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It was the shopping mall that killed the suburban high street, and online shopping that is killing the shopping mall – and now, city-dwellers are returning to the high street once again.
As the multi-use shopping centre gradually declines under the pressures of rising rents, the boom of online shopping and consumers who increasingly want bespoke and boutique products, high streets are experiencing a resurgence.
New research from the University of Queensland’s urban planning group, led by Dr Dorina Pojani, studied 10 of Brisbane’s suburbs and how their high streets are designed.
The research, published in the Journal of Urban Design in January, found that many of Brisbane’s high streets are poorly designed and unwelcoming to residents, needing a rethink of how such key shopping strips are designed to foster genuine community.
Dr Pojani said while Sydney and Melbourne were designed around the traditional concept of suburban neighbourhoods, each with its individual shopping strip, Brisbane was far more central-city focused.
“Brisbane remains very very monocentric and that worked well for us as a city I think when Brisbane was still very small,” Dr Pojani said.
“Imagine somebody’s workday, they get up in the morning in the suburbs, they commute to the CBD, they go back to the suburb, have dinner with family, and then if the suburb was close enough to the CBD there was still time to go out to catch a show.
“But now the city is more spread out it doesn’t work … there’s just no time, it’s not convenient. So then it would be good if people had some of the amenities closer to home.
“If they were to go home in the evening there would be some shops, some restaurants and cafes, and a movie theatre in a high street nearby.”
But with Brisbane’s increasing urban sprawl and the focus on inner-city density and shopping, those experiences aren’t always available in local suburbs.
And as the city’s population changes from Baby Boomers to Millennials and Generation Z behind them, so too does its residents’ requirements.
“Many in this generation are not prepared, or cannot afford, to live in crowded and expensive inner-cities, but still desire a liveable community,” the article concluded.
“The members of this generation are more inclined towards acquiring ‘interesting experiences’ – for example, hanging out in cafés or dining al fresco – than engaging in mass consumerism, in the form of clothes shopping in bland indoor spaces.”
Dr Pojani and research co-author Enshan Hooi studied 10 of the suburban high streets across Brisbane, evaluating each street’s urban design quality in comparison to three “benchmark” high streets – Grey Street in South Brisbane, James Street in Fortitude Valley, and Boundary Street in West End.
These three streets, all inner-city with high-quality urban design planned to attract and retain people throughout the strip, were compared with 10 streets across Brisbane’s suburbs, outside the 10-kilometre inner-city circle.
The researchers found that on a scaled scoring system, only two of the 10 suburban high streets came close to the three inner-city shopping strips.
Nundah’s Sandgate Road, in the north-east, had the highest score for urban design, while Upper Mount Gravatt’s Logan Road scored the lowest.
Moorooka’s shopping strip on Beaudesert Road and Mitchelton’s Blackwood Street also scored highly for urban design, while Zillmere and Sherwood did poorly.
Dr Pojani said many of the high streets were “car-centric”, focused on providing parking and with many shopping centres placed along highways.
“Residents deserve better, we have this wonderful climate where you want to be outdoors, you want to be socialising, but those opportunities are not being offered,” she said.
Brisbane City Council has been working on a village precinct project designed to refresh and redesign key suburban areas such as Aspley, Gaythorne and Ainsdale.
The council identified a need to focus on creating such neighbourhoods by improving amenity, expanding marketplaces and refreshing suburban high streets, with $9 million budgeted across the 2018-19 council budget for suburban shopping strips.
Dr Pojani said international research had shown that suburbs with high streets had a stronger community, with greater socialising between neighbours and a more close-knit community.
And with one in four shopping malls predicted to close by 2022, the high street is increasingly important as a place where residents can interact, eat and drink, and participate in a social network that is not dominated by large, generic airconditioned spaces.
Dr Pojani said the high street would also become more important as they could become cool and welcoming outdoor spaces as climate change becomes more critical in Brisbane’s heat.
New research had also demonstrated the importance of aesthetics and its role in urban design not just as a ‘nice to have’ feature but as an important aspect of shopping strips.
“Urban design affects us mentally and physically,” she said.
“In the past, urban designers have always known this intuitively … but now there are these new technologies that allow you to properly measure that.
“They’ve done measurements with people wearing sensors and walking through environments that are pleasant, that are shaded with trees, more scale, enclosed that make you feel well with public art.
“Then they had people walk through very dreary suburban environments dominated by concrete and cars, wide roads.
“That research is still relatively new … it’s showing that people have a physical reaction to space. Your heartbeat goes up when you’re forced to walk through ugliness and all the wellbeing indicators are better when we walk through beauty.”
While inner-city suburbs such as New Farm and South Brisbane are known for their leafy streets, Dr Pojani said beauty should not be exclusive to more wealthy suburbs, and outer suburbs also needed aesthetic assessment.
“The commercial component is just not well-designed outside the inner city,” she said.
“When I look at Boundary Street in the West End and James Street in Fortitude Valley, there is no reason why outer suburbs shouldn’t have spaces like that.”