Within the Hunter region, Greater Newcastle is Australia’s largest regional city and the gateway to northern New South Wales (NSW). Essential to the region’s prosperity, the city is developing a future very different from its past, seeking a new and contemporary sense of place.
We recently sat down with WSP placemaking specialists Graeme Steverson, Emma Dean, Sean Holmes, Sara Stace and Michael Hromek to discuss the essential elements in the city’s connection to place and what is required for Newcastle to become a showcase regional city for Australia’s economic development.
Valued at over AUD50 billion, the Hunter region is Australia’s largest regional economy – ranking above Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory in terms of economic output. The region drives around 28 per cent of regional NSW total economic output and is the largest regional contributor to the state’s gross domestic product.
“The Hunter has a much higher capacity for growth, including jobs, than NSW Government projections,” says Alice Thompson, CEO of the Committee for the Hunter. “The region is experiencing economic change in the energy, resources and manufacturing sectors, representing one of the largest structural adjustment challenges in the nation. More sophisticated approaches to planning and investment in the Hunter are urgently required. The nation’s transition to a low carbon economy depends on what happens here.”
The emergence of Australia’s leading post-industrial city
While Newcastle’s economy has been largely dependent on mining and manufacturing, the city’s latest Economic Development Strategy 2021 and supporting Action Plan offers a transformative perspective to economic development with a deliberate people-centred and place-led approach.
The strategy states, “Our view is that the success of our local and regional economy is built on the talent, skills and ingenuity of our people. These skills lead to innovation, creativity and ultimately the formation of new jobs and investment. Our strategy seeks to build a skilled and innovative community supported by key city infrastructure and enhanced by a vibrant lifestyle.”
WSP has a long history of helping greater Newcastle transition from a traditionally blue-collar city to a modern, tech-savvy urban centre. We were at the forefront of strengthening the local area and its precincts as part of a three-pronged development strategy (2017-2021) that saw us deliver the Newcastle Light Rail project as part of a joint venture team with Downer and Transport for NSW, co-design and implement a Smart City Intelligent Platform, and delivered the University of Newcastle Honeysuckle campus building in the CBD.
“Newcastle is in the second stage of its evolution as a city with a personal movement focus,” says Graeme Steverson, Technical Director, Planning and Mobility. “To fully evolve as a city, it needs to move towards an activity and quality of life focus characterised by sustainable transport and a high quality public realm.
“The city had a big step change in 1992 when BHP closed its steelworks and it realised the need to evolve economically to prosper in a future not so reliant on the resources sector. Since then, a lot of hard work has taken place to increase economic diversification and improve urban infrastructure and services such as the Newcastle Light Rail, the foreshore and city redevelopments, and the opening of Q Building, the first building opening at the Honeysuckle city campus.
“This is a great opportunity for the city to recognise that future development must be centred on a deliberate people-centred and place-led approach. Put simply, Newcastle should build on the talent, skills, creativity and ingenuity of its people supported by key city infrastructure and enhanced by a vibrant lifestyle.
“Prior to the pandemic, people were anchored to a location for their job, mostly in capital cities. However, this is no longer the case – jobs are increasingly following people who are now favouring lifestyle over the stress of big city life. The changing migration patterns we’re seeing from capital cities to regional centres is a real opportunity for Newcastle to strengthen its economy.”
Sara Stace, Director of Cities, adds, “Newcastle and the Hunter region have huge capacity and potential to provide jobs in emerging industries, with access to affordable housing and a great lifestyle. It’s ripe for further investment from all levels of government and the private sector to diversify the economy and provide a different approach to urban development for NSW.”
Making Newcastle Future ReadyTM
Data by the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) shows one in five city residents are now looking to build a new life in the regions. The RAI June 2021 Regional Movers Index identified the City of Newcastle in the Top 5 Local Government Areas in Australia experiencing this regional migration with a March 2021 Quarter growth of 13 per cent – up from an annual growth rate of seven per cent.
“Today Newcastle and the broader Hunter region are a big neighbourhood community,” says Emma Dean, our Regional Director for Newcastle and Principal Environmental Scientist. “In order to become a more cohesive and vibrant city, Newcastle needs to evolve into a destination where people can come together to share their common interests – anything from education to stadium sports, creative, technical and innovative industries, as well as entertainment, restaurants and accessing our locally valued coastal attractions.
“This is very much about collectively reimagining and reinventing the city’s community assets, inspiration and potential, so that we create a quality place that people feel connected to, and also achieve a greater sense of belonging. Mobility, connectivity and liveability are at the very heart of this concept.
“When people of all ages, abilities and socio-economic backgrounds can both access and enjoy Newcastle as a place, as well as play a key role in its evolving identity, creation and maintenance, that’s when we will be able to realise the city’s full potential.
“Not only does this future-focused approach need to be underpinned by connections to Country, but it requires us to consider the social and cultural importance of connected and liveable communities. We need to create and enhance the great local places where we gather.”
Embracing the future of mobility and connectivity
Connecting people to each other, work, education, healthcare and the environment is vital for any city’s longevity.
The NSW Government’s Greater Newcastle Future Transport Plan provides the overarching strategic transport network and vision that will guide future planning for the area. The Newcastle Light Rail project has been a transformative infrastructure project that has triggered increased investment and urban renewal of the city. And, while there are plans for a New Cruise Terminal, the Hunter Sports and Entertainment Precincts and new road projects, more is needed to improve liveability.
According to Graeme, “While these plans will go a long way to benefiting mobility and connectivity, we need to ensure we are providing place-based solutions that are integrated and ultimately more sustainable. They need to be more human-centred and support greater levels of walking and cycling as well as being future ready to accommodate electric and automated vehicles. WSP has supported Transport for NSW in the planning for new rapid bus services and the establishment of Fast Rail connections between Greater Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle. These planned improvements to public transport will transform the role of Greater Newcastle and open up new economic opportunities and improve social and business connections in a sustainable way. Novocastrians will have the best of both worlds.
“Planning for the future means looking at transport options through the lens of future uses and travel behaviours. It also means improving the way we integrate land use management, demand for travel and better utilisation of the city’s transport assets so we can optimise safety and performance and maximise capacity as passenger and freight volumes change.
“This is where using data and digital tools can make a real difference. For example, more sophisticated models and ‘digital twins’ – virtual models of the real world – can be used to test plans, designs and ‘what if’ scenarios to optimise outcomes for customers, communities and places.”
WSP has already played a key role in helping the City of Newcastle become a modern, tech-savvy urban centre. In 2019, we were engaged to co-design and implement a Smart City Intelligent Platform to complement the city’s national award-winning Newcastle Smart City Strategy 2017 - 2021.
A pioneer project in Australia, the state-of-the-art Intelligent Platform will integrate, consolidate and manage data from a wide range of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, systems, and citywide sources to enhance the productivity of city services, better connect residents with timely information, and facilitate advanced data analytics. Designed to avoid data silos which often hamper Smart City initiatives, the Intelligent Platform promotes integrated data and services which will drive productivity and resource management with direct benefits to the city and its residents.
“There are over 100 initiatives including energy-efficient solar projects, electric-vehicle charging stations, free Wi-Fi and bike-sharing,” adds Graeme. “By putting the community at the centre of its approach, Newcastle hopes to create a smart and digitally connected public and urban infrastructure system that will help develop a thriving ecosystem to drive innovation and creativity.”
Incorporating history and culture
Communities are complex, multi-layered and diverse places. This is certainly true of Greater Newcastle. As the city continues to grow, more people will be utilising its public spaces, transport services, the cultural and entertainment scene as well needing adequate access to healthcare and education. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the history and culture of the city.
“As we work towards creating Newcastle as a place where diverse people feel a sense belonging, we must look both to the past, and the future,” explains Michael Hromek, Technical Executive – Indigenous (Architecture) Design and Knowledge.
“To keep the Newcastle feel and vibe, we need to both honour and leverage its background and culture. This all starts with its connection to Country.
“The Awabakal and Worimi peoples are acknowledged as the descendants of the traditional custodians of the land situated within the Newcastle Local Government Area, including wetlands, rivers, creeks and coastal environments. It is known that their heritage and cultural ties to Newcastle date back tens of thousands of years.
“We have the potential to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and culture in the design of upcoming infrastructure and built environments so we can create strong and culturally respectful relationships with these local Aboriginal communities. In turn, this can generate meaningful employment and participation opportunities for Indigenous people, businesses and communities.”
Imagining a place for everyone
Greater Newcastle continues to undergo significant changes, growth and transformation.
Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes is committed to making the City of Newcastle a more liveable and inclusive community for all Novocastrians to thrive in, by increasing social inclusion and creating more opportunities for community connection. She says, “As the region grows, challenges such as affordable housing, youth unemployment, and an ageing population are emerging, we want to make sure that everyone feels able to grow with it and are acknowledged as integral members of our vibrant community.
Sean Holmes, Associate – Sustainability for WSP agrees, “We need to acknowledge Newcastle’s working-class roots by accelerating the delivery of affordable housing.
“The issue of housing affordability is becoming increasingly important, particularly during COVID-19 as Australians are leaving capital cities in droves for regional cities that are in striking distance of major centres.
“Newcastle is a great example of that seismic demographic shift. And, this where we need to make sure that master planning for the future is both socially inclusive and sustainably responsible.
“Responsible investments leave a legacy for the community and environment. Greater Newcastle has the opportunity to position itself as a leading regional city and positively contribute towards solutions for climate change.
“In conclusion, to reimagine Greater Newcastle as a regional centre of excellence, investment is required by both the government and private enterprise.”
Immediate opportunities for investment include Hunter Park, a 63 hectare urban transformation with underutilised government lands which the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation is partnering with Venues NSW to potentially generate 2,600 homes and 1,000 jobs. Another opportunity is Newcastle Airport through the Williamtown Special Activation Precinct to generate 4,300 jobs through growing in the aerospace industry.