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… 


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…

Newcastle’s Problems – The Series

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. This series aims to expose several issues that need to be addressed to make this a world class city.

I’m in the process of writing these posts, with the move to Canada and all, these posts could be a bit spaced out.


This page will be updated as the posts roll out. Stay tuned…

Sydney’s Suicide Towers Now Recognized as a Safe Community

Housing Commission estates have long been regarded as the worst of the worst, places where community has no chance of forming, crime rates are high, drugs are freely available, most of us wouldn’t dare to walk through one after dark. Sydney now has a model of how to turn an estate around…

The high-rise Northcott estate in Surry Hills was plagued by drug addiction, crime and mental health problems, leading the media to dub it “Suicide Towers”. Now it has become the first public housing estate in the world to achieve World Health Organisation (WHO) recognition as a “safe community”.

Water Sensitive Urban Design

Well, that’s what we call it in Australia anyway, rain water tanks, rain gardens, biofiltration swales, wetlands, sand filters, gross pollutant traps are all critical parts of residential and urban stormwater management.

Planetizen points to a recent article in the Urban Land magazine, (usually subscription only, but follow the link below for this article).

Vogel believes that Seattle and Portland have come closest to designing natural stormwater management for an urban density that would please urbanists of all stripes. “Portland’s 12th Avenue is a model for fitting nature-based stormwater management into the traditional street network in moderate- to high-density areas. In bringing even more of nature’s functions into such areas, Seattle’s “Swale on Yale” and Taylor 28 move further in the direction of…high-performance infrastructure.

Source: Does Runoff Have To Run Off? | Planetizen

Innovative Playground Design


Growing up, I don’t remember playgrounds near our house, we had “the bush”. This tract of nature reserve, nestled in the leafy suburbs of North Shore Sydney, was the destination for all our neighborhood adventures.

Who needed a cubby house? We had secret hideouts hidden behind impenetrable thorny bushes.
Who needed a bike park? We had the walking trails with steps carved out of the native sandstone.
Who needed climbing structures? We had the 3 and more meter high rocky “cliffs” that we used to rappel down.

Not everyone has access to this, not while living in a city or the suburbs, but shouldn’t we design and build play structures that offer at least some of these activities and excitement?

If you can’t tell, playgrounds interest me. Maybe its because I’ve got two kids and they always want to go to a park or playground, but from a structural, civil, urban design perspective, (which, if you’re wondering, that really is the general level of though that my mind holds to), playgrounds are a unique element in the built environment, and one that is generally done poorly. Metropolis Magazine recently stated in an article on innovative playgrounds…

Cowtown – The Sprawling City

My family likes Calgary. We lived there for two years and loved it, enjoying it’s proximity to the mountains, a fantastic river corridor through the city and it’s vibrant, sometimes alternative communities. But Calgary is a sprawling city, ever increasing it’s city limits like a belt on it’s last hole, it barely contains the bulging waistline of a growing population.

I recently returned from a quick trip to Calgary, visiting friends who live in a cute modest house in the suburbs, on a quiet street where the kids can play on their bikes or with hockey sticks without fear of high speed traffic.  They know their neighbors names, and all the kids on the street. Its a little community looking out for each other. Sounds ideal doesn’t it?  The American Dream, replayed in a city nestled against the Canadian Rockies. I loved their home and their community, and if it were a bit more affordable, we would consider moving there ourselves.

The reality of the image is a little darker, with long commutes to work, high mortgages on expensive house and land packages, double digit economic growth forcing potential home buyers to look further and further afield for their dream home. Parts of downtown are rough, in a recent article, Lisa Rochon of The Globe and Mail stated…

Suburbs are not only unsustainable, they suck the life out of the downtown.

Water as an Urban Feature in Philadelphia

Philly Tram I’m an engineer, I love to design things, and I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get to design residential and industrial subdivisions. But again and again I’m left as the lone voice to battle for the right to let the water flow, let it out of the pits and pipes into natural channels and creeks, as well as habitat welcoming ponds.

Council’s design criteria rarely include aesthetics, normally quantity and quality of the outflow are all that count, regardless of how the answers were derived.

Today I was cheered by the following article which shows innovation in a large city dealing with vacant lots and way too much stormwater. Philadelphia is built on a natural watershed, originally crisscrossed by creeks and streams which have become polluted, filled in, and replaced with pipes. The new plan aims to return the water cycle to one that employs natural processes and allows for visual amenity through form and function of the system. Read more after the jump…

Newcastle Art Gallery Revitalisation

Newcastle City is facing an identity crisis. Parts of town are great; cafés, live music, bars, restaurants, the harbour, the beaches.  Other parts are drab and even derelict.  Somewhere in between are two buildings that we regularly frequent, the Newcastle Library and the Art Gallery.  These two public buildings stand side by side at the slow end of Newcastle’s busy café culture on Darby Street, off on a beautiful tree lined side road.  A public park is across the road and the Baptist Tabernacle stands next door. Needless to say, indirect pedestrian traffic is rare, these two buildings are tucked away, a hidden treasure for parents of Newcastle children.

However, this weekend, the Newcastle Herald published an article about the proposed $35 million dollar redevelopment of the Art Gallery Site, aiming to rejuvenate the civic precinct.  The gallery houses an impressive collection of artwork, much of it not visible to the public, stored in earthquake, weather and temperature resistant vaults.  The proposed construction would use the existing gallery as a framework around which a new building would be created, housing reference rooms, restaurants, educational facilities, and most impressively, retail space fronting the ever popular Darby Street face.

All well and good, but what about the rest of Newcastle, will it suffer to pay for this extravagance?