Placemaking in Newcastle: Reinventing the Public Realm

As populations in our city centres continue to densify, the public realm becomes more precious and needs to work harder to provide the amenities necessary to make our communities thrive.

Placemaking is the term coined for how we plan, design and manage spaces in our public realm to ensure people want to live, work, play and invest in cities for generations to come.


Niall Cunningham, WSP’s Director Programme Delivery ANZ says, “When we plan our cities, it’s important that we consider the relationship between buildings and their surroundings. The public realm must be given as much design focus as the buildings situated within it.


“Put simply, the public realm is the glue that binds our communities together and, combined with buildings, it creates a ‘place’ of significance. One cannot, and should not, be separated from the other.”


A Modern-Day Newcastle?

Located two hours north of Sydney, Newcastle is the second largest non-capital city in Australia. It is home to more than 150,000 people within the city limits and nearly 450,000 in the greater regions that include Port Stephens, Lake Macquarie and the Hunter Valley.


Today, the Newcastle region is rapidly changing as it transitions from a traditional blue collar city to a modern, tech savvy urban centre.


Newcastle currently contributes around AUD48.5 billion to the New South Wales (NSW) economy – that is more than the Northern Territory, Tasmania and the ACT individually. Population rates continue to grow at over 7.5 per cent per annum across the region with unemployment at 5.8 per cent which is comparable to the national rate of 5.6 per cent (February 2018). Tourism equates to around 4.1 million visitors each year and infrastructure investment in the region is at an all-time high of AUD930 million in 2016/17 alone.


On the back of prosperous economic times, strengthening the local area and its precincts is an opportunity recognised by the Newcastle City Council’s Economic Development Strategy and Smart City Strategy (2017-2021) as well as the NSW Government’s Revitalising Newcastle strategy.


What are the Opportunities?

“We need to view the city as part of a wider economy,” says Mr Cunningham. “Why would a business invest or why would someone want to live in Newcastle? Essentially, it comes down to four points of consideration: housing affordability, employment opportunities, lifestyle and investment.”


1. LIVE – Housing Affordability

Despite record housing growth of 13.3 per cent for 2017, the average dwelling price in Newcastle is considerably more affordable when compared to parts of Sydney.


WSP reinvents Newcastle’s public realm to ensure their communities thrive.

Source: – September 2017

With such enormous growth and comparatively lower house prices mixed with affordable housing options, Newcastle is attracting people from low to middle income earners to first home owners and people looking to invest.


Mr Cunningham explains, “The affordability of housing is a massive attraction for people; the statistics here don’t lie. If people have the option to own a home or pay cheaper rent in an area that provides a happy and safe lifestyle, there is no reason why Newcastle should not be considered.”


The obvious challenge to arise from this comes as a by-product of growth. Without some form of intervention, it is difficult for housing affordability to remain constant in the face of increasing population and rising investment. Maintaining a mixture of housing options is a key factor in keeping Newcastle diverse, and making places accessible for everyone to live.


2. WORK – Employment

Newcastle as a region continues to prosper from a highly skilled and diverse workforce. As a measure of wealth generated by the region, Newcastle’s Gross Regional Product (GRP) rose by nearly AUD1 billion or 8.3 per cent through 2016-17 (ABS, 2017). This follows an increase of 3.8 per cent in 2015-16. Through the same period, unemployment in the region dropped from a high of 8.3 per cent in June 2015, down to 5.8 per cent in 2018.


With a focus on developing new industries and diversifying the economy, employment has substantially increased in the sectors of construction, health care and professional, scientific and technical services amongst others. This is in direct alignment with the Newcastle City Council and the NSW Government’s strategies for the region.


WSP reinvents Newcastle’s public realm to ensure their communities thrive.

Chart Source: ABS Labour Force Survey, four quarter average

“With strong growth and decreasing unemployment, the creation of wealth within the Newcastle region is advantageous for many,” says Mr Cunningham. “Whether you’re a student or investor, the attraction to the city is becoming more apparent.”


3. PLAY – Lifestyle

According to visitnewcastle there are 10 reasons people live in Newcastle:

  1. Free parking at the beach
  2. Great creative/art scene
  3. Beautiful beaches
  4. A city vibe without traffic
  5. Wine tasting only 45 minutes away
  6. Access to restaurants, bars and cafes
  7. Casual lifestyle
  8. Walks along the pet friendly foreshore
  9. Surf culture and relaxed vibe
  10. Access to adventure seeking activities including whale watching 4WD’ing, coastal walks, etc.


Within this lies the opportunity for investors to capitalise on the 4.1 million visitors to the city each year and the amenities available.


Mr Cunningham believes that the imperative to develop places in Newcastle lies in harnessing the city’s strengths. He says, “By embracing Newcastle’s unique DNA and creating a contemporary city which is respectful of local heritage and tradition, it will grow in its appeal for those looking for a viable alternative to the major urban centres in Australia.”


4. INVEST – Growth and Development

As part of the NSW Government’s Revitalising Newcastle investment plan, AUD650m has been invested with the aim to create a city that is connected, vibrant and lively. This means connecting people to businesses, public spaces and entertainment precincts. It also means providing housing that is affordable and liveable.


WSP reinvents Newcastle’s public realm to ensure their communities thrive.

Above: Key investments for Newcastle

In 2015, the Australian Federal Government (AUD30 million), NSW Government (AUD25 million) and the University of Newcastle (AUD40 million) together invested AUD95 million into the NeW Space project aimed at harnessing the latest in technology and innovation to deliver a world-class education precinct at the University of Newcastle. This investment, which is expected to generate around AUD1.3 billion in economic benefits and employment opportunities, will help open up the area to join bigger markets through high-tech, creative and knowledge based industries.


Further, these kinds of investments coincide with the Newcastle Smart City Strategy. The ideation behind creating a smart city for Newcastle is to attract and retain people as well as increase the liveability, amenity and attractiveness of the city.


Mr Cunningham says, “It is clear the NSW Government and the City of Newcastle are investing in the region with the aim of connecting the city with business, education, lifestyle and housing options. By investing so heavily in these targeted areas, the foundations have been laid for a thriving urban centre.”


Activation, Activation, Activation

Having scoped out factors influencing people’s desire to live, work, play and invest in Newcastle, the next step is piecing it all together.


On this point, Mr Cunningham says, “It’s all about activation – that’s the holy grail of precinct developments.


“This means creating places with open spaces, an array of public amenity options and of course connecting people to the entire city. Beyond this, it is not only about creating places where people want to visit but going one step further and making them want to stay. That is, creating viable housing options and business/employment opportunities.


“For Newcastle, activation can be generated from the thriving arts culture, the beautiful coastline, the vibrant education centre, a plethora of entertainment options and most recently the city’s digital and innovation overlay. It is essential that long-term planning revolves around bringing people into these places for generations to come.”


Newcastle is transitioning towards activation as evidenced by a new sporting precinct slated for the Broadmeadows area, which will coincide with the ongoing revitalisation of the city. This proposal is again based on using the region’s sporting strengths, which will appeal to a significant cross-section of the population.


“As planners, our role is to create resilient, adaptive and sustainable cities,” concludes Mr Cunningham. “This requires new thinking in governance and development to ensure the community prospers.”


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