ABC’s television show, Turn Back Time, is based on the renewal of a high street

By Jane Jose

9 June 2011 – We are living in a time of back to the high street.

It is more than 20 years since the mainstreet movement began and on 3 May the National Mainstreet conference in Adelaide had the fervour of a prayer meeting.

Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood, elected last year as Lord Mayor of Adelaide,  introduced the conference. He gave some clear reasons why the movement that began decades ago partly with a covert agenda of “save our local heritage” but fronted by local business people with a “support our local economy message” is on a roll again.

Lord Mayor Yarwood said: “It’s simple – great streets make great cities. Mainstreets are the remnants of the old town centre ….it would be a shame to see village life disappear altogether only to be replaced by an anonymous experience.”

The conference drew a new generation of devotees of the idea that big box shopping centres are not the key to making the places people feel good in.

A young team from Adelaide, Ianto Ware and Lara Torr, who have started a business called renew Adelaide – caught my attention. Using an idea sent to them on social media they mobilised young people and found a vacant shop in Adelaide’s West End and negotiated with the owner George Kambitsis to use the property to set up a “ lounge room in the city “ for young people. The Reading Room, complete with recycled furniture, a library of books, music and games opened to a packed crowd. It was set up with a meagre budget of $500 by volunteers who all connected through social media.

It’s a great example of the fourth dimension, the people stuff mattering more than the first, the property development.  It has imagination, creativity and authenticity.

As a presenter at the conference, I shared my experience working with Sydney communities to refresh the villages and mainstreets Sydney in a project led by the City of Sydney strategy and design team. My task was to explore what the planning profession describes as the fourth dimension of place making, the human elements. For me it has to be the first dimension.

So what makes a Mainstreet attractive and why do different Mainstreets attract different groups?

It’s about the soul of the place. It might be a little about the three dimensional sense of place – but it’s far more about the fourth dimension. It is people who give a place spirit. It is the human touch that  draws people in. The Reading Room is a recent example of this.

Different Mainstreets draw different groups and perhaps the most successful draw everyone! Younger people, cyclists, walkers, older people, café clubs, shoppers, young parents and different cultural groups.

So what is the fourth dimension?

The fourth dimension in planning Mainstreets is not a new idea. There is no formula that can be bottled. It can only be tapped by effectively engaging with the local community. There’s no prescription that can be sold as cure all to ailing town centres or suburban strips or to create successful new town centres. Each place has its own set of unique challenges and opportunities and this means talking and listening to the ideas of local people.

The physical setting and what the place can accommodate contributes to the fourth dimension. The mix of shops, traders and tenancies is all part of the human character of the place. The physical is a reflection of the human inspiration, invested in the look and feel of the tenancies, shops, cafes and workplaces. It is always human interaction and inspiration that makes great places.

Equally, it is about the strengthened sense of community that is created by the people who are attracted because of that sense of place. The personality of the place is reflected and re-enforced by the personalities of the people attracted. It is this two – way connection that we place-makers seek to foster and make possible.

How do we create it?

Engaging with the community must be at the heart of any successful place making. Without the stamp of the “local flavour” from the community, one place can have little to distinguish it from a dozen other places.

It is only through the humanity of places, the people enjoying the trees and landscape, the seats, the public art, the cafes the gatherings of people themselves, that a sense of authenticity can be felt. It is this authenticity that people seek and look to us as community connectors who work with urban designers and developers, who want to find the magic of creating good places.

As retail shopping has become a no frills, functional online experience, the face-to-face, real life experience of shopping becomes as important as the purchase. Shopping is increasingly an activity for people who seek more than just a commercial transaction.

I have been fascinated by ABC televisions’ Turn Back Time, a British series based on renewal of a dead high street. It shows how people can be pulled back from the big box shopping centre on the outskirts of town, by a return to the approach of a unique and personal shopping experience. It shows how healthy competition among strongly individual retailers who work as a loose team, although in competition, is the key to commercial success for all.

Individuality succeeds – not one size fits all. Turn Back Time is a great demonstration of the human experience of old fashioned service and how a unique, quirky retail experience attracts crowds. The authentic English village model of the high street has become the model for urban renewal in our ever growing, denser and more compact cities. It can challenge the big end big box centres.

Neither the alienation of the suburbia of the 20th Century, nor the high rise towers and big box shopping centres, offer the humanity that we yearn for. What we yearn for, we now often describe as a “village” feel.

What people mean when they talk of the urban village and what increasingly is the place maker’s challenge, is to deliver places that retain a sense of intimacy, tap into people’s humanity and fit into the local sense of place, while still meeting the needs of ever larger and more diverse communities.

It is this humanity of places that is in the fourth dimension.

The fourth dimension of place making puts emphasis on people, community, culture and connection.

US writer Thomas Moore’s quote from his book Soul Mates gives a useful kind of definition to the fourth dimension.

“While soul is what allows us to make intimate connections and so create community – even a global and universal sense of shared life – it is also responsible for our most profound sense of individuality and uniqueness. Those two – community and individuality – go together. You can’t have a genuine community unless it consists of true individuals, and you can’t be an individual unless you are deeply involved in community.”

In all my work in place-making emphasis is on the individual and his or her particular local “world”. For me the fourth dimension is really the first dimension.

In my career I have been fortunate to work with many leading Australian architects, urban designers and developers who understand the human element of design. While one place can learn from another, and we know they all do, it is still critical to keep place making with a local focus.

The residential development industry that most of us interface with has moved from selling lots and houses, to sub-divisions, to suburbs and estates, then to selling lifestyle and now to a community life based on lifestyle.

At the same time retail shopping has gone from shops and brands to convenience and choice. Retail is not just about shopping for needs it is also about entertainment and leisure experience and about contributing to the brand of the place.

The identity that Mainstreets seek falls out of successfully created places. The people who are attracted to, and who choose to spend their time and money in, a particular place do so because they identify with the place and with its community.

They choose to belong, they want to belong and while they give the place some of its character, they also draw from it. Whatever the character – hip, high end fashion or whole-earth, it rubs off on them and they add to it.

In existing suburban villages the Mainstreet embodies the spirit of the community. Equally, the community spirit strengthens the sense of place. It is a critical aspect of urban planning to get right as the flow on effect is not just the quality of daily life for residents and workers; it is what maintains the desirability of places to the market of business and residents. The identity of places – the brand only stays alive, if it is tapping into what people desire for that place.

Part II of this article will be published soon

Jane Jose is a specialist writer and urban strategist with Elton Consulting and a former deputy Lord Mayor of Adelaide. Recent projects include design and writing of the Sydney Harbour National Park Plan of Management for the NSW government; design of consultation, analysis and reporting for the Time to Talk Canberra 2030 public engagement for the ACT Government. Ms Jose is also a former senior strategist for the City of Sydney, for which she wrote the Local Action plans and had a key role in designing the community engagement for the Sustainable Sydney 2030 Vision.