Plan combines vision with the realities of Newcastle communities

For Aurecon’s Matt Coetzee and Eric Kreutzer, the Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan emphasises best-practice in urban planning at a time when infrastructure costs are rising in step with growing and changing populations.

The Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan is the proposed development of Australia’s largest regional city, Newcastle, and the opportunities surrounding it in the lower Hunter. And while it’s rare for the private sector to give thumbs-up to government, this Plan, the first of its kind for Newcastle, is worthy of a mention.

We believe it’s a document that emphasises best-practice in urban planning at a time when infrastructure costs are rising in step with growing and changing populations.

The main strength of Newcastle’s Metro Plan is that it’s socio-economically realistic and appropriates existing advantages rather than positing a future industry for the city. These existing strengths include an educational knowledge-base, an engineering and mining sector, a large and modern port, a defence industry at Williamtown, the lifestyle charms of Newcastle, the healthcare and health sciences base, and the surrounding ‘wine country’.

The NSW Department of Planning & Environment also engaged an expert to advise on the Plan. Professor Greg Clark has a track record in ‘rust belt’ urban renewal - pertinent because Newcastle’s BHP steel works closed in 1999. Clark looked to other renewal projects around the world, and with Bilbao (Spain), Cardiff (Wales) and Portland (USA) he focused on cities - like Newcastle - that neighbour large cities while having advantages in their own right.

Another tick for this plan? It brings layers of government to the planning table: six local governments, State and Commonwealth, and agencies such as the Port authority. Getting all parties on the same page is crucial for a master-plan approach to development.

Lastly, the Newcastle Metro Plan is best-practice because it’s strategic. Anyone can plan a new road by forecasting how many cars will drive on it. The bigger issues are, where the road goes; what it connects to; what greater value it creates beyond its immediate utility.

So in the 20-year Metro Plan for Newcastle, a cruise terminal, rail interchange, light rail, ring road completion, University of Newcastle expansion, Maitland Hospital expansion, Newcastle Airport upgrade to international and M1 freeway bypass, are big-ticket investments but they’re not discrete projects: they are valued as a system benefit, to the Lower Hunter, to regional NSW, to the mid-North Coast, to Newcastle itself and to Sydney.

Combining strategy with real socio-economic conditions is exemplified in the Plan’s use of ‘catalyst’ areas, such as the port, the Williamtown RAAF base/airport and the city centre. Catalyst planning combines strategic vision with the realities of communities.

The Metro Plan explains Catalysts this way: “Catalyst areas will be delivered through a collaborative planning approach with a focus on providing integrated land use and transport, priority infrastructure, open space and high quality urban design. This Plan recognises that good access to transport services is critical for new employment and housing opportunities to be realised, and in achieving the target of 95% of people living within 30 minutes of a strategic centre.”

The Catalyst approach takes human qualitative outcomes as seriously as it takes quantitative metrics. It makes for a longer planning phase, but all infrastructure and urban planning will eventually have to be done this way to ensure infrastructure delivers value at all levels.

At Aurecon we use a system called Human-Centred Design to ensure that infrastructure is socially relevant. In the planning of the completion of Newcastle’s Ring Road we devoted resources to working out the road’s user-behaviours. When designing the multi-purpose bridge, we brought in local cyclists, put them on a fixed bicycle and gave them VR goggles that allowed them to ‘ride’ through digitally-rendered versions of our bridge. They gave us feedback on the designs and the feedback was injected into the final designs.

Our planning work with the NeW Space project at University of Newcastle emphasises opening up the University’s image from a leafy suburban campus to having a CBD footprint, while designing university buildings for smaller, collaborative study groups.

As infrastructure costs increase, the lesson is this: it isn’t just planning that matters, but the kind of planning.

Allocating budgets while ensuring the infrastructure supports communities is a challenge for governments. The Greater Sydney plan and now, Greater Newcastle Metro Plan, not only show it’s possible but the pay-off is better cities.  

About the authors

Eric Kreutzer is a Business Development Manager for Newcastle at Aurecon. 

This article is an adaptation of a LinkedIn Pulse by Matt Coetzee and Eric Kreutzer titled, Planning to succeed - the Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan, published on September 24 2018.

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