Six Signs of A Failing Town and What to Do About Them

I live and work in a Queensland regional town with a population of around 20 000 which is about 20km to the beach. Once upon a time it was the regional centre of this area but like many townships it suffered when it was bypassed by the highway, when local farmers could no longer compete with cheap agricultural imports and when the residential pull of the beachside communities became more attractive . Without doubt, it has gone through some tough times.

Here are six challenges in my town and six often tried-and-tested urban design/planning responses which might just work in your town too:-

Empty shops in the CBD

Opportunities exist to better utilise existing commercial real estate which is often empty through lack of viable commercial tenants. Shops open and then close soon after. Certain commercial buildings are empty long-term in my main street and that sends a negative message to visitors and potential investors.

Temporary creative uses for zero or peppercorn rent in empty shopfronts are now well known tools used to kick-start local small business and help activate decaying commercial places. Many examples exist in Australia and overseas. Tactical uses of empty urban places can lead case studies for bigger investments.

No night time economy and empty CBD at night

We are missing social and economic opportunities to draw on the local population to create a vibrant night time economy and stimulate business in the CBD. Local entertainment venues suffer from lack of patronage.

We have a few good places to go, but the lack of public transport at night means people can’t easily access them. We need more nighttime public transport on Friday and Saturday nights that bring people into the town centres so they can spend their money, have fun and go home safely.

Lack of desirable public places

My town lacks comfortable and interesting public spaces that facilitate social interaction. The public spaces that do exist are often occupied by disadvantaged people that some consider antisocial and many community members are not comfortable spending time there.

Local government needs to look to create better public places that provide people with a variety of uses and cater to a variety of ages. Imagination isn’t expensive, good public spaces don’t need to cost millions and low cost prototyping and data gathering can help build the case for proper investment.

Disappearing or non existent entertainment options

This is slowly changing in my town but more needs to be done to improve trading conditions that will favour those who are prepared to take a risk to open entertainment venues.

The flip side of this is however that low-fi urban interventions like pop up bars are appearing - an opportunity exists to provide a more formal support framework for such initiatives. Note to policy-makers: sometimes decaying urban environments don’t need “fixing” they just need a means to tap into the local creative economy.

Empty streets - but for cars and trucks!

This is the wider tale of our towns and cities in the 20th century. My town is built around an ex-highway and the vast majority of residents do not live within walking distance of the town centre. Nobody wants to spend time on a street that has noisy, smelly cars and trucks all day long. The few pockets of vibrant human activity that do exist in my town do so in the areas that have had deliberate traffic mitigation and landscape initiatives.

When must start designing streets in our town centres that favour pedestrian activity over cars instead of having to do costly retro fitting for towns that missed the opportunity to do it right in the first place.

Empty parks and parks that don’t cater to the needs of the community

We have one primary park but it is disconnected from the town despite being very close to a high pedestrian activity area. There is virtually no visual connection between any green space near the CBD so people are not encouraged to access parkland from town for lunchtimes or after work use. There is only one park with facilities for families with young children despite families with young kids being the major demographic in the town.

Creating parks that cater to a wide range of uses, are accessible on foot and are located near town centres are a must for creating vibrant townships and healthy, sustainable communities.

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