29/08/2012 - 11:06

Growing pains accompany capital change

29/08/2012 - 11:06


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Some innovative thinking will be needed to alleviate the likely problems Perth will face as it grows.

Some innovative thinking will be needed to alleviate the likely problems Perth will face as it grows.

DOWN here at WA Business News we’ve long backed the need for Perth to freshen up its image.

The city needs to make itself more attractive to the types of people we need to ensure the resources boom is extended for as long as possible, and delivers lasting benefits.

Those people have the skills and capacity to increase the scale of operations in Western Australia. They’re the ones delivering the projects that will result in lasting economic benefits once the manic construction phase is over.

Before the GFC, many of those people had choices about where to work and live. Perth had to try much harder to attract them. These days the jobs market here has less competition from other places, but Perth still needs to ensure that the best economic migrants put down longer-term roots and stay after the rest of the world recovers its financial mojo.

Much has been done to achieve these aims.

Small bar licences and extended shopping hours are major developments in our city that other places in the world take for granted. Small bars, which came first, have taken a while to gain momentum because they were new and needed investment. Shopping deregulation, which arrived last weekend, is easier to implement because retailers have the infrastructure they needed – in the main they simply require more staff.

I had the pleasure at the weekend of having a night to explore the CBD and what it now has to offer. Having a young family has meant I haven’t done as much to sample the wares of the city for some time; then again, there wasn’t much to attract me to the city until recently.

Having acquired a night at a Perth hotel at a charity auction, it was a great chance to stay in the city (sans kids) and find out what it is like on a Saturday night.

There is clearly a big difference. Perth never will be Madrid; our city is not seething with people, noise and light. However, the once-vast echoing canyons of the commercial centre were no longer as empty and unwelcoming as they used to be.

The small bars we road tested – four in all – were spread about the city but close enough that none was an ‘orphan’. The oldest of these bars have attracted competition from even newer arrivals, but that has been a good thing. 

With a rise in activity the city feels much more accessible. 

The bars themselves offer a diverse range of options, which makes each of them interesting; there is much more sophistication than the old pubs of the past.

Only one was so busy as to have a queue (we moved on) while most were quiet enough to sit at the bar and quiz the staff.

None of the bars was cheap, but what they offered didn’t feel like a rip-off. This is Perth, after all; you expect to pay a price.

In some ways, this change in Perth is still in its infancy. It will take the long-awaited waterfront project, now called Elizabeth Quay, and the City Link development, to bring more substance to the CBD by creating a new entertainment district at the river and joining Northbridge to the city.

When those projects are completed, the small bars of Perth will offer convenient stepping-stones between them.

While I am on the record as being completely ambivalent about Sunday trading from a personal point of view, it is a step in the right direction for business in general. 

Shops opening on Sunday will provide a similar link between entertainment hubs during the day as small bars will do at night. 

All this is sensible, incremental change, no matter what critics of the projects or shopping deregulation say.

After all, Perth ranks highly as a liveable city, despite the metropolitan area’s dead heart at night and on weekends. The changes taking place will add to the attractions of Perth without inflicting unnecessary changes on the dormitory suburbs where most people reside and are not looking to see overly activated or populated.

According to a recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey, Melbourne was the most liveable city in the world and Perth was ninth, coming in behind both Sydney and Adelaide.

“Australian cities continue to thrive in terms of liveability – not only do they benefit from the natural advantages of low population density, but they have continued to improve with some high profile infrastructure investments,” the EIU said.

Perth already sits up in territory usually inhabited by cities like Vancouver and Vienna, so what is taking place is merely tweaking things. Importantly, liveability includes issues such as crime, which tend to be less prevalent in more sparsely populated places.

But those of us who have lived here for a long time know that Perth has other challenges to liveability, beyond livening up the CBD.

Traffic congestion is rising. On a small scale the pain to commuters caused by construction related to altering the CBD traffic patterns shows that people can get very tetchy about anything that affects their drive into work.

A bigger problem is likely to emerge from the permanent changes relating to the waterfront development.

Those hot-button issues tend to stand out when the much larger problem is traffic congestion across the city. Like a frog in water slowly being brought to the boil, we haven’t really noticed that the traffic in Perth has slowed considerably in the past five years, and peak hour has extended significantly.

Being stuck in traffic at 3pm is something that few of us would have contemplated before the mining boom accelerated our population growth. For those commuting from the furthest reaches of our metropolis, the journey to work – and not just into the CBD – is becoming increasingly daunting.

Many of the world’s cities trade-off liveability by condensing their population centres, allowing more high rise-style dwellings, which make public transport more efficient. Unfortunately, such density generally detracts from liveability for all but the very youthful.

I think we will find congestion is already starting to chip away at the liveability of Perth and will ultimately outweigh the positive changes that have just started to make the inner-city and other parts of Perth better.

I don’t have any answers to this rising problem. We are still far too sparsely populated to justify significant investment in public transport and high-rise developments are generally unwelcome outside the CBD.

I can only hope that innovative thinking such as the small bars licences and the persistence required to deregulate shopping can be found to solve the next issues that Perth faces as it grows.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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