Sunday, January 31, 2010

Newcastle, Armidale and the process of community renewal

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 statioDetroit Michigan Central Stationn 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?      





Kanani said...

Hi Jim,

The town I'm writing about is small, much smaller than Savannah. Unfortunately, it's fallen prey to a trend started decades ago of suburbanization, where all the communities are built around cars and the ubiquitous shopping centres.

I'm afraid the decision to turn our downtown into a "night time destination zone" came only after the useful businesses had all moved on. Now, with the exception of the lone hold out --the hardware store, there's little reason for me to ever go downtown!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Kanani

What's the population? You will see how I linked your argument to much smaller communities, including the shopping centre effect.

Both Newcastle and especially Armidale have very small populations by US standards.

Le Loup said...

The councils need to stay on top of this decline problem. Last time I was in Newcastle we stayed in a hotel on the sea front. Not only were the seafront ammenities in decline, but the shopping area looked more like a slum. A closed theatre badly damaged and no attempt to cover it up.
On a return trip to the UK I noticed how my home town had fallen into decline. Hotel and shop signs hardly recognisable and no attempt to repaint them, and this is a famous tourist town!
Is this the sort of attitude that leads to the decline of our historical buildings to the state that they have to be demolished? These councils and shires need a wake-up call!

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree with you LL, subject to one qualification. I think that we are relying on councils too much.

Councils began to provide services. Increasingly, and like other parts of Government, they have moved into a control role that has (to my mind) actually become a significant impediment to change and development.

I would argue that community regeneration has to start with the community.

When I first went to the UK, I was actually struck by the decline in some areas. I fully accept that structural change had a huge impact, but I was struck by the way that no one seemed to take ownership of the problem.

I know that people feel helpless at times. But some of the most succesful changes at community level have happened because people tried to do things that they could. Armidale today is actually built on this.

webboy said...

Jim, I agree with the sentiment in your qualification above, but not the language.

I don't think that it's US relying on Councils that is the issue, I think Councils are imposing more authority than they should (or have), often with the backing of the NSW Government, as is the case with the proposed Local Environmental Plan in the Cessnock LGA, specifically relating to Wollombi Valley and the change from a Rural Zone to an Environmental Zone with no compensation to the land owners that want to farm their land.

Back to the topic, I think people everywhere see this kind of change, both in rural and urban environments.

I remember growing up in and around Goulburn before the bypass and while it was still a significant rail hub. That city is now a shadow of what it was in the 70s when I was there.

Is this good or bad? I'm not sure, but as a train-buff I remember fondly the way it was with the ever-changing locomotive roundhouse and a bunch of us kids train-spotting the locomotives from other states that visited for maintenance.

I'm lucky now, to live in pretty much a time-capsule village of Wollombi, and this community has taken on a kind of self-governing interest in strenuously opposing developments forced upon us by Cessnock Council and the NSW State Government. It does start with the community and it can be very effective.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi WB. I agree that councils can take on too much authority. In NSW, too, the interaction between state and councils can lead to some nasty results.

I saw the story on the LEP change on Twitter and followed it through to the Land article. I also did a search on the Cessnock Advertiser to try to find supporting material. Then I did the obvious thing that I should have done in the first place, and checked Wollombi Valley On-line! I will do a post on this one.

Goulburn. That took me back. I worked in Canberra and lived first in Canberra and then Queanbeyan for twenty years. I actually knew Gounburn quite well during the 1970s.

Finally, a lot of smaller communities and indeed bigger communities have yet to learn that you can use on-line to help galvanise as in the Wollombi case.