centre is likely to result in more of the owners being local residents. Small businesses are more likely to be locally owned and operated. If this is the case, a high proportion of profits will be captured locally.
✔ Density of Tenancy or Building Ownership – more landlords per activity centre is likely to result in more of the landlords being local residents. Smaller, rather than larger, tenancies and buildings are also more likely to be attractive investments for locals. If this is the case, a high proportion of rent will be captured locally.
✔ Diversity of Delivery Participants – arguably this is the most challenging aspect for contemporary development in greenfield locations. More developers, builders and designers involved in the planning and delivery of an activity centre is likely to result in more of these economic participants being locals, or at least sub-regionally local. If this is the case, then a greater share of fees and profits will be captured locally.
The greater the diversity and density of all these attributes, the higher a centre’s capacity will be for developing local economic resilience. Various scenarios have been modelled and the effects are stark. Ownership profiles typical of locations such as Lalor Haddowor Yarraville in Melbourne triple the local economic benefit when compared to a shopping centre of equivalent size which is in the ownership of one entity and filled with largely non-local businesses.
Ensuring local economic resilience
To ensure local economic resilience in activity centres the solution is quite simple. Provide a fine but mixed grain subdivision and a set of building types with capacity for diversity of business and ownership. Preferably, this would be delivered by many parties from day one. However, an alternate strategy is the incremental sale over time of buildings which were initially developed in sets by a master developer.
Studies of several existing activity centres in Melbourne reveal that density and diversity are consistent attributes of successful places, regardless of when they were developed. The built form may differ, but the levels of diversity and density are very similar and have been critical to those places evolving over time to reflect the local community. What is worrying about the way more recent activity centres have been delivered is that change can only occur if the (usually single) ownership decides the centre should undergo wholesale redevelopment.
Our efforts to deliver a ‘real’ activity centre must not be limited to aesthetic outcomes. A fundamentally different design and delivery model needs to be employed. The attributes of density and diversity outlined need to be made preconditions of new activity centres. Otherwise, the dream of living life locally will remain the privilege of a few, and be elusive to those in new urban areas.