Fremantle’s future as a vibrant city is in the media spotlight at the moment, there is no doubt that something needs to be done, but whilst there is a degree of exigency it does not mean we should throw caution to the wind.
Retail in Australia is taking a hit, with established nationals like Borders, Colorado and Jay Jays ceasing to trade and retail giants like David Jones requiring business review from the Board downward. The reasons are many and varied, from Internet shopping to international monitory troubles sapping consumer confidence levels. Sustainability principles are dictating the necessity to reduce our consumption,(see The Story of Stuff at; www.thestoryofstuff.com) whilst those same principles advocate resilient communities, including the economic resilience required to secure a future for our city (Newman, Beatley & Boyer 2009). Economic strength requires a sophisticated approach, we can no longer emulate George W Bush in his response to the 9/11 disaster by saying American’s should all go out and shop! However, isn’t seeking an additional 20,000 square metres of retail floor-space at a time when retail is contracting equally as fruitless as Bush’s call?
Fremantle needs a vision for the future based on future trends not old thinking. The growth based fiscal model the western world relies upon is based on ever increasing consumption. When the consumption cycle breaks down, as it is doing at the moment, we need to prepare for declining over the counter sales, and the best way to do that is not having all our eggs in the retail market basket. In this regard Fremantle is well placed to survive and flourish into the future, because alongside conventional retail, we have specialised industries; fashion, the arts, education, health services, tourism, legal services and architecture consolidated by our ongoing standing as a working port. However, all these industries need all the support Fremantle can give them if they are to prosper – because stay and prosper they must – Fremantle’s future depends upon it. Central to the success of these sectors is strong support from Council and the Chamber of Commerce which at present anecdotal evidence indicates is lacking.
After a decade of inertia Fremantle is now, in a time of exceptional global economic downturn, faced with the seemingly impossible task of achieving unprecedented growth to qualify for Primary Centre status under the State Government Direction 2031 Future Plan. One must admire the current Mayor and Councillors for grasping the nettle on this issue, but, simply relaxing planning rules is not the silver bullet promised. This is a wicked problem that requires multilayered targeted responses for success. For example, Fremantle desperately needs a Bus Port, so if the owners of the Cantonment Street Woolstores shopping centre want air rights, such rights should be linked to the provision of a Bus Port integrated into the development.
Effectively removing statutory height limits from three sites in Central Fremantle, including the Woolstores shopping centre, is a controversial proposition with the potential to release what renowned architect and planner Jan Ghel calls “the curse of the 100ft architect”. By this, what Jan is saying is, rather than looking at an aerial plan of a site and speculating how much development it can accommodate, we need to understand that vibrant communities grow from the ground up. Ghel Architects employ a process for revitalising cities that focuses on achieving the best streetscape and public areas called Life Between Buildings. Among others Ghel Architects were commissioned by the cities of Melbourne and Perth to assist in their city Centre revitalisation, with a subsequent upturn in their city’s fortunes. Fremantle needs to learn from these examples. One downside of increasing height limits in sections of Fremantle under the scheme may be the subsequent increase in value of those properties, further entrenching the land banking mentality prevalent in Fremantle.
Fremantle has left its run for Primary Centre status under Directions 2031 rather late and will be hampered by the current global financial downturn. In rising to this challenge let us at least ensure that our efforts result in Fremantle becoming a more resilient city.
Newman, Beatley & Boyer 2009 Resilient Cities Responding to peak Oil & Climate Change. Island Press
Published in Fremantle Herald 6 August 2011