There is some brilliant work being delivered within the public realm by local governments across Australia.
Unfortunately there are also many instances where despite all the good intentions from the councilors involved, the end results are more about what the designers favoured rather than being something that provides the local community with a sense of place and ownership.
As local governments deal with the ongoing decisions of when and how to upgrade their city’s public places, someone within the government will eventually be confronted with the question of where to seek advice and which consultants should lead the projects.
Recently I visited Wollongong and came across public notices that indicate that the local council is taking steps to put in place some well-considered planning for the future of public places in and around Wollongong’s CBD.
I have been a frequent visitor to the city and have my own history with the place, having been born and raised there. This city has always had some fabulous public assets.
The whole beachfront is to be envied and has already benefitted from some creative and intelligent landscape design projects. The main street mall used to be dominated by design work from earlier decades and it was timely to think about upgrades. Curiously these have been replaced by functional designed spaces that favour the staging of events, but for the rest of the time they are bland and even quite boring – and would by itself attract very few people to spend any time in the open spaces. However this may change for the better if those trees grow and provide heaps of shade.
One of the tragedies has been the modernizing of the railway station and the surrounding spaces. While the rail authority has upgraded with functionally new paths and a pedestrian bridge, it has delivered a characterless cladding to what was once a historic building. The original attractive design work can still be seen from inside on the platforms. As for the spaces outside the entrance that are supposed to welcome visitors, yet again it if functional but the areas are as devoid of any form of attraction. They are very alien when there are few people around.
The top of the main street, Crown Street (from Keira St to the railway bridge) is the ‘downtown’ part of the CBD with a dominance of ‘dollar’ shops and very little to attract people or new businesses to the area.
To the south side of the CBD is the very popular open space parkland, McCabe Park. While there are the expected amenities of seats, shade, trees, gardens and play areas, it biggest asset is the open space grass lands that have somehow survived the usual keenness by designers to install all manner of architectural features.
‘A City for People’ – the opportunities
I have mentioned these precincts, as these are the subjects of a report to do with major planning being undertaken under the title – Wollongong: A city for people.
I have read the posters around town and have also sat down and made my way through the volumes available online. There’s also an online survey to be undertaken. Sadly I suspect this survey and the other online forums may not attract too many. Unfortunately too much money was spent on the graphics for the online material and little thought to ensure they were appealing, accessible, and that they would function well (they’re clunky).
Most of the design work in the available documentation has been overused elsewhere and it was a shame that whoever was responsible did not apply some originality and make it more relevant – especially given the complex mix of cultures within the Wollongong communities.
I noted that the whole project at this stage is being led by consultants that include Gehl Architects (Copenhagen). Gehl Architects have appeared all over Australia doing similar advisory work. I was not able to find much evidence that their work here delivered much of a connection to the amazing diverse communities that make up the population of Wollongong.
My reactions to the Wollongong: A city for people documentation were mixed. While the report is useful – I have read many similar reports saying much the same – there was nothing new – it contains a standard set of illustrations – the suggestions were obvious and generic – and it provided a platform for the future projects. I have to acknowledge that my reactions are being influenced by the fact that I have seen bucket loads of such reports over the past decades.
Having said all that, it must be said that all local governments need to look outside their jurisdictions to see what has worked or not delivered successfully elsewhere. As the Wollongong City Council has done that, they are to be congratulated for their initiatives so far.
There will most likely now be a lot of direct and indirect pressure through sections of the council workforce for the projects to be led by particular styles of consultants to deliver well-established contemporary design outcomes. Council officials may now find themselves invited out to lunch often – it is the way of these things across Australia – and here in Canberra.
Invest locally and reap the benefits
The big point to be made here is that this next stage presents the council with a golden opportunity. From my observations few other local councils take the time to consider the obvious alternatives to what they are now recommended as to being the way to proceed.
Normally the next stage is that local governments receive recommendations from their staff to bring in outside ‘star’ consultants to deliver such projects. However I would like to suggest an alterative approach.
I am a firm believer in building the capacity of the talent within the local area for such landscape and open space projects. This approach is about taking the opportunity to invest in and to build on local talent. It is not about relying on the well established national and international groups of well-known consultants. By all means pick their brains – as has been done – but beyond that it should be a chance to build up the local practices and the local talent for the longer term.
By investment I mean spend some money on some local consultants and get them to undertake in-depth research and development on the options for these open space developments and enhancements. Pay them to research what others are doing and ask them to come up with some Wollongong relevant innovative concepts.
The worst outcome could be that through the use of such outside consultants, the wonderful open spaces around Wollongong could be turned into archi-parks and over designed faux heritage places. These debates are happening elsewhere – and in many cases the communities involved are losing out to unwanted designs that end up dominating their much-loved spaces. It was Paul Keating who used the term ‘archi-parks’ in his efforts to stop Barangaroo being over-designed by a certain architectural club within Sydney.
Wollongong is a wonderful place to visit – and I may even consider moving back there one day. The city centre and foreshores have aspects and amenities that other local governments must envy. There are many things to be done in the short-term and the longer term to enhance the city centre and beachfront.
Many local governments are dealing with similar issues and are having similar consultations with their electorates.
What is most important for Wollongong is that it comes up with design solutions that have relevance to the many local diverse communities as well as provide that unique difference that will continue to attract tourists – such as myself.
Part of the success of these projects should be that local talent is being used and is being invested in so that they will be better placed to deliver and influence future stages of such public open space projects.
The Elephant in the Room
There was one significant matter not addressed in the report I read. The CBD is dominated by a mall – Crown Central.
Wollongong, like many other places, has a major problem with its central shopping area. Where it was once a set of open spaces and shopping streets, it is now dominated by a big box shopping mall – Crown Central.
This has expanded over time resulting in the concentration of shops within the boxed mall at the expense of the open spaces along the main street, being Crown Street in Wollongong.
Despite efforts to enliven the street with markets etc, the dominance of the mall continues to drain life away from the street.
The issue, not being unique to Wollongong, remains unresolved.
The question remains – having encouraged the location and subsequent growth of the box mall right in the centre of the CBD, what hope is there to attract any substantial number of business and shoppers out in the now non competitive spaces along Crown Street?
The lower parts of Crown street continue to function given they attract small shop owners and the restaurant/cafe trade both day and night. But as for the street spaces closer to the big box mall, they remain quiet – used mainly by shoppers to travel through to the mall where they spend their money.
I have not observed any local government that has successfully dealt with this issue.
I strongly suggest again that Wollongong needs to confront this matter through research. One option would be to offer a tender to someone independent of their local business groups – an academic or consultant – to conduct international/national research into how a local government could reinvigorate their high street shopping areas while not threatening or competing directly with their central big box shopping mall.
A short photo-essay
The beach fronts along Wollongong are to die for!!! no matter what the weather.
One of my pet grievances is that most councils provide joint paths for cyclists and pedestrians – at great danger to both. I was pleased to see this separation along the park behind South Beach.
The parklands around the beaches are magnificent – and the council is to be congratulated for keeping them in such great condition. I hope they never allow any architectural designers to mess with them and turn them into archi-parks.
The council has invested very wisely over recent years in upgrading the walkways and areas along the beach fronts.
One gripe! The cafe above is very popular for their fish and other good salads etc – BUT – the fish is very ordinary. I am still looking for a good local take-away fish shop that serves fresh local fish.
Wollongong has a wonderful sense of humour – as witnessed by this building. If you have not worked it out – the back of the building is plain – and has been enhanced with a trompe l’oeil mural to make it look like the town hall. It is all fake! Wonderful!
The arts precinct includes this open space – and while I suspect it is quiet a lot of the time, I know it is busy when events are on. It’s a great open space – again I hope it does not get the archi-park make-over as suggested in the report.
The Wollongong City Gallery has come a long way in recent years – it is one of the more successful local government city galleries. Its program is a comprehensive one with good representation of local arts, local heritage alongside a quality contemporary collection. Definitely worth a visit.
The central part of Crown Street – not a thrilling place to visit.
The mall is extensive and has been added to recently. It is very popular and is always busy inside while the streets outside are largely vacant or used as thoroughfares to and from the mall.
Above – Crown Street today – the space gets busy on Friday with markets – but the rest of the time it is largely quiet. The photograph below is from previous years when there was a fountain in the middle.
The brick fountain and associated structures had aged and it was probably timely for it to be replaced – but – the former looked much better than the new version which is bland and unwelcoming. Plus I happen to like bricks rather than the universal characterless grey paving.
The western or top part of Crown Street is typical of so many high streets that cannot survive given the pull of the nearby mall (big box). It is a struggle for any business here and tends to attract the cheap dollar shops.
The photo below is sad for me – as that building with the (now defunct) clock tower was once a thriving department store – and was the place, when I was a teenager, where I got my first job as a shop assistant during school holidays.
McCabe Park is another cherished spot in the CBD – a park with lots of open spaces for people. Again – I hope they do not mess it up.
Wollongong railway station was great country station. It has had the engineer work-over and now has dominance of metal and glass structures. The path leading down to it is narrow and not friendly, being an enclosed space. For some people this would be seen as a hidden and restricted space that would be threatening.
But once on the platform – you can see what a great building it once was. I have memories of catching trains here!
and below – there’s this huge alien space outside to greet travellers. This is a problem. A design solution is urgently required!
These two photos are of the posters about the consultations. I hope people are noticing them, but I fear not. I had breakfast near the top one and no-one stopped to look at the poster during that time. When I was photography the ones near the harbour, one person observed me and then stopped to see what I was looking at.
and have I told you? – the beach fronts are always beautiful!
Having looked through my photographs (many more than here) – I think I need to visit Wollongong again – sooonish!