The summer issue of Queensland Planner came out just in time…to be cast aside in favour of Christmas deadlines and parties. Easing into 2014 might be a good time to pick up the magazine and have a browse. As always PIA members can also download a copy from the member resources section of www.planning.org.au
Here’s my (final!) editorial reprinted:
Publications are important to professions and to membership organisations. Often largely written by members as well as read by them, publications are in a way a reflection of the organisation itself. If planning could be described as thoughtful, varied and interesting I hope that description could be extended to Queensland Planner as well. As this is my last Queensland Planner as editor I would like summarise a few of my highlights from the past 12 issues.
I am about to begin a long summer break with my family. It has been a year of hard work but good work, at the end of a decade of the same in south east queensland. 2014 offers new scenery and adventures. I am looking forward to it. Some design related but holiday focussed blogging may emerge over the summer. My last Queensland Planner as editor is about to be published. The cartoon sums it all up really…
‘A plan for summer’, cartoon published in Queensland Planner, December 2013
Australian cities are fast growers, increasingly upwards but overwhelmingly outwards. Despite this, new town centres are rare and therefore important. Town centres are the social and economic hearts of our communities. Or they should be, anyway. I have the good luck to be involved in the planning and design of a new town centre proposed for a growth area north of Brisbane. Because of this I have made an effort this year to visit and learn from a few examples around the country. So, how good are they?
Gungahlin, Australian Capital Territory
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Gungahlin is a new suburb and town centre under development in the north of Canberra. In my view Gungahlin town centre has many good urban characteristics.
- It is a street-based mixed-use centre. In plain English this means that all the shops and businesses are located on public streets (not car parks), which makes it easy and pleasant to walk around. The town centre has shops but also all kinds of businesses, jobs and services that people need, and you can live there if you want to because housing is part of the mix.
- A prominent ‘main street’ called Hibberson Street is the primary axis for the town centre and the main shopping street. It is also the end of a major approach to the suburb from the city, making Gungahlin town centre a genuine destination. In the future a tram might take you down Hibberson Street and all the way into Civic, Canberra’s CBD.
Eureka Flag with stars representing the Southern Cross. Akin to some town centre designs?
The design of the town centre features a core of four ‘super’ urban blocks, glued together by the main street and a second street at right angles forming a cross shape. The crossroads formed by these intersecting streets is the ‘centre of the centre’. The four ‘superblocks’ house supermarkets and a discount department store. These are the anchor shops and their big box floorplans are sleeved with smaller shops, offices and apartments facing the street (and in some cases small internal malls). The arrangements of blocks, streets, crossroads and anchor tenants makes the design a bit like the Eureka flag (!) and I might get away with referring to this type of town centre design as a ‘Southern Cross’.
- Around the core a larger town centre frame area accommodates community buildings, heathcare, schools, service industries and other essentials.
- There is plenty of housing in the town centre and nearby, and room for further development.
- Gungahlin has quality streets and public spaces including a linear plaza (Gungahlin Place) on the major ‘cross’ street. The town centre is walkable, meaning there are ample sheltered footpaths, and plenty of windows to look into and people to look at. In fact people come first in this design. Cars move through slowly (most are parked at the edges or below buildings) and there are zebra crossings. The result is lots of people on the streets. A tram service will liven things up even more.
My short visit didn’t give me time to find many faults. Designer Michael Cullen is better placed to comment and he did so in the excellent Urban Voices book, celebrating the last 25 years of Australian urban design. Here are a couple of his observations (paraphrased by me).
- The four 200mx200m retail superblocks were initially designed with a lane in the middle for servicing. Later these lanes were widened and made into streets, but still with the loading docks and blank rear walls showing. These streets are not so successful.
- The linear park or plaza (Gungahlin Place) is not as green and lush as intended.
- The building have weak ‘vertical proportions’, resulting in wide and flat facades, rather than appearing as many slim tall buildings next to each other.
Cullen’s article ends ‘For all its faults (and it’s not yet finished), I do think Gungahlin is a town.’ I agree.
Gungahlin’s main street is Hibberson Street, a long route that continues to Canberra.
Hibberson Street. Cars, parking, dining, shopping…it’s all there. One day they hope to have a tram from the city running on this street.
Major supermarket chains are present at Gungahlin, but their ‘boxes’ are sleeved by mixed use buildings like this one.
Town centre apartments with a bank at street level. A common development form at Gungahlin.
Gungahlin Place is a long plaza crossing Hibberson Street at right angles. It’s a hard, glarey landscape, but a good idea.
Town planners on a quick visit to Gangahlin town centre, March 2013
Point Cook, Victoria
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Point Cook town centre is south west of Melbourne, in the outer suburbs on the way to Geelong. Its Southern Cross format is common with Gungahlin.
- Like Gungahlin, Point Cook is a street-based centre, with a bit more emphasis on shopping malls within the four ‘superblocks’.
- The streets are clean, modern and comfortable as are the small squares. There are good street trees. Footpaths are of ample width, sheltered by awnings and there are shops and cafes to look into. Crossings are many and pedestrians get priority (there is a scramble crossing at the main crossroads, and zebra crossings elsewhere). Shops and cafes line the streets, making most building frontages ‘active’. This is pretty fundamental to making good streets. On the Monday morning I was there Point Cook was busy with people.
- There is parking on street but larger car parks are out of sight, behind or under buildings.
- The architecture is varied and interesting enough (the vertical patterning suggests multiple small buildings but in fact the buildings are large and were designed in one go).
- Main Street (that’s its name) has two storey buildings, with one storey buildings on the cross street.
- There is a library and community centre near one end of Main Street and it is bustling with people. It draws people down to this end of the street.
- Point Cook has an urban feel with buildings close to the streets and plenty of activity and interest.
- To outward appearances Point Cook is a ‘town centre’ with diverse uses and activities, and in many ways it is. Close scrutiny highlights a bias towards retail, and ownership by one major landlord.
- There appear to be few businesses at Point Cook not shopping or hospitality based. A lack of employment and job diversity? Future development and a more competitive property market will be difficult without major structural changes to the town centre.
- The streets don’t go anywhere important or useful. Main Street has a four-lane arterial road at one end, and a wetland at the other. Point Cook town centre sits neatly to the side of a major suburban intersection. Good for getting shoppers in perhaps, but not a natural destination. Is Main Street a real (public) street, or a privately owned driveway that looks like a street? I couldn’t tell.
- The symmetry of the two cross streets means it is not so clear which is more important. This is mildly disorienting at first.
- Public transport was not evident.
- There is no housing in this town centre, and the suburban housing areas are pushed well back with open space between. It seems all fairly low density nearby. All of which suggests that walking to the town centre is for enthusiasts only.
- Point Cook town centre is a pleasant place and much more interesting than a suburban shopping mall. It looks like a town centre and provides an
urban experience of sorts, but is Point Cook diverse enough in land uses and landowners to function like a ‘real’ town centre?
(In thinking about this I recall an Urban Design Forum article from 2009 on exactly this topic. It’s called Building activity centres – strategies for developing strong local economies and communities and is worth a read.)
Where Main and Murnong Streets cross is the heart of Point Cook. There’s a small plaza and a scramble crossing. On my Monday morning visit it was quite busy with people. Cars are parked behind the buildings and shoppers get out and walk about the streets.
The public realm is good quality and with shops and businesses on the street it is quite an urban ‘main street’ feel.
Hints of shopping mall…without the coralling effects of a mall, do retailers have to try harder to get customers past their doors?
Away from the two main streets, we are quickly amongst car parks and vacant land. Point Cook centre doesn’t integrate very well with surrounding residential areas, which are a stiff walk away.
Small businesses above the shops. Mostly solicitors, accountants and the like, servicing local populations. The lack of broader emplyment and business opportunities is a weakness.
A four lane arterial road at one end of Main Street. At the other end is a big pond. The fact the main streets don’t go anywhere is a bit of a problem, but at least the centre is built hard up against the surrounding roads.
Mawson Lakes, South Australia
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Mawson Lakes is a masterplanned community and town centre in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. Its development began in the late 1990s, as a partnership between developer Delfin and the South Australian Government. In September 2013 the town centre was mostly built, with only a handful of vacant sites.
Successful features evident:
- A proper mix of uses in its 60-70ha. Residential, business, education (schools and university), retail, community, and a technology park nearby. Mixed use buildings are common.
- Mawson Lakes town centre has many small business premises, mostly office or shop-front.
- Variety, in architecture and ownership. Such competition is surely good for economic development and jobs. It’s certainly good for urban design and placemaking.
- Streets are well designed and pleasant to be in. Most buildings have shops and other ‘public’ uses at street level.
- Access options to the town centre includes public transport via Mawson Interchange, a rail/bus/park&ride node five to ten minutes walk away. Perhaps slightly too far, but it’s a good facility.
- A university campus and a lake integrate well into the centre,
- Mawson Lakes town centre has a lot of housing and housing choices. Apartments, urban terrace houses and detached ‘warehouses’, and ‘plexes’ are all present in the centre. McMansions are on the other side of the lake.
- Aside from the town centre housing there is a large walk-up catchment of residential.
- Streets and blocks form a simple grid with two north-south ‘main’ streets’ and five east-west rectangular blocks between. A 3-400m grid of urban and main streets is formed. Blocks are about 190m long x 90-100m wide. It’s efficient and legible.
- Car parks for the supermarket and pub have apartments on their edges. A bold way of softening the concrete car park.
- The street between the supermarket and lakefront shops is wide and ugly with blank concrete walls to its edges.
- The ‘centre of the centre’ is not obvious. There is a plaza behind the Mawson Centre (a library and resource centre), and the lakeside park fulfils a public function.
Mawson Lakes town centre functions like a town centre and looks like a town centre and therefore it is a town centre.
Seamless on-platform bus/train interchange at Mawson Lakes.
Typical street with mixed use medium rise buildings.
Housin choices abound. Vertical triplex on left, terrace houses beyond.
Even Woothworths is in a mixed use building! This (new) supermarket car park is sleeved by residential. Developments like these are often thought to be ‘impossible’.
A university campus at Mawson Lakes town centre interfaces at the street in an urban manner.
The eponymous lake, looking towards the town centre. Lakeside dining, the former Deflin sales centre, and Woolworths supermarket one street behind through the gap
Gungahlin, Point Cook and Mawson Lakes town centres present many lessons. I wonder if successful town centre design relies on quite simple principles? Here are some suggestions to achieving the elusive quality I’ll call ‘townness’:
- Town centres have to be easy to get to. That means transport choices, public streets for 24- hour access, and main streets that integrate with surrounding street networks.
- Town centres have to offer lots to do when you are there. A full suite of economic and social transaction opportunities, at development and in the future. I suggest this requires mixed use and mixed ownership town centres. Housing is clearly an important ingredient.
- Town centres have to be interesting and attractive to people. They must be places not just developments. And that’s not just good looks, but interesting and genuine human activity too.
Sounds easy! When I am practiced in the art of making it happen I’ll be sure to post about it. Meantime here are a few points of design and strategy that I’ve been using in my recent work:
- Main street(s) – parallel or perpendicular to major routes
- Town centre core of 4-6 blocks, scaled for supermarket/DDS and sleeved by mixed use
- Blocks scaled for walking (gaps every 100-120m)
- Civic space
- Quality buildings, streets, and spaces – use design guidelines
- 400m grid major streets
- Town centre frame for education, health, housin etc (3-4 times size of core)
- Close to large open space
- Design for walking, cycling and public transport
- Mixed use and mixed ownership for long term interest and economic development
- Good process
- Consolidate parking
Well done to all the participants in DesignThinkingDrawing Urban design training for professionals held last week in Brisbane. It’s amazing what 20 people can produce in two days with limited prior experience. Thanks also for the feedback…
Fantastic! Great course – very educational and really has got my UD ‘mojo’ flowing
Love it. The toolkit… is a great concept and encourages immediate continuance of drawing practice
Has made drawing presentation a lot easier and quicker
Friendly and non-intimidating course
Fun, practical exercises
Presentations were really good
It offered me excellent concepts to think projects from a broader context
The course was brilliantly practical, and directly relevant to work as a town planning practitioner.
I enjoyed this workshop more than any other training I have done since leaving Uni.