One of the great debates that keeps urban planners and designers in fine loafers and Sonoma bread is whether to mall or not to mall. Whether closing off streets to traffic and encouraging pedestrian access boosts retail and other economic activity, increases social connectivity in that area, generally providing an explosion of urbanity.
The evidence is often limited. There are examples that show malls work, and then there are the ongoing debates about places in Sydney like Parramatta and Hurstville. Shut the road. Open it to buses. Open the road. Shut it again, maybe just for some hours of the day. Let a bit of traffic through. Whinge, come back again in 12 months and do another study. And on it goes.
The mall boosters, and broader proponents of pedestrianisation and limiting car and bus traffic, often look abroad to places that are medieval in design, where squares and plazas have shaped urban living for 1000 years. There are principles that we can adopt, and examples we can emulate. But implementation without context is just imitation.
My view is pseudo tipping pointy – if a town is gonna boom, then a well planned and located pedestrian zone will flourish and may be “the icing on the cake”. Leaving aside the equity issues of which retailers and property owners benefit, this is a good thing. If we protect the other economic elements of the centre – the ability to access it or service businesses in it, THIS IS A GREAT THING!
But I also think that the relationship between calming and activity can be overstated. Some of Sydney’s more popular eating and shopping strips are far from calm. They work best when traffic slows, such as at lunch, evenings and weekends (clearways and bus lanes lead to faster traffic at other times). I walk these streets, often, and often with a pram. All of the dodgy footpaths and stop starts and broken pavers and missing kerbs are nothing, because there is somewhere to go at the end. I always vote for urban domain and activity as the best way to boost walking, over meandering paths along creeks and through parks. There is a reason that Marrickville residents walk more that just about anywhere else in Sydney – it’s interesting. Shops, street art, activity, clutter. Other people walking. Dogs. Kids. Planes. Trains. And food.
All of this is a long intro into a small rant. I walked through Pitt St Mall in Sydney at lunch on Tuesday. This is Sydney’s alleged golden mile – about 200m long, anyway – of high level retail and walkers treated as GODS. It’s recently had a very expensive makeover, and I will admit the new Centrepoint connection and the underground grungier retail works pretty good.
But it’s as lifeless as Andrew Lincoln’s acting (thanks James for that one.) There were about 100 seats placed around trees – of course, these are now the haunt of the remaining smokers who work in the area. I’m not kicking an addict when they’re down, but the air quality is dire. The worst thing is there is nowhere to eat. A global city. Temperate climate. Lunchtime. Pedestrian heart. Famine, where there should be feast. It’s unbelievable. Not sure how, whether there is any causal link to leases or property ownership.
But you can head into one of the retail complexes and find a food court with tens of food outlets, then either sit there away from the sun and air, or head back out and recreate a scene from a live gig in the 80s, cheer, cough, splutter.
The solutions are simple, I think. Chuck some cheap tables in the Mall. People will learn to walk around them. Encourage local cafes and restaurants and small laneway bars to find a way to do outdoor table service in our biggest and best laneway. I’m no fan of Brisbane, even though some of my best friends are from there, but their Queen St Mall heaves with bars and cafes on a warm Friday afternoon.
While I’m at it, I would extend the Mall south to Park St and north to at least Martin Place and possibly Hunter St. That would help spread the pedestrian activity over a larger area, making the Mall more about walking and talking and eating, rather than just shopping at a few, select retail outlets. The City, however, seeks to create a new world-class boulevard along George St. At least the re-introduction of light rail into George St and the rejigging of bus routes and traffic means something can change in Pitt St without crippling the rest of the CBD.
Then I’d attack Hyde Park. The prolific greenspace that abuts the City’s eastern edge is great to look at but suffers from the same listlessness. At select times of the year, we discover it’s a great place to sit and eat or have a drink. Festivals rule in our town. But for 300 lunchtimes a year, there are two very small cafes at either end and a great big void in the middle. Get another cafe in there. Or food vans parked along Park St. A business opportunity for picnic hamper providers – sheesh, our local cafe Petty Cash can set you up to have a nice picnic in Enmore Park.
The ultimate might be to connect Hyde Park to the city, by closing Elizabeth St to traffic including buses at lunchtimes, encouraging existing food outlets to claim the roadspace for tables and chairs, give people on the eastern side of George St somewhere to sit. And eat. And think. And blog.
What do you think? What works where you are? Where do you walk and why? What’s your ideal lunchtime food scenario?
The last word goes to one of the most underrated bands, with an underrated song from a killer second album. As Chrissie says, “you’re the Pitts of the world!”
Thanks for reading.