Figure 1. above “Before.” This is typical of many suburban business districts. There is little separation from roadway to pathway. There are no shade trees and few plants. There is no pedestrian lighting. There is almost no amenity. The result? Underperforming real estate and an underperforming business district.
By Nathan Clausen, Landscape Architect, PDT Architects.
Consider this before and after scenario that is typical of many suburban and regional business areas in Australia. Just ask yourself: where would you rather be?There was a time when commercial development was only about the structure itself. Internal layouts, floorspace efficiency, choice of construction materials and site coverage ratios were the metrics by which ‘good’ commercial development was measured. Little thought was given to the context of the building and its surrounding environment. There was no need to pro-actively attract or retain customers or people – they came (mainly) because there were few choices.
So much has changed. The context and surrounding environment now has either a highly positive or highly detrimental impact on the value of the building - or an entire precinct – and it is landscape that plays a critical role in determining which it will be.
Think for example of an area that offers no tree cover for shade, that offers no seating (apart from maybe a lone concrete bus seat), that features industrial grade street lighting and little more than concrete and bitumen. It’s an almost alien environment for human beings. But it is typical of many older style commercial business districts and helps explain why some of these precincts are finding it harder to secure quality tenants on competitive rents. Their economic value has eroded as the commercial focus shifted to more amenable and more pleasant environments. Capital values and rents fell and owners became uncertain of what to do and reluctant to re-capitalise. Property taxes also fell for local and state governments because of their dependence on high and rising property values for their tax base. It’s a lose-lose-lose scenario: the property owners and businesses lose, the governments lose, and the community loses.
It happened because the community today has a heightened awareness of the value of ‘place’ and will avoid these sorts of redundant urban environments if they can. They are more mobile and less concerned about supporting their ‘local’ business centre if it simply doesn’t meet contemporary standards.
The challenge for private and public sectors is to understand how business districts can be transformed, and the financial and community rewards for doing so. Given the many millions in sunk capital costs associated with existing business centres, the relatively minor costs of transforming their amenity and enhancing their commercial performance are worth it.
What are some of these transformative ideas?
Trees and gardens.
The link between living green environments and commercial value is strong. A recent study by the Institute for Sustainable Futures revealed that people were prepared to pay from 9% to 12% more for goods sold in commercial centres with high quality tree cover. The report also found that people working in ‘green’ environments were 17% more productive than those in bare spaces without trees and plants. Another report, this time by the University of Western Australia, found that street trees increased median property prices by $16,000 but this did not apply to trees planted within a property boundary – only to trees planted on footpaths: in other words, the public domain. Designing and then adding tree cover and small garden spaces into footpaths and other common areas can be a low-cost, high value-add proposition.
Quality street lighting intended for pedestrian amenity (and a sense of safety) may not be something a typical main roads engineer would consider in a lighting plan. But it is critical to creating a strong sense of place – and illuminating the character and features of the local environment. Bollard lights, uplights into trees, and retro-vintage street lamps can all add immeasurably to the feel of the local environment and help extend the commercial proposition from a daytime to a night time economy.
. Too often we see inadequate seating, designed for at most very small groups of people. A lone bench or two doesn’t cut it. Clustered seating and small tables in areas which offer shade are important elements of pedestrianisation: they encourage people to gather and pause, in turn creating an impression of vibrancy.
Sun and rain are realities of our environment and the provision of places of refuge from the elements is always helpful. These need not be dominant or continuous structures, but simply design elements brought into the business district environment which say to people ‘you can find shelter here if you need it.’
Elements that create a strong delineation between road spaces for vehicles and street places for people can enhance the sense of safety and separation. Again, these should not be continuous, industrial ‘crash barrier’ styles – but short sections of balustrade of interesting design can be all that’s needed.
A linear footpath is an efficient engineering design but a meandering pathway, which weaves in and around trees, seating areas or other features is a much more ‘human’ approach. It creates interest and demonstrates that consideration for people triumphed over rigid engineering.
Adequate and convenient parking is essential for suburban business districts to perform. But this doesn’t mean it needs to be provided in an on-ground ocean of bitumen. Allowing multi-deck carparking which takes up a smaller footprint also means that the space can be better utilised. Multi-deck parking can also be sheathed with quality aesthetic features so that it doesn’t show its structural bones to the passing traffic.
The hard part in all this is not what to do, but how to go about it. In the main, private property owners will benefit directly. Governments get a secondary benefit via improved future tax revenues and also because it’s their obligation to serve communities in this way. The community also wins with improved business districts, often closer to hand.
But who should pay? The sums are not exorbitant but property owners would resist additional levies or taxes, arguing they have paid taxes for years and seen little in return. The community will resist additional taxes that are seen to benefit private property. Governments will resist paying because they’re short of funds for projects as it is.
Because property owners, businesses and the community all benefit from transformative initiatives like these, it is only reasonable that a genuine public-private partnership approach is taken. There are many examples the world over where this has been done. If all are to share the benefits, and when the benefits are so obvious, it stands to reason that a shared responsibility to funding initiatives like these is needed.