Designing and developing an active place is a subtle process and one that brings together many threads to make the whole.

But there are ways to diagnose problems and ways to fix them.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment defines activity centres as “any place that attracts people for shopping, working, studying, recreation or socialising.”

Our goal, then, is to create shopping centres, parks, community centres, suburbs and whole cities into thriving hubs of human activity of all kinds – from active to the relaxed and reflective.

Good places are active places. They offer choice—transportation modes, housing types and lifestyles—access to employment and services and they provide a positive legacy for a changing community, a rich environment, and a dynamic economy.

Crime, unwanted graffiti, rubbish, damaged plants and public facilities, and deserted shops are all symptoms of a place that is missing several of the vital elements.

The solution? Diagnose the problems, and revisit the centre’s design to find solutions to improve or eradicate the issues.

Many common difficulties that arise in urban design have multiple causes and require a mix of solutions to solve them.

The community in which the problems exist almost always have the solutions. People know what will work in their community and what will not.

Asking the community how they use their spaces and how they want to use it, informs design. Context is all important to achieving a well-loved and well-used centre.

Community consultation is the starting point for solving any of the following problems.
The goal is to keep places active throughout the day and the evening, minimising the opportunity for vandalism, which thrives in deserted places.

Problem: graffiti and other damage

Think of a shopping centre, for example, offering groceries and other retail from nine to five. Add to that a free community centre and a library. These services increase civic pride and are available to all, regardless of income. Add a fitness centre, cinema, and a variety of restaurants. The presence of people well into the night reduces vandalism.
Theories on integrating our cars into our communities are changing rapidly. Planners and designers are no longer warring with cars, but focusing on increasing the mix of other transport alternatives.

Problem: traffic congestion and accidents

Wide footpaths that accommodate groups of people, or two mothers with prams encourage walking (a healthy alternative). Delineating bike paths on roads is another strategy to encourage a variety of transport modes.

The most active centres are those with multiple public transport options.

Spaces that encourage a logical flow of movement in and out of buildings and surrounding spaces are inviting, and encourage activity.
Lingering tells us much about the value of a place to a community. We linger in places we love, reluctant to move away from the comfortable seating, or the buzz of bees in the flower beds, the sound of rustling tree leaves or the conversations of our friends.

Problem: no-one lingers

We like to linger in spaces that match the scale of ‘real’ people and suit the area’s function. Even in very public places, we can foster intimate spaces – a well-placed bench below a tree, or an artwork on the pathway – contribute to people’s experience of the space and their long-term sense of belonging there.

The objective is to make people feel comfortable. Are there spaces for sitting, resting, or coming together in ways that are meaningful and attractive?

Personalising spaces in a way that is relevant to the community will magnify its value. This shapes an authentic identity that people want to be a part of.
Governments cannot afford to keep up all the spaces that a community wants and needs. But there is a way to harness the community in the effort and keep costs down.

Problem: costs are skyrocketing

Ultimately, creating a venue that people own and love is sustainable. An active place that the community uses and loves, well into the future, begins with planning and design.

Sustainability is much more than simply being “green”. It is about environmental responsibility, social inclusion and engagement, financial accountability, community value and responsible governance.

Bringing all elements together is crucial for a successful active place.
Getting all the elements in an active place right from the start is ideal, but many a main street or activation precinct has been rescued from decline by identifying the problems, consulting with the community and applying design solutions, often inexpensively. Hames Sharley is creating an Activity Centre Toolkit named ACT 2, a major research initiative aimed to create value for both the property development sector and planning agencies at the federal, state and local government level.


The above story is adapted from a Hames Sharley publication called: Bridging the Gap: Integrating and engaging with the urban realm.

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