CREATING VIBRANT TOWN CENTERS AND MAIN STREETS: Part 2

Photo credit: News Corp Australia

Part 2 – Action

Over the last few years, Western Australia’s (WA) main streets and town centres have suffered from economic downturns, capital works, investments in out-of-town precincts and outer suburbs developments. However, main streets and town centres play a big role in the social and economic development of places and in the lives of people who live there. WA needs to reconsider the role and function of its main streets and town centres in the way they shape and support the quality of life for the community. 

Main streets and town centres should reflect the character and persona of its residents, businesses and organisations; and be inviting to visitors and the wider community through a diverse and unique offering. They need to be re-envisioned as activity-based communities where people can gather and service their needs to support their communities wellbeing into the future.

This report is delivered in two parts using a combination of literature and observations to examine the perceived issues (Part 1) and possible actions (Part 2). The report is not intended to be comprehensive, and there will likely be much more that can be said on the topic. It also does not discuss the interventions that governments and communities have already supported, such as extended retail hours, alcohol licensing, community events and the town team movement that has already built substantial community vibrancy.

The following offers a list of potential action areas to support the development of vibrant town centres and main streets.

ACTION

1. Defining a sense of place and good growth

Town centres and main streets need to be curated and their regeneration planned in accordance with the broad principles and values that reflect the community’s sense of place, future aspirations and needs in an inclusive and sustainable way. This is good growth and it must include future-proofing and provide the necessary public facilities and services (for example technology, health and education facilities and public space) to support the functionality, connectivity and sustainability of a community into the future.

In addition, good growth must be shaped by a community’s local narrative. Narratives can be constructed from an examination of a community’s attachment (perception, attitudes, and values) to a place. This includes the community’s identity and belonging, social factors, relationship to the environment, sense of opportunity, function within the local catchment and how they want to be perceived by the rest of the world. 

2. Planning for the future

Technology is penetrating daily life more and more, reshaping the way people live. Planners must also recognise the impact that technology is having on town centres in areas such as retail, work, leisure, hospitality, health, social care, services and residential links (Rozek & Giles-Corti, 2017). Planners will only succeed if they understand, incorporate and plan for technology innovations in their work. This includes: 

  • the retail sector, the way customers purchase and business promote their products;
  • locational flexibility, office activities are now able to take place in a range of location such as at home and cafes;
  • a variety of travel substitutions, including video conferencing, rideshare, electronic bikes and electric cars;
  • restructure of organisations, away from corporate hierarchies to collaborations, co-working, and multi-use space and products; 
  • efficiency improvements, including smart city infrastructure such as GPS, real-time traffic updates, smart bins and watering system; 
  • community engagement, new platforms such as mobile technology to exploring solutions to urban issues and seek community involvement; and 
  • data-driven planning system, making proposals more transparent and outcomes more certain for all parties involved (Krakenbuerger, 2020; Rodrigue, Comtois & Slack, 2017).

3. Policy and rates

In order to deal with the many challenges faced by town centre and main streets, such as the expansion of online shopping and out of town developments, policies should be used to help achieve social, environmental and economic objectives. For example, town centre focused initiatives may include:

  • Incentivising investment in property: encourage businesses to invest in their property to support regeneration;
  • Buy local strategy: local procurement regulations, guides and campaigns;
  • Town centre first policy: to encourage development in the town centre over out-of-town developments;
  • Use class and permitted development rights: greater flexibility and support to change use classes to support business development, use and  innovation;
  • Parking: review parking restrictions to understand where traffic and consumption may flow to, what alternative travel is in place; and
  • local markets: support for new market traders starting up businesses and better promotion of local markets (Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, 2019).

4. Engagement

Planning and large-scale structural change requires local engagement to create visionary strategies and empower change. Wide community consultation and collaboration is essential to high street and town centre regeneration and will require broad investment and effort.

Lots of different stakeholders all have a vested interest and therefore engagement should include a cross-segment of government, private sector, community organisations, service providers and residents. Local authorities should support frequent open dialogue to identify emerging issues before they become crises, resolve local businesses before businesses close or relocate, and to identify creative and strategic opportunities. Local community development networks and support organisations should be involved in identifying community stakeholders, their particular interests and needs and how best to engage with them (Community Places, 2014).  

5. Appropriate powers

To enable the community’s vision and support revitalisation, some places will need to activate large-scale structural change led by the local authority. Local authorities will need to understand their functional areas but also have the power to drive the vision. This may include: 

  • planning and compulsory purchase to support new housing, workspaces and public realm; 
  • investment in physical and digital infrastructure; 
  • improvements to transport access and  traffic flow; 
  • support business change of use and 
  • housing densification (Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, 2019).

Local authorities must also consider their other levers such as policy, regulation and rates to promote regeneration and economic growth.

6. Density creates intensity

Over the last 15 years, most metropolitan governments have been on an infill agenda, however,  it is high-density that really makes main streets buzz. High density enables more affordable living, social equality, reduced commutes and improved health and environmental outcomes (HODYL, 2019). Density is achieved through a combination of well-designed mid-rise apartments (roughly six storeys) that are close to shops, services, public transport and places of employment. High density also requires the community to reconsider the role of the car and governments to understand what a functional and sustainable urban lifestyle requires (Croeser & Gunn, 2020).

7. Activity centres

While governments can plan for density, it also has to be likeable. Town centres and main streets play an important role in servicing the neighbourhoods that surround them, making them liveable and lively. Activity centres offer a mix of experience and offerings within short reach such as jobs, services, retail, food, recreational opportunities and nature. They range in size, from local neighbourhood shopping strips to centres that include universities and shopping centres (DELWP,2020).  

Activity centres support the “decentralisation of jobs, encourage better integration of transport and land use and ultimately aid the evaluation of a more compact, consolidation and connected” places (Moniruzzaman, Olaru, Biermann, 2017).  Thus, they require strong public transport connections that seek to develop the centre as a transport node. Governments should also look to identify or develop a community anchor or hub within main streets and town centres to centralise activity. To do this local governments may need to assess who is in their community, what their community requires and when, what the experience is like and how easy it is to access. 

8. Healthy and Green 

Communities work best when they support walking over driving and offer green spaces that are well designed, creatively delivered, accessible to all.  They become healthier communities through increased exercise, less pollution, climate cooling, and increased mental health outcomes. Bigger places may want to consider the concept of the 20-minute centre which suggests that all journeys (public, private, shared or active) in a catchment are completed in less than 20 minutes (Hansen & Stanley, 2020).

9. Supporting local business

Many local authorities are active in supporting their businesses as part of promoting local economic growth (LED). LED programs are designed to enhance and support retail and further a place’s long-term vision for the town centre and develop partnerships with local businesses. local authorities can do this by convening business groups or working with existing groups to consult in their strategic planning, seek input on initiatives and support and partnership to implement. Specific initiatives may include grants and business rates discounts for new or expanding businesses; business networking and forums; pop-ups to activate vacant space within the town centre; joint promotion and events; business mentoring; start-up capital, co-working, and advice; and support to promote digital entrepreneurship and develop e-business services (PWC, 2016). 

10. Landlords

Landlords are an important part of a town centre key stakeholders. Local authorities need to provide frequent information and host transparent conversations with landlords to help them to support landlords to understand local development goals, market trends and support them to take an active role in engaging with their tenants. Local authorities can also support landlords through regeneration incentives such as relief on capital developments and business/land rates; or supported to offer flexible tenancies, redevelopment and reconfiguring of property, and mixed-use applications. 

11. Capital & revitalisation works

At some point, all places will require capital works and revitalisation. Both of which can have a massive impact on both the financial and mental health of local businesses. To ensure limited negative effects on businesses, a strategic, consultative and empathetic process is required. For example:

  • Planning – different levels of government need to contribute to the planning and development of capital upgrades to identify if multiple works can occur at the same time. In addition, works should be scheduled for the ‘off-season’ and ensure access for customers when work is underway.
  • Communication – is central both before and during periods of works. Governments should develop multi-stakeholder communication plans that inform businesses, landlords, customers and residents. Key messages and consultation points should include the program of works and impact, the anticipated positive impact, promotion opportunities, information to the local community that shops are still trading, and key messages for landlords. Communication should occur, through project newsletters, emails, website information, apps and face-to-face.
  • Incentivising and mitigations – Develop local incentives to support businesses to make the most of the situation or to support ongoing business. Activities may include supporting businesses to shift and promote business on online platforms, collaborate to develop promotion opportunities, apply for pop-ups in non affected parts of town or at markets, and negotiate line of credit and payment schedule with suppliers and landlords. While governments can help to provide signage, grants to businesses to support remodel/refurbish during the construction period, and encourage people to continue to visit the area such as temporary markets, information booths murals or artwork display, specials for construction workers and customers and kids activities.

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