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If Brisbane planners were given the chance to redesign the Brisbane River precinct, there would be less riverside development, no Riverside Expressway and a system of underwater tunnels.
Brisbane’s river has been the focal point of many government-led plans over several years but many, including a shore-to-shore zipline and water taxis, were yet to come to fruition.
More pontoons and river walks have been built or funded, along with many multimillion-dollar riverside developments.
Is there a right way and a wrong way to design a river city, and how has Brisbane performed?
Griffith University urban and environmental planning lecturer Tony Matthews said Brisbane had been built with a “higgledy-piggledy” skyline along the river that was very broken.
“If you look at a river city or a city that is built on the water that has a world-class skyline like New York, you would see that the smaller buildings are close to the water and the taller buildings are further back,” he said.
“There is no such order in Brisbane. It’s just buildings dropped in wherever.
“[It has] left us with things that are completely out of context and completely out of place, like 1 William Street that just sits there like something that has descended from space.”
Dr Matthews said an integrated model was needed, incorporating river crossings and different forms of transport, including a water taxi. Residents should able to walk along the entire riverfront on foot.
“The easier and simpler you can make it, the more people will tend to use it,” he said.
He said the river provided basic needs such as water supply and shipping but should be used to improve the quality of life.
“Brisbane City Council and the development industry seems less focused on the river than the city itself, at least as far as I can tell,” he said.
University of Queensland architecture lecturer Paula Leardini also found problems with Brisbane’s river, particularly the way the city’s flood overlay map worked with the building code.
“It [the flood overlay] does divide areas according to the level of risk and for each of them you have to build at a certain height for the habitable space but this results in a number of counter factors in terms of urban quality,” she said.
“In many cases, that means that the ground level, which is usually the most active and interested aspects of urban life, become dead and that is not really a positive for the city.''
Dr Leardini, a member of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, said the approach to development should be that areas very close to the river were left as floodable areas.
“The way it is done right now is not good enough or smart enough,” she said.
If given a blank slate to redesign the city around the Brisbane River, Dr Matthews said he would not repeat some of the current mistakes.
“The first thing you have to do when planning a river city is look at flood hazards ... I would avoid putting housing and buildings and businesses in the worst-affected flood zones, that’s where you put your parklands, sporting fields, your gardens and things like that,” he said.
“The second thing I would do, I would avoid the mistake they made in Brisbane when they built the road network along the northern bank of the river, which was a disaster and remained a disaster.
“It’s an extremely poor idea, it should never have happened and it’s a massive chunk of infrastructure locked into Brisbane that you won’t easily get rid of.”
Dr Matthews said a system of tunnels under the river would be his choice, as well as a crossing for the river with a focus on public transport and pedestrians and cyclists.
“I would be looking to connect both sides of the river if I was designing again,” he said.
Dr Leardini supported more public green areas along the river and using the river for transport.
“It [the Brisbane River] should be the future of the city, much more than it is today,” she said.
Brisbane City Council released its 10-year River’s Edge Strategy in 2013, which included plans for potential projects on the river and its edges.
Several initiatives, such as constructing the Milton ferry terminal, delivering short-term moorings for recreational vessels and extending the river walks are complete or works in progress. But ideas including a zipline connecting Kangaroo Point and the CBD, a riverside public lap swimming pool and water taxis are no closer.
When the River’s Edge Strategy was launched, Brisbane lord mayor Graham Quirk said the roll-out relied on the council working with the state government, businesses and the community.
“Council will be seizing opportunities to implement the strategy, and is open to new ideas from business and the community to help enliven our river,” he said.
Several private developers have snapped up riverfront land, with billions in infrastructure proposed to be built on the river’s edge by 2026.
At a recent Queensland Media Club lunch, developers discussed the importance of the river and most agreed the river had great potential despite past neglect.
Port of Brisbane chief executive Roy Cummins believed Brisbane had turned its back on its best attribute.
“We have probably one of the world’s best ports and very few people would even know that,” he said.
“We’re trying to do our bit to change that with the cruise terminal.”
The $158 million Brisbane International Cruise Terminal, due for completion in mid-2020, would accommodate the world’s largest cruise ships.
Under the Story Bridge, former wharves established in the 1930s are being restored as part of the $200 million Howard Smith Wharves project, which will deliver a brewery, overwater bar, restaurant and function spaces, a hotel and green space.
Howard Smith Wharves chief executive Luke Fraser said the development would occupy 500 metres of river edge.
“In the past, it was where you put the sewers, built freeways,” he said.
“We have this really amazing natural asset right in the heart of the city.
“I think as a city we’ve got this renewed enthusiasm, there’s a huge level of maturity and I know both state and local governments are very interested in what the future of the river is.”
About one kilometre from the Howard Smith Wharves development, Dexus is proposing a transformation of Eagle Street Pier which would include two new towers along with new shops and 1.5 hectares of public and riverfront open space.
On the other side of the CBD, opposite South Bank, the $3.6 billion Queen’s Wharf Brisbane development would have a casino, resort complex, hotel, bar, park, shops, residential and about 12 hectares of public space.