Electra Antwerp. Photograph by Bob Perry. 2016.

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Antwerp. Photograph by Bob Perry. 2016.

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Suburban Sydney. Photograph by Bob Perry. 2016.

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Electra Antwerp. Photograph by Bob Perry. 2016.

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As part of Lively Cities and the AMCV's Biennial Symposium in Belgium, I was asked to give a keynote address, in my capacity as Chair - Place Leaders Asia Pacific, to the Belgian Association of Town Centre Management on the topic of Soft Power in Sydney.

I also ran workshops about our members’ initiatives in Asia Pacific, which were well received. Many participants were surprised by the range and depth of our activities. 

As an architect and urban designer I was reasonably daunted by the prospect of a keynote address to 500 Town Centre Managers in Europe. Nevertheless, the topic of Sydney’s Soft Power allowed me to range freely across my own impressions of our cultural strengths.

Feedback was intriguing.

As Australians and New Zealanders we are so used to studying and visiting cities abroad that we have forgotten that our own cities offer valuable lessons to the world. Several people told me that they have never seen a critical analysis of Sydney or Melbourne and had no idea of their scale or their suburban forms. There was a great deal of discussion about the impact of shopping centres on main streets, at a level of understanding that we have moved on from 20 years ago. For example, the regional malls that have insinuated themselves into our urban centres, combined with the multicultural colonisation of the traditional main streets in their wake, are models that are very interesting to Europeans. There is no doubt in my mind that Australian retail architects have greater experience and a deeper skill set than Europeans.

I asserted that Australia’s policies regarding multiculturalism were a foundation element of our Soft Power. The notion, adopted by the Whitlam government, that Australians should maintain their cultural and ethnic values, while learning English as a second language, was a surprise. Cultural and linguistic diversity underpin a uniquely diverse food culture that differs vastly from European tradition, which protect and maintain culture at each place of origin. We are way ahead of the world in culinary innovation. Moreover, the positive and productive characterization of our urban centres through ethnic diversity is a role model for cities generally.

The audience was surprised that the controversial ‘burquini’ was a fashion innovation by Aheda Zanetti from Strathfield and not a terrorist provocation as publicised in Europe.  Moreover, the burquini fits within a trend towards covering up at the beach to manage the risk of skin cancer. I showed them that the recent banning of the burquini in Europe, with police in Nice moving women off the beach, matched our own misogynist traditions of moving women off the beach - for wearing bikinis in the 60’s and for being topless in the 70’s.

I also purported that the art of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda (Sally Gabori), gushing forth during the last 9 years of her life, was an indicator of the emergence of ‘perceptive industries’ more powerful and more valuable than our ‘extractive industries’ into the future.

The conference sees our region as innovative and progressive, blessed by climate, beaches as piazzas, culturally diverse and cohesive as well as economically buoyant.

Before and after the conference I was hosted, by Town Centre Managers in Liege, Charleroi, Mons and Antwerp, to investigate models of Town Centre Management as they might apply to the Australian context. Visiting these smaller European cities, ranging in population from 100,000 to 500,000, I witnessed very focussed and integrated town centre management models, in both economically buoyant and economically depressed situations.

Perhaps there is more to learn from Beta global cities, such as Antwerp, than from amorphous other Alpha cities. Antwerp, with a population of 500,000 people, has 5.6 million people living within 60 kilometres; comparable to Sydney’s immediate catchment. Even though Sydney has a metropolitan population of 5.2 million it has a CBD with barely half the population of Antwerp.

While we leverage off the brand power of central Sydney, the harbour city, we should remember that CBD Sydney generates only a quarter of the GDP created by ‘greater’ Sydney.

Sydney, as an Alpha + Top 10 Global City, routinely benchmarks itself against other Alpha + and Alpha ++ global cities. Sydney generates a quarter of Australia’s GDP and, increasingly uses its high liveability credentials as a means of distinguishing itself and  as a way of attracting and retaining the talent necessary to keep its global city ranking.

From a global perspective we might say that the City of Sydney has hijacked the brand of Metropolitan Sydney to its own local purposes. Glamorous Sydney, the clichés of harbour, beaches, Opera House and the Bridge, is blinding the world to the deeper complexities of Greater Sydney. Why do we have to have another name for our city, like ‘Greater Sydney’, or need to describe it in terms of its western regions or its dual-core CBDs?

We have a tendency to undersell the value of collective Sydney .

Might it be better to imagine Sydney as a polycentric arrangement of Beta cities? Liverpool, Parramatta, Blacktown, Penrith, Chatswood, Newcastle and Wollongong should develop separate, distinct civic identities. Design excellence should spring from clear brand/identity objectives that dramatize local uniqueness and should respond to management systems that are tuned to the particular needs and strengths of each place.

In 2007 AMCV created a Quality Mark for town centre management called TOCEMA. It has been widely adopted, and evolved into various local forms across Europe. One of the distinguishing features of TOCEMA, mandatory for compliance, is the appointment of a Town Centre Manager who is funded by both local government and local business interests, and even by community groups. The Australian model, whereby solely Councils employ Place Managers, could benefit from this broadly based buy-in.

Antwerp is a city with extremely focused Town Centre Management. Nothing about the buzz of Antwerp is accidental. It isn’t successful just because of its art and architecture. Town Centre Managers are vigilant and pro-active in the orchestration of retail mix, marketing of the city, coordination of cultural programs and nurturing of retail start-ups and new concepts.

The historic architecture of Antwerp creates a powerful context for retail, cultural tourism and leisure. While our developing urban centres can’t instantly replicate such cultural settings, we can at least acknowledge the importance of civic amenity, public art, scale and intelligent choreography of activities needed to maintain lively cities.

As a designer, I can imagine the benefits of more integrated town centre management whereby local energies, cultural and commercial desire are woven more readily through built environments. Place Managers, dealing with the day-to-day consequences of planning decisions derived around form and traffic, are a new profession; a front-line profession deserving a bigger voice in the design of places.


The TOCEMA quality mark could be a timely template for understanding, designing and managing the town centres of our increasingly dense cities.




issue 2. summer 2016