18/02/2010 - 00:00

Conservatism stifles waterfront evolution

18/02/2010 - 00:00


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Failure to seriously advance plans for development of the Perth foreshore is not an option.

THERE can be no denying that Perth is a beautiful and desirable place to live. But, is it a vibrant, dynamic and cosmopolitan city? Can it be viewed as a ‘real’ capital city?

Like all cities, Perth is constantly evolving and changing in terms of its physical, social, economic and environmental form. It just seems that our evolution is a bit more pedestrian than other Australian and international cities.

Moreover, the pedestrian evolution of Perth seems to be rooted in a strong underlying social and politcal conservatism that prevents urban planners – public and private alike – and developers from taking risks and pushing the boundaries of creating more dynamic, vibrant and off-the-wall inner-urban environments and thus experiences.

This underlying conservatism is particularly acute whenever attention turns to the question of what (if anything) should been done to the Perth waterfront.

Property developers are often the first to lambast planners for being overly bureaucratic, harboring anti-free market attitudes and thus preventing developers from creating jobs, adding value to the economy and the urban landscape and, ultimately, making a profit.

Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, property developer Luke Saraceni has mooted that he might take legal action if plans for the Perth waterfront are approved.

This threat of legal action is based on the claim that the proposed building heights would interrupt the views and reduce the value of a project – a luxury 40-storey apartment complex – Mr Saraceni’s company has plans to develop.

The protestations of those opposed to the plans to redevelop the Perth waterfront raises a simple question: Should the waterfront be developed in the first place? The answer is an unequivocal yes in my view.

Why? There are several primary reasons. First, we humans have a natural love affair with water. Just look at how far residential development has stretched along the coastline of metropolitan Perth and how the suburbs have snaked along the Swan River since settlement.

Hence, not to develop the waterfront would be to effectively deny the existence of the Swan River and deny citizens and visitors to central Perth the opportunity to embrace, interact with and celebrate its very existence as a resource that emits social, economic and enviromental benefits all at once.

Next, and most obvious, there is significant economic potential to be derived from developing the waterfront in terms of planning and construction jobs and a whole host of other forms of employment in, for example, the service, hospitality, arts, tourism, education and government sectors once the proposed redevelopment is complete.

The Perth CBD needs to be more than a hotchpotch of shopping and office complexes. This is not to demean these activities; the city centre needs to offer all manner of experiences for all sorts of people at different times of the day and night.

There appear to be some moves in this direction with the City of Perth’s director of planning, Peter Monks, recently calling for some fresh thinking on how to redesign and reactivate a dozen sites scattered throughout the city.

Third, a failure to develop the waterfront will mean that Perth will continue to remain the ‘odd-city-out’ in regards to its relationship with its waterfront.

Looking around Australia first, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne have arguably led the way in transforming their waterfronts and adding to the vitality and vibrancy of their cities. Even Darwin and Adelaide – those other so-called ‘country towns’ – have embraced waterfront redevelopment.

Further afield, planners, governments and developers in cities such as Belfast (Northern Ireland), Baltimore (US), Barcelona (Spain), Cardiff (Wales), London Docklands and Thames Gateway (England), and Toronto and Vancouver (Canada) have all recognised the need to (re)activate their waterfronts in order to ensure that these cities continue to evolve.

Evolution is important to ensure that cities remain competitive in an ever increasingly globalised world where capital and humans are becoming more and more footloose.

What then should be done to the Perth waterfront? In 2008 the then Labor government’s proposals for the Perth waterfront were dubbed ‘Dubai on Swan’ on account of the perceived over-the-top concept plan and design and scale of buildings.

Personally, I rather liked the overall design but was not convinced that the actual designs and proposals presented would stack up economically.

Also, I don’t think that these proposals were ever actually planned to be built. Rather, I think the planners and government’s strategy was to shock us out of our conservative urban slumber with such aesthetically challenging imagery.

‘Dubai on Swan’ certainly provoked quite a lot of debate, especially within urban planning and design circles in Perth where the traditionalists and conservatives would no doubt claim some kind of victory in the general and specific proposals being abandoned.

The ‘GFC’ and the fact that we were in election mode in 2008 were arguably also major contributory factors in the ultimate demise of Labor’s waterfront plans.

It would be foolhardy for the conservatives to think that they were responsible for things coming to an end.

The recent announcement by Premier Colin Barnett and Planning Minister John Day that the current state Liberal government is committed to seeing the waterfront developed may be viewed as a pragmatic turn in planning policy.

It may also be viewed as a signal that the Liberals are now squarely in election mode. Have you noticed that the premier has made a number of other important policy announcements – the Pilbara, The Northbridge Link and Subiaco Oval – in the past few months?

So what of ‘Pragmatism on Swan’? It seems clear that the Liberals are really serious about developing the waterfront. The overall concept plans and designs are clearly less flamboyant than the last plan.

It would seem that the detailed design of buildings in particular have been omitted – and rightly so – in an effort to ensure that the general concept plans are more palatable to the tastebuds of Perth’s conservative planners, designers and public thus enhancing the chances of development actually commencing.

Ultimately, the concept plan will, like the city itself, evolve over time to reflect future tastes and preferences.

The new proposals seem to blend spatial design elements of Darling Harbour/Circular Quay, Battery Park/Ellis Island and Baltimore’s Inner Harbour. The proposal to include a National Centre of Indigenous Culture is an innovative one and deserves being fully pursued.

If built, it will mark a positive step in developing self-identity and reliance among WA-based indigenous groups as well as understanding and reconciliation among indigenous and non-indigenous communities.

The waterfront proposals also offer the opportunity to create a unique space and set of buildings that symbolises and celebrates democracy and civic life. That is, the state government should commit to the waterfront redevelopment by establishing its administrative headquarters within the confines of the redevelopment area.

This proposed civic complex should be built on the Barrack Street side of the redevelopment area adjacent to the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Gardens, and the the City of Perth offices, thus creating a wonderful civic precinct linking the natural evironment of the Swan River and the economic enviroment of St Georges Terrace.

The time is ripe for Perth to show the other Australian capital cities, and the world for that matter, that as well as being the economic powerhouse of Australia we are a progressive and dynamic city.

The new plans for the Perth waterfront may be viewed as a capstone development, along with a host of other projects currently in the offing – Northbridge Link, and Perth Cultural Centre – that are set to change the face and experience of Perth.

It is time to shrug off our conservative attitudes and country town sensibilities and accept the fact that to be recognised as a ‘real’ capital city we need to quicken our urban evolution by having a planning and development revolution.

So let’s not waste another 25-30 years arguing about what we shouldn’t be doing to the foreshore. We need to recognise that it’s impossible to please all the people all of the time and just get on with the job.

This will help attract future investment and migrants and ensure that Perth becomes a cosmopolitan, multicultural and globally networked city and at least retains its high ranking position in international urban league tables.

n Paul Maginn is associate professor, urban/regional planning at UWA and a researcher on the Committee for Perth’s FACTBase Project.



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