Regional communities are passionate about their towns and are generally engaged in local planning and development issues. This can be seen as a mixed blessing for urban designers working with local communities on strategic planning projects. A range of strategic planning frameworks and design master plans has been undertaken in regional centres, with the intent to guide future development and assist with the management of change.
This strategic planning is often derided by communities as being a wasteful use of valuable council funds that could otherwise be used for capital improvements to local infrastructure, and is often seen as repeating work that has previously been undertaken.
To overcome this, it is essential that local councils, who prepare project briefs:
convince their communities of the value that strategic planning will bring in terms of a consistent and co-ordinated approach to managing change and the allocation of funds in future Capital Works Programs
are aware of previous studies and their relevance to current projects
are prepared to implement capital works projects that are identified in strategic plans.
Strategic planning and design master plans are, for the most part, prepared by city-based consultancies. Their work is generally based on a snapshot of the town during the project, previous relevant studies, input of local communities and the guidance of a project steering committee.
Budget for Consultation
Community consultation programs are an important aspect of planning and design projects, and are generally established as part of tender submissions and project inception. Obviously, the extent of a consultation program is dependent on the budget that has been allocated to the project and an agreed fee.
To ensure that communities are comfortable with a consultant team and their understanding of local issues, a considerable amount of time and engagement is required, including the possibility of experiencing places and events over weekends and public holidays. It is important that consultants factor this into fee proposals, and that councils acknowledge the commitment required to meet community expectations for consultation.
In addition, councils can provide guidance about the most effective methods for engaging with individual local communities. A consultation program developed for one community may not be appropriate or successful with another. Designing for regional towns and communities involves different parameters to those that exist in metropolitan areas. Aspects such as scale, urban density, transport and aesthetic considerations that are appropriate for metropolitan urban areas are not necessarily pertinent in smaller rural towns.
Community expectations and the way people use public spaces in rural towns are different to larger urban centres, and this needs to be understood when undertaking planning and design projects. However, this does not mean that urban designers should not advocate increasing residential density, a variety of housing typologies, and increased pedestrianisation of main streets.
Budgets play a considerable role in determining project outcomes. Rural shires, with smaller populations spread across several communities, have to deal with competing demands for budget funds, and are often stretched to deliver projects that have been proposed in strategic master plans.
Urban designers need to focus on what can realistically be delivered to ensure vibrant and active small towns. This may be an emphasis on a robust maintenance program that delivers tidy and clean public places, and encouraging property owners to address building facades (that contribute to unique local character).
Planners and designers, with local councils, need to understand the opportunities and constraints that exist for smaller rural town projects in order to create constructive partnerships that will deliver successful outcomes for all.