In a recent piece, I spelled out that I had grown accustomed to owning a vehicle in Cairns. Not a lot has changed. I still need a car, maybe more so now since I sold my car and live a fair way out of the CBD.
It was with a tad bit of bitterness then when I chanced upon a piece in the The Conversation written by Professor Barbara T. H. Yen reporting on her research with a team of scholars from Griffith University.
They made the case for parking not being as important for restaurants as owners might think, adding to the growing literature on the benefits of Transit Oriented Developments (TOD).
As mentioned in the previous post, there is a part of me that evangelises TOD. It is environmentally friendlier, encouraging foot traffic, which according to urbanists, encourages economic activity in the allocated precincts.
Buzzwords and phrases that would make any believer in the magic of cities weak at the knees.
But humans are not at all rational.
I believe there is a saying that goes, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’. In a similar vain, you can create the best TOD, get awards for it and pat your self on the back, but you can’t get your people to change their ways. Not in a heartbeat.
Throw in the torrid tropical heat, unsheltered walkways, and our fascination with concrete public spaces then suddenly a 100 meter walk from the car parks on Lake street to Oceana Walk would feel like you are crossing the Simpson.
That sounds pretty rational to me.
TOD might work in big cities that are a bit cooler, but maybe not in Cairns. Not until someone fixes the heat.
Urbanists are so busy planning and dreaming that we rarely spend time thinking about the people. Actually, I’ll correct myself. We rarely spend time thinking about the culture of how the space is used.
Often, a map, a rough sketch, and a graphic designer are all who are needed to create an idea but no one thinks about how that space fits in with the culture of the area. Cairns then is removed from being that place in the tropics or in the region. It is a spatial area on a map on a computer with a CAD or graphic designer trying to make some abstraction of reality look nice on paper. This is particularly the case with those large firms who so easily shore off their graphic design work to some guy sitting in an office in Manilla or New Delhi (yes it is happening) but that is another story.
I’d contend that Cairns has a different culture that is not yet compatible with political aspirations for mass transit- sadly.
Safe to say I was very skeptical of the Barbara Yen report. While it provided a great case study of Inner City Brisbane, beyond that it was only a case study, one that must be cited with caution when thinking about those small-er cities to the north.
We smaller cities balance precariously between the contending binaries of being a big city or a small town.
You’ll hear it in the voice of the local who says that Cairns has “changed” but is still small enough to meet everyone down at the local, or the newly arrived who claims that Cairns has the “right balance”.
Inner City Brisbane is a big city with a very distinct urban culture to that of its regional counterparts. The cosmopolitan, young, vibrant crowd of former hipsters-come-yuppies who live in the suburbs around the restaurant strip are not representative of the residents in regional cities – stewards of their distinct culture.
The restaurant scene along West End, Eagle Street, and Caxton Street are part and parcel of their urban fabric; a material that is influenced by the culture of that space.
In my opinion then, any research carried out in urban spaces must also acknowledge the urban cultural mix that varies from space to space. I’d venture so far as to claim that it is the sticky stuff that makes a place worth remembering; the people and the distinct experiences they create.
Assuming homogeneity across different sized cities then would only offer a partial and incomplete analysis, if the Barbara Yen report was to be taken as gospel. People and their cultures are different across different urban areas.
Cairns urban culture is vastly different to Inner City Brisbane.
On another note, and this is perhaps my biggest point of concern, is that the report fails to identify where the restaurant customers were coming from (point of origin). The researchers mentioned this as a limitation to their findings but would have done better by clarifying it in The Conversation.
This is actually another point – where urbanists get their information from – but I’ll make that at a later time.
It would be important to understand if the customers were regulars who lived within the Brisbane Inner City, or were new customers that travelled from afar, and if so, what their preferred mode of travel would have been.
More over, the survey only captured customers who were already in the restaurant, leaving out those who had no access to the restaurant.
How do you account for the opinion of those who are not there?
There is a seemingly unconscious bias then that has already been designed into the research that favours non-drivers omitting those who would otherwise have driven to the restaurant.
Caxton Street and West End are both restaurant precincts that are already difficult places to get parking along in Brisbane. Any additional car parking is taken up by inner city residents, or is already too expensive.
Lastly, the report only discusses restaurants within restaurant precincts but stakes claim to assume all businesses behave the same. Businesses types are vastly different from each other requiring different economic conditions to keep on keep on their feet.
Restaurants, as businesses, are a fraction of the ecosystem that gives inner cities their spark. For all we know, cars might be important to other small businesses that give the inner city an added dimension.
It would be to err in conscience for anyone to use the Barbara Yen Report as a generalisation of experiences around all of Brisbane, or any other Queensland city, Cairns included.
So I will leave this thought with anyone who has taken the time to read this piece.
I raise these concerns not to be distasteful over the findings of the Barbara T.H Yen report. However, as an urbanist from a regional city, it is my duty to the profession that I raise concern over possible influential pieces of work.
I am growing acutely aware of the inequities that are being blindly projected on spatial agglomerations who carry that formidable title of ‘city’ regardless of size, history or culture.
We live in a world in which information travels a bit too fast for interpretation, often without testing. In a bid to grow economies for a comparative advantage, municipalities often implement urban policies with little critical thought in a bid to ‘look’ and ‘feel’ like a big city’.
Lazy urbanism and planning has hidden behind the veil of the so called ‘Best Practice’ and ‘Case Studies’ of public infrastructure projects to copy and paste ‘success’ across different cities. Urban revitalisation and renewal are part of this mix. Projects earmarked to be a silver bullet by council have gone ahead with no real imagination, blind to risk and often at tremendous financial cost to the ratepayer and political cost to the councillors.
Spence Street in Cairns feels like a scaled down Queen Street in Brisbane, which feels like Pitt Street in Sydney, which feels like Bourke Street in Melbourne. Cookie-cutter urbanism that smaller regional councils unintentionally employ to capture an aesthetic comes to their own financial detriment.
All that and the tropical heat and rains have almost been taken for granted during the design of the city spine.
Smaller cities should be mindful of blindly accepting the gospel of research originating out of the big cities. The last thing small regional cities need is the weight of expectation to behave like a Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne.
When small cities are at the mercy of the latest trend in “big city talk”, such as Transit Oriented Development, or the rise of the Smart City, it can be to our own detriment to jump on that bandwagon for fear of missing out.