Australia is dominated by flat-white urbanism. There must be better ways to create street life

Mmmm, caffeine. Image: Getty.

Iconic architectural pieces may attract large numbers of tourists but are not the only things that live in the memories of visitors to Australian cities. Everyday experiences also endure. In fact, eating is one of the top tourist activities.

It’s also where the money is spent. According to Tourism Research Australia’s Tourism Satellite Account 2015-16 report, tourists spend the largest percentage of their money – about 21 cents in every dollar – on takeaways, restaurant meals and beverages.

It isn’t just international tourists searching for memorable cafe and dining experiences – leisure-seekers from nearby suburbs or towns are too. According to Food Industry Foresight’s Coffee & Beverages In Australia annual tracking study, Australians drink about two coffees out per week. That equates to about 1.8 billion espresso-based coffees a year, costing A$7.3bn.

So that cafes, restaurants and bars remain competitive, the architecture becomes part of the attraction. This has led to some ubiquitous design signifiers: white subway tiles, reclaimed timber, austere pendant lighting, white anodised SHS steel and exposed brick.

Additionally, cafe names often echo a civic rhetoric – see Common Ground, Public House, New School Canteen.

Cafes, for example Fitzroy’s New School Canteen, often include a civic language in their names. Image: Google Streetview.

The replication of the cafe typology – each must have the right owner, the right coffee, and the right baristas, business name and interior designer – can be as tedious as the desire of city authorities to have a leisure landscape, a stadium, or an event to fill it.

Cities use these precincts and events as strategic tools to project an attractive image of themselves as they compete for tourist dollars, business investment, professional talent and the coveted high ranking in liveability indexes.

And Australia has many tourist leisurescapes under construction. There’s Darling Square, a A$3.4bn neighbourhood near Sydney’s Darling Harbour; Perth’s Elizabeth Quay, a mixed-use development of office, entertainment and residential buildings around a 2.7-hectare artificial river inlet; and the Gold Coast’s expanded cultural precinct of 16.9 hectares, with Stage 1 to be delivered in time for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. And each comes with those ubiquitous cafes.

Leveraging the lure of the cafe

Property developers have recognised how to leverage the popularity of this “flat white tourism”. A nearby “cappuccino” strip can increase land values. It also helps with marketing apartment buildings: the promise of a cafe that anchors a new development is enticing for home buyers and investors.

The Artist complex in Melbourne, designed by Rijavec Architecture, includes ground-level apartments alongside a corner cafe. Image: Google Streetview.

Local councils also see cafes as desirable. To maintain street life, planning regulations often require active, public-facing street fronts, rather than blank walls, car parks, gardens or fences. The aim is to accommodate activity that encourages pedestrian interaction and casual surveillance.

Paired with changing consumer habits (such as online and mall shopping), the result is that many high streets are now dominated by the cafe, a sort of “high street lite”. The cafe appears to be a market-driven solution to achieve an active street front in Australian cities. This is flat white urbanism.

Consider the alternatives

Australians are not just consuming coffee. In fact, people are not just passively consuming cultural or leisure activities (such as going to bands or watching sport). Australians are making, doing and playing; active participation is on the rise around the country.

For example, the Australia Council study Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts highlighted that about one in three Australians is involved in creating visual art or craft. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ General Social Survey, 2014 shows that 31 per cent of Australians are also volunteering. This has put pressure on council services and raised questions about how councils can help enable community activity.

The availability of affordable and accessible space is a looming issue in major Australian cities. There is demand for more diverse uses at ground level – studios, live-work apartments, community rooms, kindergartens, ateliers, small-scale light industrial zones, education facilities.

But the desire among lessors for the maximum rental return means less profitable businesses or civic users can’t afford street-fronting leases.

A way to fund diverse activity

The concept of the developer contribution offers an opportunity to reimagine the ground plane of apartment buildings, to diversify away from look-alike cafes. The developer contribution is a percentage of a building budget that goes to community infrastructure (for the health, safety or wellbeing of the community).

Berlin’s many street-level artist workshops and studios attract visitors from far and wide. Image: La Citta Vita/flickr/creative commons.

At present, this money is generally channelled via council towards building libraries, multipurpose community centres, maternity health centres, sporting facilities or neighbourhood parks with play equipment. Cultural infrastructure seldom comes into the frame.


It is at the level of developer contribution that local councils can intervene. This could be through an ad-hoc process of negotiating more floors for the development in return for providing community space. Or it could be through rezoning, which is tied to developer contributions.

For example, developers could be granted a larger floor-area ratio through rezoning if they give a percentage of the building over to community use. This could include social housing.

A redefinition of what comprises community infrastructure could underpin this shift. This might extend to redefining public art contributions – developers are often required to provide a percentage of their project budget to public art. Would a subsidised artist studio be more valuable than a sculpture?

Urban policymakers have to be careful to maintain the uniqueness and distinctiveness of a place for both locals and tourists. Responding to the proliferation of cafes by creating incentives for, or regulating, other uses could be one way to diversify street life.

Then, cafes might not only give the appearance of a cultural scene, or of it being made somewhere nearby, or of it happening on the first floor. It is happening next door. This brings benefits to both the local and non-local coffee tourist.

Timothy Moore is a PhD Candidate at the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

The ConversationThe Conversation is co-publishing articles with Future West (Australian Urbanism), produced by the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts. These articles look towards the future of urbanism, taking Perth and Western Australia as its reference point. The newly released third issue is available here. You can read other articles in the ongoing series here.

 
 
 
 

You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.


Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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