OPINION: Our city’s growth relies on organic urban design

HILLY: Newcastle’s topography is similar to San Francisco’s, where neighbourhoods have slowly evolved.IN Newcastle we are living through a struggle for the right to the city.
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The struggle is about how urban space will be used and who will decide how it is used. It is a struggle over whose rights will be respected and actualised.

One set of protagonists is readily identified: big developers from outside Newcastle; local developers; conservative politicians, local and state; and a broader group of local business people.

This group is for “big development”, large-scale urban development schemes such as the proposed Urban Growth/GPT towers and shopping mall.

The protagonists on the other side include many inner-city residents, organised resident action groups such as NICRA (Newcastle Inner-City Residents’ Alliance), some small business people in the CBD and sympathisers in Newcastle, the Hunter and beyond.

This side of the debate advocates “organic development”, urban renewal that builds on the existing built and natural environments.

There is also a third, much broader, group of Novocastrians who are undecided about or indifferent to the debate between big development and organic development.

These Novocastrians feel an attachment to their city and a desire for it to flourish. But after decades of inaction and broken promises, they are sceptical that anything positive will happen.

The Newcastle CBD has been in decline for half a century. From the 1960s suburban shopping malls drew shoppers away from the once lively Hunter Street shopping strip. More recently, CBD offices have emptied as commercial tenants moved to new buildings in Honeysuckle.

Today, life is returning to the CBD as new cafes and other small enterprises spring up.

The Urban Growth/GPT plan, by imposing tall buildings and a franchise-driven, car-centred shopping mall on these street-level businesses, is likely to suck people off the streets and crush this small business revival.

Currently, big development dominates the community conversation about the future of inner Newcastle.

The Urban Growth/GPT development is presented as essential to Newcastle’s future. Failure to implement it, its proponents claim, will condemn our city to permanent stagnation. Opponents are cast as NIMBYs – holding Newcastle back.

Meanwhile the silent majority remains sceptical and disengaged.

In this environment it is impossible to have a rational, sustained community conversation about the future of our city.

Yet such a discussion is essential if Newcastle is to avoid repeating mistakes made in other cities.

A huge body of evidence shows that quick-fix urban renewal projects do not work.

High-rise housing projects, widespread across the world half a century ago, failed miserably. Neighbourhoods were obliterated, people were housed in alienating tower blocks, crime flourished.

More recent grand projects like Madrid’s Cuatro Torres (Four Towers) have marred Madrid’s gracious streetscape and driven the city into debt.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. San Francisco, Copenhagen and many other cities have adopted a more organic approach to urban design.

San Francisco’s original layout, like Newcastle’s, is a grid of streets laid over a hilly landscape. In both cities, distinctive neighbourhoods of low- and medium-rise buildings evolved over many decades.

New developments in San Francisco accord with this topography and history. The result is a vibrant, creative city, a magnet for new residents and new enterprises, as well as tourists.

The accumulated evidence on good urban design shows that vital cities share common features.

They have densely populated centres. Buildings are low and medium-rise, are of different ages and serve multiple uses: retail, residential, commercial and cultural.

The centre is walkable, and has people on the streets day and night. New developments are small-scale, harmonise with the city’s natural and built environment and are locally planned and built.

The Urban Growth/GPT CBD proposal has none of these features. It has been imposed on Newcastle by the state government, contravening its own 2012 Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy. It repeats mistakes made in urban renewal projects across the world since 1945.

Hopefully the forthcoming Joint Regional Planning Panel will reject the Urban Growth/GPT plan and call for a revised proposal. Then community, council and business can work together to formulate a plan based on sound urban design principles.

Dr Griff Foley was formerly associate professor of adult education at the University of Technology, Sydney. He is a member of NICRA, which will host a forum on urban renewal at Newcastle City Hall tonight at 7pm.