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Newcastle’s Problems – The Alleys

Downtown Newcastle is about halfway between a seedy late-night no-go zone and a hip vibrant small downtown core. At the seventh largest city in Australia, Newcastle commands great beaches, a great lifestyle and affordable living, but downtown is a mess. Here’s my take on why…

Alleys

What makes a city lane or alleyway so special? Why are these often forgotten service routes so maligned? Why do so many cities want to develop them out and get rid of them?

Often the setting for fight scenes in movies, or a criminal author’s latest murder plot, these hidden spaces are destined to hold some mystery, even some attraction, but more often than not revulsion.  Even in my research for this article, I encountered the stench of urine soaked doorways, the disused back routes into buildings with pretty front facades. Alleys are perceived as scary places, but is there room to change the common view, get over the fear? More after the jump…

Changing Times

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Alleys were once the service side of businesses, where deliveries were made and behind the scenes transactions were made. Alleys were where the nightsoil man did his business and where the workers too poor to own a house, made their home, a kind of secondary housing society. The history of alleys goes back to roman cities such as Pompeii and Rome, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as services and deliveries became more engineered and distributed, many went underground and alleys became havens for crime.

These spaces, tells architect David Winslow in the San Francisco Chronicle, “are primarily underused because there has been a disinvestment in them.” David as a student in Rome, while researching for his thesis twenty years ago walked the narrowest streets and alleys, vicoli and found them packed with vibrant activity. He compared these to streets in his native American alleys, and considered how city streets could become more walkable. His answer represents one of the big themes in the New Urbanism movement, “small businesses catering to neighborhood needs, all within walking distance”.

Newcastle’s Alleys

In Newcastle there are three main alleys, which are pictured in this article. I wish I had some before shots, but we’ll focus on the “afters” anyway. The “befores” are probably pretty obvious, a series of traditional alleys ripe for urban renewal.

In 2004 Newcastle City Council approved a development application for a multi million dollar installation to protect a weekend market place, in the downtown area. At the time, these markets were tipped to transform the image of downtown Newcastle, as a weekday office-work-only zone, to a weekend small business profit zone. At least that’s the picture that the public were presented with.

But within a year the markets had failed, investors were scrambling for their cash, and all the effort and infrastructure invested lies dormant.

What Happened to the Markets?

Much social commentary in newspapers and around town sought to provide answers to this question. Aside from the quality of the markets or the cost of hiring a stall, what elements of the urban fabric could have been better managed to make this venture a success? The first and most obvious item was Newcastle City Council’s simultaneous introduction of parking meters through out the entirety of the downtown core almost to the very weekend that the markets were set to open. Parking availability has long been a sore point for workers and shop keepers in the downtown area, and the introduction of metered weekend parking just made things worse for weekend trade. Once the initial excitement of the markets was over, patronage dropped rapidly with parking officers handing out $60 fines all around town. Parking isn’t the focus of this article, rather it is used as an example to show the poor level of combined planning in Council.

How Could the Alleys be Better Included in the Urban City?

There are a number of things that could make these alleyways better;

  • Randomness – random surfaces, cobblestones, mismatched surfaces, walls, windows, surprises, places to get lost in the crowd or a maze of streets. All of these things make alleyways special places, things that shouldn’t be designed out of the space. It’s the random that makes these places interesting.
  • Use of space – mixed use development is important, residential, small commercial, stall holders, parking, shared pedestrian routes, bike parking, public seating, vegetation, cafes. The key is not to exclude, but rather to include, normal densities shouldn’t really apply, many of these spaces would not meet fire department access requirements, for example 6m wide clear space in NSW, Australia), instead an acknowledgement that the space is being better used and provide a suitable level of alternate fire service for the area.
  • Accessibility – One of the things that really bugs me about Newcastle’s alleys is in the effort to meet accessibility standards, the whole nature of the alley has been destroyed, for an idea of what I’m talking about check out these photos…

Newcastle urban design alleys Newcastle urban design alleys

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This space is unusable, during the short time that the markets were running, there were stalls set up on each turn-around platform, almost defeating the very purpose of the turn-around’s! Now the existing grade of the lane here was steeper than the prescribed grade of 1 in 14 for wheelchairs, but can anyone tell me in all honesty that this is actually better?

What works… Incentives

Now, I know there is a lot of competition between Sydney and Melbourne, but I really think that Melbourne picked up on the international lane and alleyway trends for revitalization earlier on than Sydney, this from a recent Sydney Morning Herald Article…

Cr Moore’s attempt to sidestep the inevitable comparison was destined to fail yesterday when she announced an overhaul of 47 forgotten laneways in the city. In a push to return some “energy and soul” to the city, the council will give businesses and arts bodies incentives to open wine bars, hole-in-the-wall cafes and public art installations along the walls of the city’s neglected alleys.

Source: Forget Melbourne, changing lanes is right up city’s alley – National

Incentives. what a good idea! Rather than charging for parking, let businesses give out free parking vouchers, rather than charging for currently unused or underused footpath space to be taken for cafe seating, lay off on charging for two years or something like that. Give businesses who are interested in revitalizing downtown a break, standard solutions will not draw businesses or the public into these areas, I was the only person walking through this alley at 8:30 in the morning on a weekday, tens of thousands of people work downtown, what’s going on?

Addendum: I have found a hole in the wall cafe in Sydney that I’ll post about next week, stay tuned!

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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