Small town futures

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A precarious future, arising from a perfect storm of social and economic change, is confronting many small New Zealand towns. Should they be left to decline and die, or are these places worth fighting for?

Gradual decline of small towns has been compounded by local shops losing custom to larger centres or online shopping, resulting in vacant shops in town centres. This trend adds to the economic pressure on building owners, especially for those faced with strengthening earthquake-prone buildings. Those very buildings are often the more appealing in small towns, with group heritage values.

For those towns willing to take up the fight Boffa Miskell has been able to help and influence constructive change. How?

“Understanding the actual guts of the problem is first,” says Boffa Miskell urban planner, Marc Baily. “Empirical research provides a credible basis for breaking down the problem and finding a foundation for constructive change. What are the economic drivers and barriers to a sustainable future? What anchors the local economy? How do people use or not use the town centre socially? Are there values, such as historic heritage? How good is access to streets and open spaces?”

A strategic approach, which includes local people, rather than investing in quick cosmetic fixes is the only viable way to change course.

Hawera town centre strategy

During 2014, Boffa Miskell collaborated with the South Taranaki District Council and community to build a strategy for the Hawera town centre – a place affected by all the ‘perfect storm’ elements.

The strategy process, led by a local working group and involving the whole senior management team, bravely grasped the nettle and identified a spatial policy and investment action plan. Key areas of focus were:

  • helping existing anchor activities to stay and grow;
  • getting local and regional people to think about the town centre as a place to come to for fun by injecting new activities and events;
  • catalysing a new perception of the town centre as a positive social place by relocating the old library to a new building with a public square, forming a contemporary civic place with quality food and beverage;
  • making easier traffic connections from SH3 to attract visitors;
  • re-sizing the town centre footprint to better fit the economy, through changes in the district plan, strategic site purchases and provision for residential development.

John McKenzie, Group Manager Environmental Services at the Council, says, “The process went well with a large amount of public participation and good outcomes. The only frustration is that the community is now expecting to see an overnight change in the town centre!”

For his part, Marc applauds all the councils who are taking on the fight, however they choose to do it.

“The value of these town centres as a social place has been underestimated. Ultimately, many will never be able to compete on retail only – the future is in making them social venues where people want to be that will generate retail and hospitality opportunities.”

For further information please contact Marc Baily

18 May 2015