Wednesday, 18 April 2012

How Bubba's backyard got me thinking about Freo's city centre

My four year old nephew Bubba may just have the best, most interesting outdoor space this side of the milky way.

Welcome to Bubba's backyard
The other night, my wife and I surprised Bubba at his Mt Hawthorn home. He is going through a stage where he gets a thrill out of being scared. Unfortunately, our attempt at scaring him wasn't a success, with Bubba nonchantly greeting us as we jumped out at him. My wife's endearing ability to trample around like she is one of Hannibal's elephants must have given us away.

Bubba took my wife's hand and led her on a tour of his backyard while I went inside and chewed the fat with his mum. I returned to find them both engrossed in a game at Bubba's cafe. It was at that point that I had an epiphany about Freo's city centre.

The awesomeness of Bubba's backyard

I looked around Bubba's backyard and admired the way in which his mum had imaginatively and creatively used the space. There is a fishpond and waterfall complete with frogs and tadpoles.

Bubba gets to feed his fish
There is a secret Bridge-to-Teribithia-like pathway which wends its way through a small but dense forest in which lurks scary animals like tigers, so says Bubba.

Bubba's trampoline, his companion 'Nelly' and getting chased through his jungle
Lots of trees are scattered around which provide shade and points of interest, and there's grass to lounge about on or play chasey. A chicken coop houses their two beautiful chickens. Bubba is the chief egg collector.
Bubba is chief egg collector and in a game of hide and seek he pretends to be a chicken so well he fools his Uncle Swaney
A herb garden provides interesting flavours for Bubba's cafe. Bubba even has a small trampoline as well as a little cubby built into a small tree. At nighttime the solar lamps kick in and the garden undergoes yet another transformation.

All in all Bubba's backyard is a great place. Its possibilities extend beyond the purely visual and into the realm of the tactile; a sense that as adults we often fail to enjoy. You can enjoy it in all sorts of weather. And importantly, there's plenty of scope for the imagination.

Bubba HQ
I think placemakers like Jan Gehl, Fred Kent and Julian Dobson would be impressed. There are plenty of opportunities for Bubba to have different types of interactions depending on his mood. He can play by himself. He can search for that scary, but elusive tiger with my wife fulfilling her role as his loyal sherpa. He can hide. There is space for him to ride his tricycle. He can help his mum do the gardening. He can kick back and watch the goings on of his backyard. It is obvious to me that the different layers of his backyard add up to much more than simply the sum of their parts. Collectively, these layers come together and create a wonderful, unique place suitable for all sorts of moods.

I was standing around thinking all these things when I noticed that Bubba and my wife were still engrossed in their game. I took the opportunity to practice my Jason Bourne skills and proceeded to scare the living bejesus out of both of them. Ten minutes later, I was hiding in the herb garden, waiting for Bubba to 'scare' me. I had to let Bubba get his revenge as therapy for frightening him so badly that he ran off crying; I had jumped out in front of the backyard light so all he saw was a large, dark sillouette. Crouching in the garden and waiting for Bubba to find me, I became convinced that we really need to rethink our city centre (and consider hiring Bubba's mum as Freo's chief placemaker).

Bubba's mum

Why rethink Freo's city centre?

I get the feeling that, like Bubba's tiger, seeking out expanded retail as the solution to all our troubles may be an elusive and ultimately fruitless exercise.

I feel that this approach assumes that what has happened in the past will continue into the future. But times are changing. Internet shopping means that people can buy books from the comfort of their homes whenever they like (and at a cheaper price). It's been forecast that our mobile phones will become the most convenient option for buying groceries within a decade.
To me this has a couple of very important repercussions. The concept of planning for mono-functional city centres based solely around shopping as the primary activity is becoming redundant. People's expectations of their city centres will change along with their shopping habits.

Turning the negative into an opportunity

When Bubba was just a twinkle in his mother's eye, his future backyard wasn't impressive at all. It was dusty, dry and one-dimensional (a little like the dustbowl out the front of the Kidogo Gallery). Bubba's mum saw an opportunity and rethought the space. The end result is what Bubba enjoys today.

So what are some opportunities?

I recently watched a video by Julian Dobson (click here) and gleaned three key themes for rethinking Freo's city centre:

1. In an age of clone towns the ability to tell Freo's unique story will become its lifeline. Our point of difference must be sacrosanct and Freo's story must be told. What is Council doing to ensure that Freo does not become anywhereville? What is it about Freo that other places want?

2. Only offering up a shopping experience seems shortsighted when people's expectations and habits are changing. Is there value in Council's goal of increasing retail at the expense of so much else?

3. Social value is important. Along with creating quality places, social value will become the determining factor in deciding where people decide to spend their time. This means adding layer upon layer of activity and function to Freo's city centre. How is social value being added to our city centre, and how can we add more?


If revitalising Freo's city centre is like completing a puzzle and Scheme Amendment 49 and the Economic Development Strategy are the puzzle pieces, then where is the puzzle cover? What is our shared vision for the city centre?


  1. Michael
    Another excellent post.
    My only point of disagreement would be on the vision question which goes way beyond shopping. Althought part of my vision is not having to drive to Garden City!
    A vibrant and sustainable heritage city is what we are aiming for.
    Cheers. Brad

  2. Goody good good.

    And right about Fremantle centre. "I shop, therefore I am", is not what humankind is all about. However, someone has to pay the rates!

    You've been reading over my shoulder, also ..

  3. The resurrection of the Fremantle Workers Club shows one does not have to reinvent the wheel to revitalise an area, but that is what Freo is doing with PSA 49. It will destroy the character of the inner city, while that should have been one of the 'anchors' to build revitalisation on.

    The Arthur Head approach is the same. Throw existing anchors like iconic sculptor Greg James out to lease the space at subsidised rent to unproven artists.

    Fremantle is going about revitalising the city all the wrong way. There is now a stubborn dogmatism. They are right and all opponents are wrong. That is not an intelligent way of moving forward.

    Roel Loopers