OPINION: From little things, big things can grow

MASTERPLANS for the revitalisation of Newcastle have abounded for the past  20 years.

Over that time, the ‘‘artists’ impressions’’ for Hunter Street have shown notable differences in hairstyles, vehicle shape and reflective surfaces, but on the ground those shiny new buildings never did appear.

The most successful revitalisation process appears to have begun just a few years ago as Renew Newcastle. Not really a masterplan, but an idea that could become our second biggest export in the years to come. At its core is a very simple Newcastle idea – allow vacant retail space to be activated by creative, ambitious people.

The lack of resources to purchase change, as opposed to that often found for Sydney, has left Newcastle with a unique collection of buildings encapsulating its 200-year boom-bust economy. Some are greatly valued while others have faded – weeding them out, and occupying them to their greatest benefit appears obvious, if not necessary.

The most recent masterplan, released  this month as the Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy, outlines a plan to strengthen Newcastle city centre with 6000 new dwellings and 10,000 new jobs. While covering the rail line from Wickham to Newcastle will perhaps headline most discussions, predicting how some of the strategies might take built form is perhaps the most vague.

 The revitalised Newcastle is described as being active, vibrant and liveable, but how do you actually create or construct a place like this?

What form does it have, can you create it from nothing as a new large building might, or is it independent of built form all together?

The strategy suggests a permeable ‘‘fine grain’’ of frontages along Hunter Street will support ‘‘boutique retail’’ and its evolution into a vibrant and diverse main street shopping destination – enabling it to differentiate itself from the national retailers found in competing suburban shopping centres. 

However, the consolidation of smaller sites to form ‘‘development opportunities’’ actively works against diversity, street life and necessarily its fine grain. 

Since 1823, when Dangar established the street blocks of Newcastle, the original sites within have been slowly consolidated.

The larger buildings this process makes possible, can become ever more inwardly focused, effectively removing people from the street. Suburban shopping centres are often extreme versions of the site consolidation process, where all retail activity is inside, entirely removed the street.

Working with the Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy, and developing Renew Newcastle as an idea for a masterplan, how might the Newcastle centre be revitalised? Planning would begin by visualising the renewal process, not relying on the visual dreaming of the artists’ impressions. 

The strategy calls for ‘‘less permanent measures’’ to initiate the ‘‘reshaping’’ required – the unoccupied street-facing spaces within Dangar’s street blocks should have their potential unlocked through active experimentation and with temporary structures. These sometimes-small changes can have a much larger effect.

Some experimentation will have historic precedence, such as the inhabitation of available space on the outside of existing buildings. At the turn of the 20th century, most buildings along Hunter Street had privately-owned decks and enclosed rooms above the footpaths, in some cases several storeys high.

This not only protected the pedestrian space from the sun and rain, but provided a sense of enclosure and ‘‘eyes’’, making it a more compelling place to be.

Large buildings that have lost financial relevance should be modified with smaller, perhaps radical change, not demolished behind an historicist facade. 

If the rail line goes, it makes no sense to retain the land as a transport corridor while it runs alongside Hunter and Scott streets.

With significant open space already along the harbour’s edge, the rail land must too become occupied, but not as a single vision or building.

It becomes an opportunity for fine grain development, small sites separately owned by many people, gradually developed for retail at ground level, residential above, four-storey limit. When Dangar laid out the street blocks of Newcastle, the harbour’s edge was around 100metres closer than it is today. The city should claim back that land.

Dangar’s plan could extend to frame new street blocks – this northern edge of the city being strengthened by the harbour and open space. 

If removing the rail line creates a significant opportunity, its capital needs to be invested back into the city, and when the artist’s impression looks like it might be anywhere and everywhere, we should look more closely at what we already have, and start filling in the gaps.

Chris Tucker is the Master of Architecture program convener, School of Architecture and Built Environment, at the University of Newcastle

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