Friday, 16 March 2012

Freo under the microscope: My city is bigger than yours

Dean Cracknell is the author of this post. He is a Freo devotee interested in creating interesting, diverse places for people and is a guest contributor to The Fremantle Doctor blog. Dean can be followed on Twitter by checking out: @city_pragmatist

Perth is facing a new showdown for the ultimate in local bureaucratic bragging rights. Local politicians from Joondalup to Stirling and Freo are competing to develop Perth’s “second city”. The average punter probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But the competition is the planning equivalent of the Cold War era arms race and promises big changes for some city centres.

What the hell am I on about?

Time for a little history. Freo wore the “second city” tag fairly comfortably for a long time. It had lots of jobs (thanks to the port) and a bustling city centre. But there wasn’t really much competition for the title.

Perth has boomed in recent decades and urban sprawl has marched ever further outwards. Realising that sprawl is not sustainable, the Western Australian Planning Commission is now trying to concentrate new development and population growth in major ‘activity centres’, which include Fremantle, Joondalup, Rockingham, Stirling, Midland, Morley, Cannington and Armadale.

These major centres are technically referred to as ‘Strategic Metropolitan Centres’. The next category up on the bureaucratic hierarchy is called a ‘Primary Centre’ in planning-speak, the level just below central Perth (stay with me, there is a point at the end of all this!). No centres have yet earned the right to be labelled as a ‘Primary Centre’, but the race is on!

Grand plans

So, who are the competitors?

The Stirling City Centre boasts it will become Perth’s second city centre and aims to attract between 16,000 to 25,000 future residents (some serious residential density!). Joondalup also has a vision to become the second city centre. The draft Joondalup city centre plan sets no building height limits in some of its precincts in an effort to attract new development. The Morley City Centre Masterplan aims to create a ‘true’ city centre, with building heights of up to 16 storeys. These centres have serious ambitions.

Other major centres such as Cockburn (no maximum building height limits), Cannington, Murdoch, Rockingham, Midland and Canning Bridge all have big plans to attract significant new residential and commercial development.

Is Freo in the race?

Yes, the City of Fremantle has entered the race as well. It is aiming for Freo to become a ‘Primary Centre’, which is part of the rationale behind Scheme Amendment 49. The Council report (see Council Minutes 24 August 2011) to initiate Amendment 49 noted that:

“Primary Centres should be major employment hubs, housing major institutions and attracting high order public and private investment outside the capital city. The long term aim is for Primary Centres to provide a similar level of service to the Perth central area in order to substantially reduce the number and length of trips and provide significant employment opportunities.  To move into this higher category, existing centres are said to need to build on existing assets and work to improve factors such as accessibility, land availability, amenity and the availability of skilled labour. Two relevant points are that Primary Centres need to supply a significant number and diversity of jobs, and that the State Government is willing to strategically invest in infrastructure for Primary Centres”.

Community benefits

The State Government has shown it is willing to invest in services and infrastructure in major city centres, as partially demonstrated in Midland, Joondalup, Stirling and Armadale. It is also looking to relocate government departments to activity centres, which could supply jobs for locals and generate economic activity. There are also quite a few other benefits to concentrating development in city centres, which I won’t bore you with now.

But ...

I don’t think most people really care whether their city is first, third or eighth on a musty hierarchy. They just want a great place to live.

There is a tendency to think that density and quantity of development are ends in themselves. Really, they are just a means to an end. The end (or goal) should be creating a great place to live, work and socialise.

The focus should be on quality of development over quantity of development in my opinion. The objective should be to attract high quality, mixed use development that will complement the character of Fremantle. There are plenty of places that have lots of ‘floorspace’, but no character, life or interest (think Melbourne’s Docklands). Quantity does not necessarily encourage visitors – they more value quality and diversity.

Maybe Freo shouldn’t try to compete with the ambitions of other centres like Stirling or Joondalup, which have lots more room, no existing character and lofty ambitions. I don’t think Freo can win a quantity-based urban arms race. Rather, it should build on its strengths to win the quality urban arms race (where it would compete with the likes of Vancouver, central Melbourne, San Francisco and Vienna).

Focus on a ‘City for People’ first

I think a city for people would be taller and denser than Freo is today. It would have high quality development, a vibrant mix of land uses, more offices and shops, many more city residents, plenty of stores selling everyday goods for locals (not just tourists), interesting, walkable streets and a vitality and dynamism that will draw innovative businesses and cultural institutions.

If Freo ends up becoming a ‘Primary Centre’ though a quality-focussed development approach, that is great. But a single-minded focus on becoming a ‘Primary Centre’ for its own sake is not good enough.

Bragging that my “my city is bigger than yours” is crass. Freo should instead focus on a quality development approach, so that it can justifiably claim to be the best place to live, work, shop and play.


  1. Good blog - it is quality of life, not quantity of life. Come to GrowthBusters (google it, or Stable Population Party) on March 29 in Freo...

  2. I could not agree more! This is where Fremantle council has got it wrong with PSA 49!!! Embrace and enhance existing Fremantle character with stunning medium rise buildings and exceptional streetscapes. Show the world Freo is different! We are not and don't want to be another Joondalup, East Perth or Mandurah. We are better!!

    Roel Loopers