On Facebook, the American writer Kanani Fong wrote a note about urban recovery and development for a friend. At my request, she has kindly published it as The Local Economy: More Business Close Or Pull Out on her Get Lost with Easy-writer blog.
I found Kanani's post interesting for several reasons.
The US's sheer size means that the country has experienced rises and falls of cities and regions on a scale far beyond that in Australia.
The attached photo of Detroit's Michigan Central railway station is from Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline, a photo essay by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. Skepticlawyer wrote a nice companion post, Ozymandias or, when a city dies.
I think that we can learn from the US experience.
Kanani's post really centres on possible responses to urban decline. She points to the way in which different decisions can affect down town areas, suggesting too that cooperative local action is one way of addressing the problem.
I grew up in Armidale. The city then had a small, compact downtown centred on three Beardy Street blocks. Newcastle was and remains New England's big city. Visiting Newcastle as a child, I found the downtown area with its ships, trains and shops quite fascinating after Armidale's small scale. The nearby BHP steel works (BHP was so big in Newcastle terms that it was just called the BHP) added to the fascination.
Today, the old Newcastle CBD has become something of a wasteland in part because of construction of suburban shopping malls. How to reclaim and revitalise the CBD has become a major issue.
In Armidale, the construction of new shopping centres to the west and east of Beardy Street and now the construction of a giant new Bunnings store a few blocks to the south-east of Beardy Street poses significant problems for the coherence of the central city and to the place of Beardy Street in its heart. Whatever the advantages of the malls and super-stores are in shopping terms, they are generally not attractive buildings.
I could, rightly, be accused of a degree of nostalgia for the past. Change happens. However, I think that there needs to be a greater degree of community involvement and debate in the change process.
At present, this is generally reactive, often just short term NIMBY (Not in My Backyard). NIMBY is not necessarily bad. Of course, arguments about the Armidale or Newcastle CBD's are local arguments and must reflect local concerns. However, I would argue that there needs to be broader debate about the type of New England we want, not just localism. How might all the bits fit together?