FOR residents, business owners and visitors alike, the future of inner city Newcastle is a lightning rod. It attracts and absorbs all sorts of ambitions and criticism.
The inner city is too loud and unruly for some. For others it’s too quiet, lacking vitality. Depending on your view, the rail line is an economic and aesthetic wound or a valuable piece of infrastructure.
The strength of personal, community and commercial attachment to the inner city is significant. It’s heartening that people care enough to be passionate about their city.
With the release of the state government’s urban renewal strategy for Newcastle, groups have sprung into action, sensing their moment has arrived.
One such group is Newcastle NOW, a not-for-profit association funded in part through a levy on inner city commercial properties. They advocate on behalf of their members – commercial property owners and tenants – and deliver programs such as streetscape improvements and the provision of financial support for markets, festivals and other events.
A couple of weeks ago Newcastle NOW hosted a forum that discussed the future of the inner city. The ideas of one of the key speakers, Danish urban designer Jan Gehl, attracted much attention.
Gehl advocates ‘‘people-focused’’ planning and design creating walkable, attractive and lively environments. He achieved notoriety for work in Copenhagen and is now a fixture on the international consultancy circuit.
At Newcastle NOW’s A City for People forum, the organisation announced its intention to hire Gehl to prepare urban renewal options for the inner city.
Assessing his previous work, Gehl is likely to propose initiatives that many Novocastrians would support. His international standing will mean his ideas are taken seriously.
What has been largely overlooked, however, is the significance of an association like Newcastle NOW in steering the conversation about Newcastle’s urban renewal.
The Newcastle NOW concept is based on a business improvement district model widespread in the United States and Britain.
While extra levies are not generally welcomed by business and property owners, they seem happy to contribute in this case.
Business improvement districts have admirable qualities – they empower local businesses to get involved in urban renewal, they provide important services and, as a lobby, they can focus political attention on inner-city issues.
But they have their drawbacks. International research has shown that business improvement districts have a tendency to increase the power of the business voice, drowning out other equally important voices, particularly those of ordinary citizens.
Sometimes, of course, the interests of businesses and citizens match up, but other times they don’t.
The power of business improvement districts like Newcastle NOW to advance the interests of business has led some to complain of a ‘‘democratic deficit’’ if traditional chains of community representation and accountability become sidelined.
So while Newcastle NOW should be congratulated for their ambitions and efforts for the inner city, we should not lose sight of the particular perspective they might promote, given their connection to commercial property owners and tenants.
If ‘‘a city for people’’ is the goal of urban renewal efforts, we should be clear-eyed in recognising which people future renewal efforts will serve. We need to empower the full range of people and groups who have a stake in the inner city.
A city for people accommodates many voices and deserves no less.
Tom Baker is a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, researching Australian urban development and policy.