Balancing act: How do you expand regional centres without destroying their character?

With massive population growth in the regions over the past year, ensuring regional areas can sustainably expand without losing the character that made them attractive in the first place is often a difficult balancing act.

Population numbers across Australia’s regional cities and towns are expected to grow further as the work-from-home trend and affordable housing options lead more residents to leave capital cities. 

One of Australia’s leading urban planners has warned that population growth risks regional areas expanding in a similar manner to conventional suburban subdivisions in order to quickly facilitate the growth. 

Mike Day, a partner at award-winning urban planning and design firm Hatch RobertsDay, has urged local authorities and planners to carefully consider the existing character values of regional communities when it comes to formulating growth strategies.

“What we’re concerned about is urban developers, or suburban developers, now seeing an opportunity around the edges of these country towns, and applying a suburban pattern to development,” Mr Day told Elite Agent. 

“And if they do that, it’s going to erode the character and the uniqueness of these towns and villages.” 

Mr Day has provided some insights into how towns may be able to retain their heritage, character and unique features, and continue to be loved by regional communities – as they evolve and cater for new arrivals.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost 64,000 residents migrated from metropolitan urban areas to the regions between January and September last year.

Recent CoreLogic Property Pulse figures also show housing values across regional Australia rose by more than four times (7.9 per cent) the growth rate recorded across the combined capital city regions (1.7 per cent) over the 12 months to January 2021.  

Mr Day predicted the increase in regional town movement would continue in 2021 and beyond.

“Regional towns are accommodating the sea- and tree-changers as more Australians are attracted to improved work-life balance, lower living costs, access to open spaces, nature, and a slower pace of life in regional areas,” he said. 

“Many find they don’t need to live near metropolitan city centres and pay high living and commuting costs if they can work remotely. This will require our regional towns to cater for the increased demand. 

“Developers and planners must ensure they maintain the character and sense of place in these towns and villages, or face local community backlash and lose the essence of what makes those towns so attractive in the first place. 

“We cannot develop these areas in the same way as new suburbs on the outskirts of our metropolitan cities.”

Mr Day said regional residents were closely connected to their towns and often sensitive to change.

“These towns are often characterised by heritage buildings, compact mini main streets, large open spaces and gardens, and low-density housing – and residents want to maintain these aspects that make the town special in the first place,” he said. 

“For this reason, there is nearly always more pushback from regional communities than in new suburbs, which is why it is essential to seek community input early in any planning and development process.”

Councils could develop building codes and guidelines that reflect and respect their particular settings 

Mr Day said developers and planners should respect a town’s character by integrating complementary developments into the existing urban pattern rather than introducing conventional suburban subdivision patterns and built form.

Engage and consult early with the community 

He said local residents are inevitably ‘local experts’ that have travelled extensively. When they are involved early in the planning process they can provide feedback and advise the changes they want to see to create a town they are proud of and will love to continue calling home. 

“You’ve got to engage with them at the beginning of the process, not just at the end of the process,” he said. 

“Often what happens is a development company puts a plan together, puts it into the system to the council or the state government. 

“We’re suggesting they might want to engage with a good cross-section of the community or local residents before they embark on a process and do their detailed plans.” 

Create jobs for the local community 

Creation of mixed-use neighbourhoods or business hubs and government projects will attract business and work opportunities for local residents, Mr Day said.

In Mr Day’s extensive experience on regional projects, he has found residents are very receptive to development plans that provide local jobs, particularly for the youth of a community, which invariably assists in addressing many social issues.

Reinforce and expand existing walkable neighbourhoods 

Compact, mixed-use, walkable neighbourhoods provide opportunities for social connection and a reduced reliance on cars. With remote working becoming more popular, living in closer proximity to local amenities can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, and will also foster a stronger community and sense of belonging, particularly among new residents moving from major cities.

Provide housing diversity

Mr Day said communities that combined single-dwelling homes, townhouses, apartments, and specialised housing for seniors  would help attract residents of all ages and incomes. 

Maintain community engagement in perpetuity 

Mr Day reinforced the importance of getting a true cross-section of the community, not only a vocal minority, through expressions of interest for community involvement. He said ongoing community input on regional projects would ensure the critical attributes of a town were retained.

“That’s the recipe for success, everyone benefits then,” he said.

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Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson was the news editor for Elite Agent. He worked with the company from February 2020 to June 2020. For current stories, news alerts or pitches, please email [email protected]