The history of planning specialised activity centres is a fraught one. The industrial estates, business parks, technology ‘cities’, sporting arenas and even shopping centres built over recent decades have delivered mixed results. The efficiency of putting like organisations and businesses together in groups is attractive – and increases awareness and visibility of the activities involved – but experience shows up big limitations. For one, people simply don’t hang around in centres that are too specialised – they come, do whatever they are there for, and leave.

It’s efficient, but a fairly soulless approach to urban life. And lack of soul isn’t the only reason specialised activity centres are changing – finding ways to get people to hang around is good for business too. The old approach to planning specialised activity centres – as stand-alone, single-use facilities – is not the path being taken at Perth’s Burswood peninsula. Stephen Wicks, the CEO of Perth Racing, says what is being developed at Burswood is an entire sports and entertainment precinct, and these facilities are providing a focus around which to develop the east side of Perth into a vibrant place to live.

Today, activity centres are planned to provide places to work, shop, meet, relax and live. Even specialist precincts need to be multifunctional to flourish. In the case of Burswood, there is a mix of sports included in the precinct, for example. Perth Racing’s Belmont Racecourse has been on the peninsula for over 50 years and runs a year-round racing schedule. The casino, opened in 1985 and recently upgraded, attracts about 35,000 visitors on an average weekend. The footy stadium is expected to draw crowds of 60,000, and there is also a nine-hole golf course, and basketball and tennis facilities.

It’s this kind of mix that allows investment. Perth Racing is spending $86 million to build a new grandstand complex that adds a conference room for over 900 people, 3000 car spaces as well as six bars and four restaurants offering everything from burgers to buffets to bistro-style food. “We are catering for up to 8000 people,” Wicks says. “We are the closest venue to the new stadium – 400 metres via a footbridge over the Graham Farmer Freeway.”

The casino already has 16 restaurants providing food from snacks to a la carte dining. The residential plans for Burswood are also illustrative of new thinking. There will be 20,000 new residential apartments and houses built as part of the Burswood development, including 4,000 within the precinct. Including residences in the mix keeps the precinct active between sports and entertainment events, day and night. That supports community facilities such as pharmacies, hairdressers and supermarkets as well as the cafes and restaurants that provide the backbone of prosperous communities.

In the past, specialist centres have tended to be islands – inaccessible by transport other than cars, and in some cases, even gated. Today, public transport, walking and cycling are the preferred modes of getting people into and out of specialist activity centres because they are so much more efficient at accommodating big crowds. The train station at Burswood, with three platforms, will be the second largest in the state. The government goal is for over 80% of patrons to come on public transport, Wicks says. The newly-revamped Adelaide facility achieved public transport use of over 60% in its first game recently. “The Adelaide experience goes a long way to prove the government expectations are realistic,” Wicks says.

One footbridge will link Perth Racing and the footy stadium together (keeping fans away from the adjacent roads and freeways), while another footbridge crosses the Swan River, to encourage a free flow of people between the peninsula and the central business district. Not everyone will stay in the precinct after the game, however, which is why Wicks believes the precinct will be good for the city. “The city has really changed in the last five years,” Wicks says. “So much more is happening, and they will capture their share.” The trend to holding mid-week games also means that many fans already parking and working in the city will walk to the games and back after work. Playing host to footy did a lot for Subiaco. The influx of fans spawned the diversity of retail and housing that the suburb’s residents (Wicks among them) love. Planners believe Subiaco is now mature enough as an activity centre to stand on its own, while the development of the Burswood peninsula’s sporting and entertainment precinct may offer a model for sustainable specialist activity centres in other cities.

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