My first visit to Newcastle was a pleasant surprise. Instead of seeing a city of industrial decline, I saw one that is booming with potential and opportunity. The population is growing, the economy is diversifying, jobs are increasing. The local resources industry continues to provide a steady job market, light rail is coming, universities are expanding and moving into the CBD.
Transport is also experiencing a renaissance. The all-important port is modernising and preparing for cruise liners, and the airport is acquiring the facilities to attract more international travellers. Compared with Sydney, houses are relatively affordable, and the wine, surf, and tourism industries are all enjoying robust demand.
As the metro area embarks upon a new 20-year strategic plan it has already completed an important first cycle of metropolitan redevelopment, with big projects and infrastructure on the way, and is into a second cycle where strategic planning is imperative. There is no problem as far as I can see, but like every growing city there are challenges.
How to ensure good growth, so that housing, infrastructure, and services can meet the needs of a larger population? How to transition to a diverse economy that has sectors like tourism, higher education, health, food and wine, and earth and life sciences, with the support of a vibrant urban core and a strong CBD? How to build the identity and reputation of Greater Newcastle so that it attracts investment and talent, and wins the case for public investment against cities that are larger and have been more influential?
International experience suggests that the Greater Newcastle Metro can best craft its future with a clear shared strategic plan. The metropolitan area has several municipalities and they need to forge a common vision, finding strength in each other instead of competition.
The NSW and Federal governments are offering investment rich ‘city deals’ to metropolitan areas that are well organised, understand their priorities, have a clear path to a productive future, and know what they want. They need a clear ‘ask’.
Greater Newcastle has the opportunity to do in 15 years the development effort that in other places has taken 30. Across the world there are numerous examples of metropolitan cities with a population between half a million and one million that have used robust development tools and fostered a new kind of joint leadership in planning.
For example, the Basque City of Bilbao used a strategic plan to revitalise its centre with a new metro rail system and a major expansion in its arts, education, tourism, and cultural economy through the catalytic Guggenheim Museum. In Turin, Italy, a strategic plan was used to recover from the declining automobile industries by creating transport systems, relocating universities into the city centre, hosting the winter Olympics and building a visitor economy.
A strategic plan must focus on integration – it needs the government, councils, businesses and community to work together. A cohesive approach will help this great city reach the third cycle of metropolitan development and become a competitive player in the international arena, not just a regional centre of NSW.