Covid accelerated a global trend that long predated it: an awakening appreciation of what our suburbs offered, and the potential for their renewal. Heightened interest in our suburbs should be no surprise - after all, it is typically where more than 8 in every 10 urban dwellers live and work. But many suburban centres in Australia lack the readiness to attract and retain talent, or capital. This underinvestment manifests itself in many guises: abundant ‘For Lease’ signs, congested traffic, net local job losses, legacy land uses… we know intuitively what it looks like; it’s sadly too familiar. So if this is much of suburbia as we know it, what might suburbia as we want it look like? And what will it take to get there?
Suburban Futures’ vision is for progressive cities where quality social and economic infrastructure is equitably distributed across both suburban and inner urban locations. It is one thing to say this, but another to describe what it means. And given the best descriptions are visual representations, Suburban Futures went about trying to illustrate what we meant by suburban renewal, using 3D renders. The visual illustration isn’t intended to be definitive – simply to fire imaginations and highlight the possibilities.
First though, we needed to describe a “before” renewal scenario. For this, we engaged a talented young landscape architect who was a maestro with Sketchup (ask for Emily at Partnear) and went about creating a hypothetical run-down suburban strip centre that could be anywhere in Australia. This was a mash-up of many features of suburban strips that are immediately recognisable: the empty lots, the busy traffic, the visual pollution, the for-lease signs and vacant shops, the lack of occupancy above street level, the abandoned saw tooth industrial and other buildings, the streetscape hostile to local pedestrians and cyclists, a lack of parking, the old pub with the pokies, the low-end used car yards, a landscape of concrete and bitumen, pawn shops and vaping stores. It isn’t hard to let your imagination loose, so we did. Ironically many people have remarked that they claim to recognise this fictional environment as somewhere near them. It isn’t, but the fact it looks familiar is sad.
Describing what successful renewal might look like took more effort. The visuals in the transition from “before” to “after” do much of the work but what we aimed for was a shopping list of suburban renewal initiatives, to illustrate the variety of options available to explore.
In our hypothetical makeover, through traffic – commercial and private - has been diverted underground via a tolled tunnel. Active transport (walking and cycling) is provided for, as is local off-street parking (via a multi-deck paid parking station on the left). The train station (hinted at in the “before” image, front left) is now integrated into a new building with retail on ground and co-working offices above. The abandoned saw tooth industrial sheds (midway back on left) have been re-imagined as a combination of farmers markets and workplaces, while the structure itself was largely retained as exercise in adaptive reuse. In the distance (right side) there is a new TAFE building, and in front of that the pub has added new levels to provide for short term accommodation. The pokies are still there, but so too a new restaurant and meeting rooms. There is a pocket park next to a Council Library, and a childcare centre. In front of these there is a medical centre and also medium density residential. Health and education uses were deliberately targeted as drivers of suburban jobs and attraction, along with other community and social infrastructure (park, library etc) to cement the function of the centre as a commercially valuable community asset.
(You can view the mid-point changes by using these two QR codes – one for the left and one for the right side).
The overall landscape has been softened with extensive plantings and the overhead power and telco lines placed underground. Building heights are mostly four to six stories, and designs vary from one to the next. The answer to the question: “Where would you rather be?” – the before or the after - should be unanimous.
Getting here is another thing. Results like this require cooperation between Federal, State and Local Governments in order for infrastructure strategies and delivery to be appropriate and efficient. One look at how difficult it’s been to get “City Deals” over the line will indicate this isn’t easy. State and Local Government planning regimes also need to work together, rather than pursuing differing objectives for the same precinct, as can sometimes be the case. A big challenge is removing unhelpful planning codes and legacy zonings which reflect past uses or precinct history, in order to enable a wide mix of new uses to take root organically, without needless obstruction.
For redevelopment to occur, the prevalence of typically fragmented property ownership is also a challenge. Many will be small sites, held by private owners with little capital to redevelop themselves, but equally unwilling to sell into amalgamations. This means that larger sites with transformative development potential are critical and need as much planning and regulatory support as possible. As with inner urban renewal, the larger sites are redeveloped first, paving the way for a range of niche infill sites to follow, which helps create neighbourhood character. It can be healthy for a multitude of developers and designers to be active in a precinct, as this avoids a homogenous look where the entire precinct looks like it was part of a single design.
A renewal precinct needs many of these things to happen first to overcome tenant and community hesitancy. That can mean a different risk profile to investing or developing in established precincts or markets, which once again suggests a planning or regulatory environment that helps mitigate risk in suburban renewal areas is going to be essential. Even then, the basic financial equations of achievable rents relative to development costs, needs to stack up. Government agencies prepared to pre-commit (taking some office space or committing to a library or some other form of activation) can mean a lot but is often hard to achieve.