Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Newcastle revitalisation

One of these days, I have to find the time to spend a weekend in Newcastle with camera and map, just walking the streets. I make this point because the collapse of the GPT deal that would, in theory at least, have revitalised the Newcastle CBD  has led to some very conflicting comments.

The impact of change and especially the continued growth of large shopping centres on central town areas within New England has been quite profound, from the Newcastle CBD to the Armidale mall to Lismore. At a personal level, I find the shopping malls quite useful, but I really don't like them. They transform variety into a standardised pap that is the same wherever you go.

I suppose that I have become something of a passionate supporter of Newcastle revitalisation. I have never lived in the city, just visited over a long period. Yet it has been important enough to me during that time to want to see it emerge from the shadows that have so often surrounded it as a distinct entity in its own right.

Now someone from Newcastle might say, rightly, that of course it's a distinct entity. I would fully accept that criticism. My point is that nobody outside Newcastle really knows that it is!

When I look at the comments on the Newcastle CBD revitalisation, I am struck by just how inward looking they are. To be fair, I have applied the same criticism to other New England centres such as Maitland or Armidale. We all suffer from border myopia.

Accepting that I do not have the detailed knowledge of Newcastle that I should and that I am writing as a sympathetic outsider, I would make just three points about Newcastle CBD revitalisation.  

First, Newcastle is, or is not, a a centre in its own right. To my mind it is, a place with a distinct history and culture. I know this because I research and write about it. If it is, then there needs to be an overall Newcastle strategy that builds upon Newcastle's special features. This then provides a context for CBD revitalisation.

Secondly, if people won't immediately come as visitors to the CBD, then you need to bring them as residents. My feeling is that central Newcastle potentially provides a rather wonderful urban living environment. If I'm right, you don't necessarily need a grand plan for urban revitalisation, simply a planning environment that encourages inner city living. Get people, and vibrancy follows.

Thirdly, while there is nothing necessarily wrong with grand plans such as that put forward by GPT, a lot of the best development comes from organic, incremental, growth. Start small, and let the flowers bloom.

Here I noticed the way in which light vs heavy rail became a show stopper. Now my personal view is that Newcastle should be cautious about getting rid of heavy rail because once it's gone, you can't get it back. I am also influenced by what I see as a fact, that once people from Sydney or other places have to change trains, you lose people.

In my vision of Newcastle CBD, I see loaded trains unloading people in the city centre so that they can enjoy the essential city. I don't see people doing this when they have to drag their luggage from one station to another, then try to fit their luggage into light rail designed for city computers.

Maybe I'm wrong. I am an outsider. What do you think?    


Greg said...

Hi Jim, you have touched a nerve here. I have had to have a think before posting a reply.

There is no one single identifiable cause of Newcastle CBD's decline. First there was the closure of what was once Australia's third largest tram network in the 1950's. Trams had been an important part of the city's fabric dating back to the 19th Century. I don't think that it was realized at the time just how important they really were.

Then in the 1970's and 80's came the decline of the BHP and ultimately it's closure in the late 1990's. Those workers drifted from Mayfield to other emerging centres of engineering in the outer suburbs.

The suburban shopping centre trend accelerated the process from the 1960's with the emergence of large malls at Kotara, Charlestown, Jesmond and Glendale. There was plenty of land in the suburbs to develop big malls whereas land in the CBD is scarce. With the loss of the trams Newcastle had become a sprawling car city and these centres were perfectly matched to that trend.

With the relative decline of the CBD the department stores started to close their CBD operations. The CBD lost "The Store", Coles, Winns, Waltons and in the latest blow, the last man standing David Jones. It has become a vicious circle.

Then of course the earthquake in 1989 and the "Pasha" storm in 2007 resulted in a great deal of damage to the building stock. Many buildings were demolished after the earthquake and many buildings have remained boarded up since the storm.

Also contributing has been the closure of the Royal Newcastle Hospital and the emergence of John Hunter Hospital at New Lambton Heights which has also deprived the CBD of many thousands of people visiting each day.

The last piece of the decline jigsaw has been the Honeysuckle development on the harbour. Newcastle's dilapidated docks were in need of renewal, but the by-product has been more than a decade of investment focus on the harbour and away from the old CBD. The state has been the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in profit and the city has paid the price.

The rail line to Newcastle has been more a symptom of Newcastle's decline than a cause. Unfortunately, because it is a visible, tangible thing, some blame the CBD's plight (incorrectly in my view) upon the rail line which runs parallel to the harbour in between Honeysuckle and the old CBD.

Sorry about the long winded history lesson, but I felt that it was necessary to put some context into the CBD plight. It has been fighting a losing battle against major upheavals and forces beyond it's control.

But there is hope. The CBD has largely retained it's old character and there is a treasure trove of some of the finest buildings found in the one place anywhere in Australia. This remains one of it's key strengths - it's history, architecture and sheer charm.

To have such a large CBD development as that proposed by GPT always seemed somewhat out of place. It may have been a great addition but there was always the nagging concern that it might alter the CBD's fabric and charm for all time. Cities are not stagnant places. They are constantly being renewed and rebuilt, but they also need to reflect their past and preserve what is important and relevant.

A pause at Honeysuckle and reinstatement of some form of light rail to re-connect Newcastle and it's suburbs would be a start. Relocation of some university faculties to the CBD will also help to bring people and business back to the city.

I feel that you are right. Each small upheaval built on the previous one to create the problem that we see today. This should be reversed with small incremental steps in the right direction.

We have waited in vain for a long time for the big fix and are likely to wait a lot longer. But small steps, each each building on previous small steps, can return the CBD to the vibrant place that it once was.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's very interesting Greg and on several levels. Level one: it's not a bad history summary, something that is important to me in terms of my own writing. Level two: you have provide material than can be used in discussion about future options.