Urbis Think Tank
What’s Sending us Outside? Retail Centres and ‘Activated’ Street Edges – Lessons from Abroad
By David Hoy
In September this year Urbis led a client delegation to the US and UK to learn about the very latest in retail centre design, format, planning and development delivery mechanisms. The tour visited 40 centres across California as well as retail centres in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool.
One key lesson from the tour was the paramount importance that the physical context of a retail centre has upon its viability and success. In Australia, a key source of contention for retail development is the arbitrary imposition of street activation controls through “formulaic” urban planning and design regulations that fail to have any real appreciation of context. These controls often work against the very objectives that they are trying to achieve, particularly in the absence of any shared public-private vision for a centre. Our overseas experiences reinforced the critical need to recognise that every retail centre is different, not only in context, but also in functions performed.
It was clearly apparent from an assessment of US and UK centres, that whilst all retail centres need to address key planning and design issues necessary to make them practically work, for example provision of easily recognisable and convenient car parking and back of house servicing, centres also required design flexibility in order to respond to specific local conditions and context. A good example is the varying approaches to activation of street edges either within or around the periphery of centres.
Activated street frontages were seen to work best where there was significant surrounding density, such as in CBD locations that had good public transport linkages (especially mass transit) or proximity to complementary uses such as visitor accommodation or leisure and entertainment. Likewise, those centres that took full advantage of aspect and contextual setting to create a point of difference often drove development decisions to activate certain frontages over others. These centres underscored the importance of planning authorities needing to understand market needs and a willingness to embrace the vital knowledge and role that experienced retail developers have in creating great spaces and places that serve the community.
To ensure that external facing tenancies work well the centre needs to have frontage to significant pedestrian movement corridors providing convenient and unimpeded access between key anchors within the centre or destinations in walkable proximity beyond the centre. It is also important to recognise where to stop or down scale street activation where the obvious limit is reached .i.e away from key pedestrian tracks.
Another important element to successful street activation was climate and matching retail uses that aligned with local climatic conditions. This factor is often overlooked in Australia, where the provision of the “al fresco” experience needs to be balanced against climatic conditions such as heat, humidity and perhaps most notably in the Australian context, rainfall intensity during storm events. The impact of these micro-considerations must be acknowledged case by case rather than via the adoption of prescriptive “box ticking” assessments that don’t do any justice to the creation of vibrant retail places that we all deserve to enjoy.