They, in many ways, epitomise the typical rural situation in Australia because they are both working rural service centres relatively untouched by influences of tourism and sea change that effect towns closer to capital cities or in coastal, historic or scenic settings.
Nathalia, population around 1500, is untouched by gentrification and landscape makeovers. The last significant streetscape improvement – apparently designed in the 1980s by the local sign writer – included the major innovation of putting power below ground down the main street, and installation of now-dated, over scaled, gooseneck streetlights. The three heritage pubs remain unrenovated, not having seen a coat of paint for many decades.
Shepparton, around 40,000 residents, and more dynamic economically has been steadily working on its public realm over the past decade, though not at the same level as other competing regional cities such as Bendigo.
Does good quality public realm make a difference?
One issue I have pondered is: how much difference does the development of good quality public realm mean to the social and economic performance of real working country towns like Shepparton and Nathalia. Most residents are, after all, comfortable in their settings and enjoy the simple rural life. They are always suspicious of change.
What seemed to emerge during our two days of presentations and discussion in Nathalia is that without nice streetscapes, cafes and bookshops, the town is struggling to attract tourists to stop and spend time in the town. More importantly, teachers and doctors choose not to come to Nathalia or, if they do, they find other places to live. Young people feel obliged to leave after secondary school for further education, employment, and the wider cultural experiences that they can find in larger cities. This is less pronounced, but also occurring in Shepparton. Places like Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo on the other hand seem more successful because of scale and the quality of their centres, and they now attract young and professional people in a similar way to Melbourne.
Of course, this is a separate and secondary issue to sustainablility of rural settlements. Here are some personal observations on where I think we need to go to develop rural settlement in response to climate change.
Small settlements, like Nathalia, should become self sufficient in day- to-day facilities like schools, shops, medical and recreation facilities. All these facilities should be in easy walking/cycling distance and this needs to become the preferred way to access them by most residents, not just the young and old. Public transport to larger centres should be available. As fossil fuels, decline we need to be able to reduce car use without compromise to lifestyle.
More efficient use of energy and water can be achieved through better building and garden design, and some urban consolidation. Large rural lifestyle lots should be discouraged, and subdivided where possible because they are unproductive and cause sprawl of the worst kind.
Larger settlements, like Shepparton are self-sufficient, with a wider range of services and facilities. However, their density and scale is not sustainable. They are too car dependent, energy inefficient, and lack the amenity and activity of larger cities. The way forward seems to be:
• Reduce car dependence and increase facilities for walking and bike riding, reduce surface and on-street car parking.
• No more greenfield development of housing at suburban or lower density! They are too car dependent and use too much energy and water.
• Explore models of well connected, new satellite high density sustainable communities, that are custom designed to provide a range of residents including seniors, with modest sized, affordable, quality, car-free, housing with a zero carbon footprint, in attractive rural settings. These are being developed in Europe with minimum fuss, but don’t seem to be even on the radar in Australia.
• Redevelopment of the central areas of existing larger settlements at much higher density, encouraging mixed-use development. This could be an era where regional towns develop to have more sophisticated liveable urban environments. Small cities like Shepparton are blank canvases, ripe for resurgence as new models for 21st century living.
• Enhanced public transport within and to the centre.
• Quality public space and parks that have modest water use are as important as quality private and public sector buildings.
In all country towns
Good urban and landscape design is essential, whether by consultants or council staff. Councils need visionary strategic thinkers that understand design and can provide leadership and continuity of approach. Current churning of professional staff in local government is limiting their achievement.
Retro-fitting our towns and cities for the post-climate change era is the major challenge of the next decade and beyond. We need government at all levels, as well as academics and practitioners, to show real leadership. Time is running out!