The suburban mega mall trend can be a blessing in disguise for city centres. I have had the dubious privilege of spending most of my life in a city that long ago saw shopping stolen from the city, by malls in the burbs. The original town centre of Newcastle (where Jan Gehl and his reindeer are heading next week) is on a peninsular. Because of the sea on one side, the suburbs could only spread to the west, taking the epicentre westward as well.
People in Newcastle have been accustomed to boarded up shops in the city since the late eighties, when their suburban malls grew into monsters with ample parking.
But if we look on the bright side, there were fewer retailers left in the city to lobby for more and more parking. Sites that in other cities would have been tarred and painted with as many white rectangles as parking guidelines allow, were left totally vacant or, better still, developed with inner city apartments.
Even with the stupidest leaders put on god’s earth, Newcastle city centre has somehow come out having lots of residences, and a relatively healthy throttle on car access and parking—compared to other regional Australian cities. The city can thank the shop keepers for taking their plebeian customers, and all their cars, to the suburbs, leaving the city centre for the yuppies who have since made it their home. You only need to look up the socio-educational profile of Newcastle East Public School on the My School website, to see what I mean: two thirds of all parents with degrees and high incomes.
These days Hunter Street Mall has a higher concentration of arty enterprises than you will find on a similar length stretch of the Mission District in San Francisco. A shoestring budget organisation called Renew Newcastle, has convinced the owner of most of the empty shop space to lease it to artists for a dollar a day. Even if most of those artists are just putting on birds on crap made in China, their net effect is a vibrancy for cafes and hangouts to feed on. While it is not Copenhagen, neither has every last tree been cut down to make an extra handful of car parking spaces, as I’m seeing in Launceston. Now I am living in regional Australia. Jan Gehl’s report on Launceston gathers dust in a vault. Whatever he prescribes for Newcastle city centre, will have fewer shop keepers objecting. If you are shop keeper reading this blog post, can I suggest you write and tell Stocklands or Westfield you want to rent space in the suburbs.