Sunday, 26 March 2017

Subsidies by Design

We've had some pretty miserable news lately. Just in time for the mining boom to come to an end, the car industry shuts up shop and the last three remaining manufacturers decide to leave within a few years of each other. There is some good news in the form of the decision to have some very expensive submarines built here but at the same time, we are told the building industry is doing it tough. A local (and large) building firm not long ago went into voluntary administration with debts to the tune of $110m, many of them owed to small scale contractors who can ill-afford it.

Unemployment and (lack of) economic growth in South Australia currently lead the nation and the word on the streets is that things will get worse before they get better.

Now that we no longer have a car industry, it is odd that we design our streets and suburbs so that it is difficult and inconvenient to make even the shortest journey using any mode of transport other than the now imported car.

On top of that, we import 91% of our fuel - often from filthy regimes that like to lock up 17 year old boys for blogging and then sentence them to death by beheading and crucifixion (in the 21st century!) or they'll simply flog them 1,000 times.

Retrofitting older suburbs takes time (but is not hard) yet we are still building most of our new suburbs as if nothing exists other than cars. Here's an example:

This one is a little north of Elizabeth. It is close to a railway station (Munno Para to the right of the picture) although the link to the station seems to be an afterthought. There is no relationship to the village centre which is far to the west of the station. The station is a park and ride on the very edge of the development (on the edge of a paddock yet to be developed) instead of designing the commercial centre right next to the station. To be fair, eventually all of the paddocks will be developed with housing but that seems to be some years away.

That's not the worst bit. Right in middle of the village centre just to the west of the commercial centre is an On The Run petrol station. I've sung their praises in the past but there is a proper place for that sort of thing - on the edge of the development. The developers have it all backwards. The railway station needs to be where the petrol station is and the petrol station needs to be on a ring road on the edge of the development.

If you design a new development with a proper commercial centre, it is more conducive to new small businesses. The mistake we make is to plonk a huge great car park in the middle of developments and allow some developer to come along and slap a concrete shopping centre in the middle. That is then filled with the usual suspects. There is, as you would expect, a Maccas, a Woolworths and plenty of junk food outlets. Every part is surrounded by car park as if, regardless of distance, that is not only the default mode of transport but the only conceivable mode of transport:

It also happened recently at the Brickworks markets. It was redeveloped and turned into a clone of so many other suburban shopping centres containing Woolies, Smokemart, Big W and all the rest. And the worst thing about it is that it is right next to the Linear Park bikeway but barely even acknowledges that fact. The entrance has been built about as far away as it can be:

Our suburbs and new developments do not seem to encourage new independent businesses. We need to set up the right environment to encourage local entrepreneurship - not just the economic environment, but the built environment makes a big difference. If you build a big private shopping centre surrounded by car parks, you'll get another woolworths or Bunnings. That is what has happened in the Munno Para development. There is no allowance for a corner deli anywhere in the development - just the usual massive store in the middle of the car park. Do we really need more of that?

In the right environment, there are plenty of new business and employment opportunities. Even a thick person like me can think of some (although whether they work is another matter).

What about a lunchtime place selling Danish Smørrebrød? It's healthy, looks amazing and would be just right with a small glass of bubbly:

With the right kind of development we could have scope for new clothing and furniture designers, jewelry makers, chefs, architects, florists, fruit and veg shops. What about a book shop that sells only classics (and also does coffee)?

Or on a slightly larger scale, a suitably qualified builder making Dutch style houseboats to be floated on the banks of the Coorong?

Maybe a business that converts old shipping containers into transportable retail outlets that could be stuck on the back of a lorry and used - well anywhere?

Or a full service laundry with one of those fantastic sheet ironing machines that you never see? I don't know about you but I cannot work out how to get those stubborn creases out of my sheets.

Here's a one more: a factory that makes truck and bus seats that are fully ventilated for the Australian climate and finally see an end to sweaty backsides on long-haul journeys. Like the ventilated office chairs you can get:

Anyway, I digress. The point is that an integral part of a country's economic policy must be the built environment. We seem to be getting there slowly. The PM has a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, and Adelaide City Council has released its Design Manual. It is beyond doubt now that people friendly cities and suburbs are good for business. We do not need more car parks - even in Adelaide.

Now that the car industry has gone, we also no longer need to set up our built environment as if it were a subsidy to the car industry. We can prop up something else now. As my good friend Jim tweeted:

An industry manufacturing hi-tech state-of-the-art vehicles using skilled workers. If only SA had such a need and opportunity.