VISION | Place Management in Chermside

Posted on 02/09/2011

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I am presently working on an assignment for my place management subject for which I am outlining a place management strategy for Chermside, which is one of the major activity centres in Brisbane. Anchored by a major shopping centre, the local area has undergone and is undergoing significant change. The State Government’s South East Queensland Regional Plan (SEQRP) affirms a hierarchy of regional activity centres and specialist centres as loci for compact/smart growth and integrated land use and transport. I was told recently, by a planner, that place management isn’t appropriate in a centre like Chermside because it is not a traditional town centre. Why does it always seem that planners are issuing those kinds of edicts? ‘Planner says no.’

Chermside, located about 10km from the Brisbane CBD, is one of those centres. Consequently, it will exert citywide and regional significance as a residential and employment centre. With record growth in the last decade, it is the fastest growing centre in the northern suburbs and it is anticipated that the centre will develop as a ‘mini-CBD’. This growth manifests as high rise apartments, hotels, commercial buildings and the extension of the shopping complex. The centre will support 55,000 jobs and 32,000 residents by 2031 and is the focus of planning activity under the SEQRP and Brisbane City Council’s Neighbourhood Planning. The Draft Chermside Centre Neighbourhood Plan focuses on: changing development rules, including zoning, to accommodate growth; enhancing existing infrastructure; promoting high quality public transport; catering for the needs of local residents and businesses; providing a range of housing options for people with different needs; and encouraging continued economic growth in the area.

While the Neighbourhood Planning process is a community engaged process, it is not commensurate with place management which recognises that new development requires change management and outcomes orientation. The above priorities were articulated in the Neighbourhood Plan as physical change rather than in social, economic, cultural and environmental terms.

Yesterday, I walked through the area to take some photographs and get a better feel for the place, especially the distinctions between land uses (and there are several large, poorly integrated land uses in the area), residential types, mobility modes, and the distinction between old and new. Ideally, there would be widespread consultation for a place management project of this scale, but I don’t have that capacity for my assignment. I’ve already done a preliminary report on the area, drawing on the Council’s Neighbour Planning process for the Chermside Centre and drafted an alternate vision. A place management strategy is concerned with more than planning and physical form and I am now thinking about these issues, particularly in terms of encouraging greater pedestrian movements of people through the various precincts. Place management can get  a bad wrap as vehicle of neo-liberalism and managerialism. However, even though I am mindful of those issues and critiques, I don’t have to engage them here. Chermside, like so many other parts of Brisbane, faces the same problems that plague most suburban areas, particularly car domination and disconnection.

Today I read a comment from demographer Bernard Salt who said that Australia’s CBDs and the urban fringe are currently undergoing transformation to create new kinds of work/lifestyle hubs. This process will be replicated in the regional centres, such as Chermside, indicating that such areas can no longer act as service centres for sleeper suburbs but must develop vibrant local economies and communities. Urban strategist Jeb Brugmann advocates for better urban strategy – outlining a next practice urbanism – “precisely because so many of the world’s problems now arise from the poor design, weak governance, and mismanagement of cities, it is imperative that we learn how to transform our cities into centers of the world’s solutions”. This is a challenge that involves every part of the city: “urban strategy also addresses the larger question of how to develop the City into a more stable system, politically, economically, and ecologically; and how that system can increase equity, inclusiveness, sustainability, and resilience in the world”. Neighbourhood planning isn’t enough. Urban strategy and place management are not the same thing but it seems that a place management, in this context, needs to be informed by and implement urban strategy. As Brugmann says “urbanisms, and not just plans and building, are the method of an advanced urban society.” So while the best of planning barely rates as place management, the best of place management barely rates as urban strategy.

However, there’s some serious work to be done in Chermside as in general the whole area is poorly integrated and there are many urban design and pedestrian experience issues. The main road (ie highway) is lined with businesses and buildings with varying setbacks and street treatments, and generally inactive street frontage. The area is let down by a haphazard and poor quality environment and poor amenity, including use of cheap materials, poor quality street furniture and sparse tree plantings. In a design sense, Chermside’s business centre appears to have no character and no cohesion despite its significance as a centre and its history; there are ‘for lease signs’ and empty shops in old and new buildings alike.

Look closer and there are quite a few gems in the form of individual businesses, like Carousel Cupcakes, the Chermside Spice Market, Amici Deli, New Chung Shan Restaurant, other cafes and restaurants, and a soon to open Good Morning Asian Grocer. There are also a couple of second hand shops which have a steady stream of clientele and several sporting goods and cycling shops. One of the things that I have become aware of is the presence of people I used to see in boarding houses in the inner city several years ago; faces that are imprinted in my memory through years of encounter. So this causes me to consider whether there are sufficient life support systems in the area. Perhaps there is a linkage to the mental health facility at the Prince Charles Hospital, or perhaps we are seeing here the result of decades of gentrification and displacement in the inner city. Incidentially, the Biological Growers Association (ie organic growers) has its head office in Chermside and Apple set up its first Apple Shop in the Westfield. Obviously, there are benefits for a range of businesses and organisations in locating there. The suburb is framed by green space, beautiful nature corridors and waterways. Clear place management themes emerge from these: for example, multiculturalism, active lifestyles, community wellbeing, and social mix. In much of what I have seen it’s seems like more of the same without much in the way of architectural innovation or interest, little in the way of climate sensitivity or sustainability. It seems pointless to expect walking and cycling when those environments are simply not conducive to those modes of movement (just like the bad old days when bus services operated on hourly or two hourly timetables were not conducive to use) – that’s needs some concerted action. Incidentally this issue of transport in Chermside was explored during a masterclass at the AP Unlimited event last year.

If Chermside is to become a mini-CBD then the city has to stop treating it like a suburb and handing out suburban decisions and suburban plans for an environment that needs to be urban. As Brugman notes density is only one aspect of an urbanised environment: “urban strategy therefore has a very clear purpose: to ensure that the many necessary practices of an evolving urbanism can be consistently advanced and ultimately consolidated in the face of external trends and powerful, competing interests”. If the area is intended to be a ‘mini-CBD’ then that seems to indicate a requirement for higher level social and cultural infrastructure, which is thinly spread. With this in mind, I was most struck by the need for a higher level cultural facility. There is a community precinct within walking distance. This includes a library, aquatic centre, Services Club and community centre. It is adjacent to parklands and sporting fields (more of that active lifestyle) in which the Chermside Historical Precinct is located. This facility is operated by a community organisation and features a craft centre, meeting space and several historical displays. Dig further and we learn that the Wesley Mission runs an Outsider Art program, while regular ‘making/maker’ workshops are held at the Library and several craft and sewing shops operate locally. However, there’s probably a need for other engagements with art, craft and culture, especially for young people. As I toured the area, I began looking at The Bank Building with covetous eyes. So, as I prepare my modest wishlist for how to transform Chermside, I am wishing that the two storey Bank Building, which is centrally located, would be transformed into a cultural facility, with the blacked windows opened up to the street to reveal an exhibition space. Removal of the aluminum cladding would reveal a respectable and functional modern building with clean lines and sufficient office space for co-working and other uses to grow a cluster of creative enterprises. We checked it out again and there could be a back courtyard …

However, if I was to really develop a wishlist and engage in forward planning, I would be inclined to focus some attention on possibilities for the site of the Top Taste factory further along Gympie Road in Kedron. It’s a surviving example of mid 20th century industrial architecture that could not only warrant heritage listing but provide the anchor for an innovative lifestyle, culture and enterprise hub.

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