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 West 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.
Lighting: 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.
Seating. 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.
Shelter. 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.’
Fencing: 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.
Pathways: 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.
Parking: 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-grade 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.