Cities bloom from vibrant precincts
Driving regeneration at a precinct scale offers enormous benefits for cities but demands vision, curation, and a clear definition of ambition says Matt Johnson, Associate Director.
We often define our cities by their landmark buildings, but urban precincts and neighbourhoods play an equally important role in generating a distinctive sense of place. Well-planned and functioning precincts enable communities to gather, socialise, travel, live and work easily, helping to create the vibrancy that makes an urban quarter a great place to be.
By driving regeneration at the precinct scale and working beyond the boundaries of the single site or building, there is the potential for projects to deliver greater social, economic and environmental benefits, as public authorities and engaged communities are recognising.
A major building or infrastructure project is, therefore, increasingly seen as the enabler for transformation of a precinct, helping to reinvigorate its identity, set the tone for ensuing development and drive a range of temporary and permanent activations, from walking and cycle routes to public parks, cultural festivals and markets.
Increasing the scale and scope of regeneration activity in this way presents an opportunity to leave a significant legacy, but also brings complexities. Defining the boundaries of delivery, integrating new projects with existing districts to create a coherent single urban fabric, funding, ownership and custodianship are among the concerns that need to be addressed when working at a precinct scale. These sit alongside the practicalities of making interventions across such diverse areas as culture, leisure and the public realm.
We already have a model of how to make large-scale transformation happen, in the facilities and infrastructure delivered for the Olympic and Paralympic Games and other major events. Games development is an exercise in projecting where a city might be in a decade or even more, by bringing every facet of the city into alignment.
The Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Australia, which is now 11 years away, is setting out a fresh vision for its location that could influence the delivery of games facilities and the reshaping of urban precincts.
Making connections in Brisbane
While most games are based around a single city and the regeneration of a single precinct, Australia’s games will take place across Brisbane and the broader region of southeast Queensland. For example, the athletes are being housed in villages in Brisbane, on the Gold Coast more than 60km away and around 100km away on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. This approach will require exceptional cooperation by three tiers of government – federal, state and local council – to enable the transformation to cross authority boundaries.
In Brisbane and other event locations, existing assets are being deployed for the games. Infrastructure improvements in progress include the new Brisbane Metro, whose all-electric vehicles will operate along dedicated busways, and five green bridges spanning the Brisbane River to promote active travel.
While many of the buildings and infrastructure are already in place or planned, the games create an overlay for further urban interventions that can help connect the cities, places and spaces.
Curation for vibrancy
There are other opportunities to reshape the city. Some of the major infrastructure projects we are working on across Australia, including Sydney Metro and METRONET in Perth, are changing the nature of the precincts they pass through and unlocking parts of the city to development.
Whatever the catalyst for change, long-term curation is a key factor in successful precinct activations. The difference between developing a building and creating places where people want to be rather than need to be comes from the connections and aesthetics that make a precinct accessible and enticing.
In shaping a place, it is essential to understand the existing location and set out the ultimate ambition. Armed with this understanding, developers need to create and deliver a detailed programme of activations and construction works to bring vibrancy to spaces over the short and long term, with the multiple projects all being underpinned by good programme management.
One example of that activation can be seen in the government agency Economic Development Queensland‘s (EDQ) curation of the 304 hectare former dockland area of Northshore Hamilton, in Brisbane. The area’s regeneration has been in progress for 10 years and is set to continue to the 2032 Olympics when this will be home to one of the athletes’ villages.
EDQ has come up with a string of creative ways to attract people to the precinct, including Eat Street, a food and entertainment area made up of mobile food vans, container premises and other semi-permanent facilities. Eat Street has been relocated as the development has progressed to activate spaces ahead of the delivery of permanent built environment.
When working at a precinct scale there are particular challenges in reconciling commercial interests with the planning, delivery, tenure and ownership of public realm. Projects can also encounter cynicism among local stakeholders over whether such spaces will remain accessible to them over the longer term.
Public authorities, investors and developers all have an important part to play in working to generate an economically and socially sustainable outcome for a precinct. For example, the former need to understand the drivers for the private sector and to explain the opportunities to potential investors.
A lead authority may need to invest over time or seek balanced commercial outcomes, with pre-commitments generating a financial return to private sector investors to justify their investment in public realm and liminal spaces.
For their part, investors and developers need to adopt a mature approach to investment and recognise their responsibility to ‘pay it forward’ by committing to early activations, ‘meanwhile’ uses and public realm to shape a precinct that will be highly functional, engaging and vibrant.
By owning the success of the precinct, investors and developers have the potential to enhance their own property and its success.
For public authorities, the promotion of broader area regeneration enables property development to be complemented by infrastructure provision and ensure that no part of the precinct is left behind in efforts to deliver change.
Communities living and working in cities stand to benefit in numerous ways, being able to take advantage of new amenities as well as the social, cultural and environmental capital generated through the development of buildings and infrastructure. And the city itself will be equipped with the essential ingredients to help it thrive, socially, economically and environmentally.