|Bridge Mall in 2016|
Earlier in the year I read Jane Jacobs' seminal text The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It has a lot to say about how to make lively streets, neighbourhoods, and cities, but one of the core lessons is that the best neighbourhoods put people first, and attract a wide range of people for a wide range of reasons at a wide range of times. This diversity of uses is important for a whole range of reasons that each affect each other.
Before we get into that, what are the problems with Bridge Mall? The main two problems are that it's not doing so well as a retail precinct, with a number of storefronts going without tenants for long periods of time, and that there's a strong perception that it's unsafe - particularly at night. The two problems are closely connected.
As the retail strip declines, fewer people have a reason to visit it. The fewer people visit it, the less safe it feels - the perception being that only hoodlums would be there. The less safe it feels, the fewer people are willing to shop there - and so on.
|One of many empty storefronts in Bridge Mall|
We need to bring more people into the precinct, for a wider variety of reasons, at a wider variety of times - basically, more diversity of use. This provides "passive surveillance" (the effect of lowering crime and antisocial behaviour simply because there's lots of normal people around) at a wider span of hours, while at the same time acting as a kind of "social proof" (other people are there, it must be a good place to go - I'll go too).
Part of the problem is that the current mixture of uses is heavily geared towards 9-5 retail, and 8-4 cafes. There are just very few legitimate reason to be in the Mall after about 6pm - hence the "hoodlum" perception. If there were a few businesses that opened later into the evenings, giving people a reason to visit in the evenings, that would go a long way towards fixing that - it could be anything from later-trading retail stores, to restaurants & bars, to theatres.
Of course, that's easier said than done, and there is a catch-22 here - at the moment the Mall is dead after 6pm, so what retailer would bother staying open later? What restaurateur would choose it for a location when there's no foot traffic?
|The only two restaurants in the Mall are visible from Grenville Street|
But it's clear from the current malaise that this isn't enough on its own - there needs to be outside intervention. So what can be done?
I'm going to say at the outset - I don't really know. I have a good idea of what needs to happen (diversity of use) but how to make it happen is a bit trickier. We as Ballaratians all need to participate in that conversation - businesspeople and customers alike. But I do have a few ideas to get us started.
|Tram entering Bridge St, in the days when trams & cars both ran down the street (Source)|
Returning cars to Bridge Mall gets proposed every time this topic comes up, but all the evidence from around the world tells us that it won't work. The problem isn't a lack of parking - there are massive carparks either side of the Mall, not to mention all the on-street parking nearby. You might think that having cars driving past would help just from the perspective of putting more eyes on the street, but it doesn't - people are basically too focused on the task of driving, and too ensconced in their protective bubble, to either window-shop or provide much passive surveillance.
Trams probably would work - a pedestrian/tram mix like Bourke Street would tick all the boxes. People waiting for (or sitting on) trams provide good passive surveillance, and are often likely to patronise nearby businesses because they're convenient to get to. But it's a huge, expensive, city-wide project that won't happen at least for a few decades, so we need to think of more realistic short-term options.
|Proposed pedestrian & cycling improvements on Grenville Street (via VicRoads)|
It's not like it's impossible to cross here - but you want an area like this to be as porous as possible, to actively encourage shoppers to walk a little further and check out the next block. Making crossings like this difficult acts as a subtle signal to pedestrians saying "It's not worth going any further this way".
Thankfully, there is already work underway to improve this. VicRoads and Council are working to upgrade Mair Street so it can take more of that east-west traffic off Sturt Street - which will hopefully mean we can have more pedestrian-friendly light cycles on Grenville Street. As part of a separate project, they're also intending to install new crossings where Grenville meets Curtis and Little Bridge, which will be a big help (aspects of the planned cycling improvements on Sturt Street have been sent back to the drawing board in controversial circumstances, but I understand this aspect is still going ahead).
|No bikes allowed!|
But there are plenty of adult cyclists (with disposable income!) who could take their bikes through the Mall - perhaps stop off at one of the cafes on the way to work, or do a little clothes or book shopping on their way home.
Even if they just rode straight through (choosing the Mall because it's safer than dodging traffic on the surrounding streets) they would provide a lot of passive surveillance, including outside normal business hours.
|One of many non-functioning lightposts in the Mall|
|Most of the buildings in the Mall have upper storeys that are under-used|
Fourth - projects like this Ballarat Arts Foundation initiative could be a great way to kickstart things. Hopefully some of them will be able attract people after normal business hours - whether through later opening hours, or by being able to be enjoyed 24/7, in the case of artistic displays visible from the street. If empty spaces could be used for small community theatre productions in the evenings, for example, that would be a good way to get the ball rolling.
|Wendouree West bus in Ballarat (via jayessaitch on Flickr)|
Finally - specifically encouraging the kinds of businesses that open later in the evenings. The zoning appears to be conducive to them, but clearly it's not just about allowing these types of businesses - we need to actively encourage them. Maybe obtaining some of the permits, like liquor licenses for restaurants, is too cumbersome - in which case council could streamline this process for businesses willing to take a chance on the Mall. Maybe that's not the issue at all - I don't know. Like I said, we need the businesspeople to get involved in this conversation, and tell us what the barriers are.
The point is not that this is remotely easy or that I have a simple list of solutions on hand. It isn't, and I don't. But we need to have an understanding of how these things work - what kind of general conditions encourage a lively precinct - if we're to know what goals we're heading for.
In order to actually achieve those goals - to know which policy levers to pull in order to get there - we all need to get involved.