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Regional cities

By Stephen Smith - posted Friday, 20 July 2012


There has been a bit of discussion around the topic of regional cities in Australia – their role, future and function. Having worked in a number of centres I thought it timely to at least pen my thoughts about three particularly lovely places that are well established regional centres.

These centres are Mackay, Toowoomba and Bendigo. Mackay is the first tropical city one encounters on the trip north along the Queensland coast. A sugar and timber town originally it is undergoing massive change due to the influence of the abundant coal reserves west of the town in the Bowen and Galilee Basins. This is bringing an influx of people and money to the town with its concomitant impact on items like wages and house prices. There is housing pressure being felt throughout the Mackay region in terms of affordability and physical expansion of urban areas.

Planning for these pressures falls largely on the shoulders of the local authority. Mackay Regional Council was formed from the amalgamation of three previous local authorities, Mackay City Council, Sarina Shire Council, and Marian Shire Council. This is a lot to bite off for any local government. It has had to deal with both the administrative and technical issues surrounding amalgamation as well as taking on the broader planning agenda for increased growth. To their credit, they are doing a good job. They are a long way from finished but they will have their draft planning scheme, created under the new planning legislation, on display in June this year. Mackay was in fact one of the first cities in Australia to have a Town Plan, and engaged luminaries such as Karl Langer to assist with the layout of the city. The city itself lies on the southern bank of the Pioneer River on a traditional orthogonal grid with a range of art deco buildings which form the core of the city centre. It is indeed a pleasantly walkable city particularly given its relative flatness and its climate.

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Toowoomba – the 'Garden City' – was built on the back of its rich agricultural land, which forms the broader Darling Downs region. Sitting atop the Great Dividing Range Toowoomba is about two hours drive west of Brisbane. It is still the regional capital of southern Queensland and northern New South Wales and Australia's 15th largest city, bigger in fact than Darwin. Its history is reflected in the rich diversity and character of its built form.

It has some very impressive city streetscapes and a wealth of older housing stock which give the city a great sense of scale, character and flavour. The city also contains some impressive parklands. Queens Park on the eastern side of the city is a wonderful space. There has been considerable effort by the citizens of Toowoomba to restore and renovate these old timber and tin character houses. Not the most climatically responsive building forms given Toowoomba's chilly winters, but handsome nonetheless. Like Mackay, Toowoomba has undergone a series of amalgamations too. Toowoomba's planning scheme is due for release and will be one of the first under the new legislation.

Bendigo was built on gold, and lots of it. The alluvial deposits around Bendigo were so valuable the rail line was built on the ridgeline above the town. Laid out on an orthogonal grid like its other regional counterparts, its heritage displayed in its built form, reflects its mineral wealth. Grand civic buildings line Pall Mall, Bendigo's main street. Some of these buildings are incredibly impressive.

It has a very compact and walkable city centre. Students of architecture and urban design would need to go a long way to find a better place to study or for a coffee. Like Toowoomba the compact urban core is complimented by a sizeable piece of open space, Rosalind Park, which is a large city park literally adjoining the city centre.

Like most regional towns each of these places is characterised by a compact city core surrounded almost exclusively by single detached housing. There is an absence of housing diversity and density when you step outside the city core. There is also a relative absence of a permanent residential population within the city core. Mackay and Bendigo are looking to remedy that as a way of ensuring a strong and vital city centre.

The lack of density around the town centres makes retrofitting for densities problematic. There is community sensitivity around redevelopment in character areas of Bendigo and Toowoomba. It has resulted in pressure to push out residential growth boundaries. In the case of Mackay, it has put pressure on small rural towns to more than double their size in very short time frames with local government stretching infrastructure networks to meet growth on shoe string budgets.

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Like Toowoomba, Bendigo is only a two hour drive from Melbourne. It has courted a number of tertiary institutions such as Latrobe University and has a diverse education offering from secondary schools, technical and TAFE colleges and of course universities. The amount of energy young people bring to the town is a blessing not to be underestimated particularly for regional towns where younger population cohorts are sometimes absent altogether.

Good transport connections to regional centres are vital. This is not just road connections. Recent improvements to the rail network has seen the commuter line from Melbourne extend to Bendigo providing a frequent and efficient service. The rail connection between Melbourne and Bendigo has been invaluable, enabling people to commute to Melbourne and live in Bendigo. However, its not all one-way traffic as the city is now attracting workers and students from surrounding centres such as Castlemaine. It also allows tourists to access the town as a comfortable day trip from Melbourne to catch many of the national and international art exhibitions the city hosts.

The rail connection among other factors discussed below, allows Bendigo to punch well above its weight. Unlike Bendigo, Toowoomba does not have a good rail connection to Brisbane. Toowoomba has only its road connection, which winds its way slowly down a precipitous section of the Great Dividing Range.

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About the Author

Stephen Smith is an associate director of Deicke Richards. He is a qualified town planner and urban designer with experience in Australia and the UK.

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