A redevelopment of Townsville’s main street by Gamble McKinnon Green captures its historic character and enhances its outdoor social atmosphere.
While many cities are preoccupied with reclaiming urban spaces from an increasing tide of vehicular traffic, it may seem a little odd that a major urban project in the heart of the burgeoning city involves the removal of an existing pedestrian mall. It is widely accepted that increasing the amenity for pedestrians facilitates more socially and economically vibrant urban environments. However, in some situations, and particularly in regional centres, the same rules do not apply.
Across Australia, fifty-eight pedestrian malls have been constructed since the 1970s. Today forty-eight remain, and the most successful of these spaces are generally in larger metropolitan centres or in regional locations where the original city centre remains a key part of the central business district. In smaller centres the pedestrian malls have become problematic, and the situation in Townsville, Queensland is emblematic of this predicament.
The central two blocks of Flinders Street in Townsville’s CBD were converted into a pedestrian mall in 1979, in an attempt to upgrade the city centre in order to compete with the newly established suburban shopping centres. In the early 1980s the Flinders Street Mall provided a key commercial and social space in the city, with fountains, shady trees and children’s play areas complementing a diverse array of department stores and speciality shops. However, over the next fifteen years the fortunes of the mall dwindled as the western fringes of the city continued to expand and more internalized, airconditioned, suburban shopping centres were constructed within these neighbourhoods. Progressively the major anchor stores moved to the suburbs, and the closure of David Jones in 1993 signalled the death knell for the Flinders Street Mall.
For almost twenty years the original town centre remained a ghost of its former self, and no amount of marketing and branding could jump-start the city “heart.” Wisely the local councils turned their attention to other urban projects. In 1999, the repair of the seaside foreshore of The Strand, following seasonal flooding, created a fantastic beachside promenade, and in 2006 the former army camping ground upstream on the banks of the Ross River was transformed into Thuringowa Riverway Arts Centre, Lagoon and Eco-Active Centre, designed by Cox Rayner Architects and Gamble McKinnon Green.
Throughout this time there was a consistent call to re-open Flinders Street to vehicular traffic, in order to revitalize the city centre. In 2008 the local councils of Thuringowa and Townsville merged, and Les Tyrell, who had been the mayor of Thuringowa Shire since 1991 and a key proponent of the Riverway project, became mayor of the expanded domain of the Townsville City Council. The Flinders Street revitalization project needed a champion, and with Tyrell’s support the project was initiated in 2008 with a masterplan by Cox Rayner Architects.
The detailed design of the first stage of the project involved a collaboration between Cox Rayner and Gamble McKinnon Green, who together had developed a detailed and empathetic understanding of the local condition through the Riverway project, and the multidisciplinary design talents of Alexander Lotersztain of Derlot, who has also been working with Cox Rayner Architects on the Brisbane River ferry terminals.
An understanding of the broader spatial, geographical and economic context informed the project, and the design team has created a highly nuanced response that plays out at a range of scales. Strategically, the main street was opened to vehicular traffic, but in addition a new urban plaza was created on the south of the central cross street that links Flinders Street to the river.
While the reintroduction of vehicular traffic allows a more direct connection to the commercial and retail businesses along Flinders Street, the plaza to the south creates a new urban space that can be used for a range of activities. The plaza connects with the old Victoria Bridge, which provides a pedestrian link to the lively restaurant strip in nearby South Townsville. This connects the city centre spatially to the broader context and capitalizes on the cooler microclimate and scenic outlook of Ross Creek.
An appreciation of the built heritage of Townsville also informs the project. The lack of development in the city centre over the past thirty years has meant that much of the original building stock is intact, and this provides a fine backdrop for the revitalized street. The thirty-metre street width allowed for a thirteen-metre-wide, two-lane road with generous footpath spaces of 8.5 metres on either side.
Widening the footpaths permits movement along the road beyond the limits of the overhead awning, creating long diagonal views up and down the street that allow the continuous strip of historic buildings to be seen in its entirety. The placement and configuration of a series of new street lanterns and canopies is orchestrated to highlight heritage buildings and camouflage other less attractive frontages. In particular, larger structures are positioned to frame the fine civic buildings that cap the corners of each of the city blocks (see diagram).
Along the length of the street the scale and detail of the paving differentiate the circulation zones from the localized gathering and garden spaces. The planting selection acknowledges the mall’s position between two distinct landscapes: that of Magnetic Island to the east and Castle Hill to the north. New planting includes a range of local endemic species such as Townsville flax, brush box, hoop pine, cabbage palm and weeping paperbark, which complement the old fig trees that were planted as part of the 1970s Flinders Street Mall project, and which have been retained on large islands in the centre of the road.
The interlocking of building and landscape creates a seamless integration of street furniture, architecture and planting so that the individual authorship of each discipline is virtually undetectable. Bollards, bike racks, seats, lights, drinking fountains, ashtrays and tree guards merge with the landscape of pavilions, planting and porphyry paving.
The collaborative partnership between the council and the design team has been central to engaging with the broader context in order to understand the potential future civic development of Townsville. Collectively Flinders Street, Riverway and The Strand create a series of urban places that provide a contrast to the internalized commercial spaces of suburban shopping malls, and help to forge a specific local identity.
Many other regional centres are also eager to reintroduce vehicular traffic to pedestrian malls. The Flinders Street revitalization demonstrates the need to balance access to commercial tenancies with the provision of urban spaces that support a range of social and civic activities that can become a catalyst for future development.
Flinders Street revitalization received the Walter and Oliver Tunbridge Award for Building of the Year at the 2013 North Queensland Regional Architecture Awards from the Australian Institute of Architects. Gamble McKinnon Green closed in February 2012. Project director Andrew Green and project leader Katherine English are now part of the landscape architecture team at RPS.