There went the neighbourhood…

Just when did we lose the art of public space? And where did all the good public space go? This may seem to be an odd question to ask in a city like Adelaide – blessed with bucket loads of it; including the parklands, squares, and a linear park that stretches for over 50km. But the question is not about quantity. It’s about quality. And it’s about the link between public space, and neighbourhood. Or, community.

When surveyed recently, a frightening number of us – around 75% – believe that it’s the role of government to ‘provide community’. Interestingly, it seems, not many of us think we play a role ourselves. But in truth this is not surprising. As we’ve moved increasingly to an urban form built on single, separate villas, detached and barricaded behind 6 foot fences, you could say – there went the neighbourhood.

It’s a post War thing. In the first half of the 20th century, we were good at building garden apartments with generously landscaped communal space. Think ‘Deepacres’ on Melbourne Street, or ‘Felicitas’ in Wellington Square. Or a raft of similar, quality apartments in Burnside, Rose Park and Unley (funny, all sought after areas). But after the cataclysm of World War II, a new urban form emerged that reflected the limitless opportunity represented by the victorious America. Single houses dominated. With it, came the car, the garage, the backyard and the paling fence. Now cream colorbond it seems. And somewhere in there, the street died. The rise of single housing brought with it unintended consequences. As land became the private preserve of households, the central importance of ‘public space’ faded; reserved for organized sport or the lonesome playground marooned in an ocean of pine bark.

The great American urban activist, Jane Jacobs believed that streets were forgotten public space. That it was on footpaths that the small business operators could connect with their passing trade. That it was where neighbours met; either incidentally or by design. And it was where children should be able to interact, socialize and learn the informal rules of the community.

Many of us may think our streets still perform this role. But take a look at your main street and ask; would you want to amble along, dwell and pass the time? Do we know who owns and runs our small, local business enterprises? Who works there? What intel do they hold? My favourite measure has always been haircutters. Their eyes are constantly trained on the street – always darting out the shopfront over your head to visually eavesdrop on who’s who. My guy – Tony – has a finely tuned radar for the economic ups and downs of the street. Trade this week, good. Last week, not so good. Rain. School holidays. First week back after festival season when people are partied out. Small main street businesses are an exceptional civic resource. Tony is a barometer for the social and economic pulse of the local community.

And I’m not sure many of us have connected the big moves of the current planning reform (or reboot, as I prefer to think of it), with the opportunity to reconnect neighbourhoods, streets and small businesses.

It’s a well known fact that our urban centres are hollowing out. Look out your window; fewer people live out there than 20 years ago. The average household size is shrinking. The fastest growing demographic is the ‘single person household’. This means more housing is needed; and more sparsely occupied than times past. But as we spread ourselves like melted butter over a wider area, it’s small business that wears it; increasingly reliant on us driving to get anywhere. And once we’re in the car, we’re preconditioned to the convenience of the shopping centre. That planetoid form sitting like a citadel in a sea of bitumen with some heroic saplings doing their very best. Meanwhile in an effort to compete, smaller main streets cry out for more parking to lure us back. And, in so doing, foul the one reason we choose to go there; for authentic human experience. Think Queen St, Croydon. Or King William Rd. Or Stirling Village. One day soon, let’s hope we’re talking about Bowden.

Surely the answer lies in bringing people back to these traditional centres. Accessible by bus, train or tram. The more we design to reinvigorate the community atmosphere of our main streets, the more small businesses might opt out of the generic shopping mall experience and reoccupy centres that have housing close by, are regularly serviced by reliable public transport, and – chances are – reasonably close to where ‘junior’ plays weekend soccer, does ballet, or sees ‘Disney on Ice’.

Some have started to call this ‘centre’, a Transit Oriented Development. A ToD. But as fast as this has been introduced to us, most of us have rejected the term. There are lots more acronyms where they came from. PoDs are Pedestrian oriented development. GoDs are Green-oriented development. But we need to be careful that in tossing out the naff terms, we don’t toss the concept.

All of us want more authentic, vibrant neighbourhood centres with quality materials, landscaping and good design at their core. We can have them if we cluster housing and services around these ‘nodes’ in the city. While some may call this a ToD, most of us know this as just smart planning. So while it’s true, the 30 Year Plan is a high level strategic roadmap for where development will – and won’t – be focused, it’s only the first in a number of steps we need to take if we are to rebuild our traditional centres. And support small businesses like Tony’s.

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