How the Commonwealth Games helped turn Australia’s Gold Coast from resort town to major city

The Gold Coast from above. Image: Getty.

Australia’s Gold Coast has long been derided as an “overgrown resort town” and a “cultural desert”. But the 2018 Commonwealth Games allowed the host region to develop and communicate its big city credentials. Mega-events have been heavily criticised in recent years, but if planned properly they can bring many benefits for host cities, including social and economic regeneration. Gold Coast authorities were also interested in urban development: they wanted to show the world their coastline has matured from tourist resort to fully fledged city.

This part of southeast Queensland has been known as the Gold Coast since 1958, when the local council adopted the name to boost the area’s growing reputation as a seaside resort. In 1959, Gold Coast Town Council was renamed the City of Gold Coast – underlining its ambitious expansion plans.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Gold Coast became Australia’s most renowned holiday spot, and a popular destination for both interstate and international tourists. It was during this period that the coastline became highly urbanised – earning Gold Coast its reputation as a commercialised, hedonistic place dominated by nightlife, hotels and holiday apartments.

High rise hotels

Today, the City of Gold Coast is home to more than 500,000 residents, making it Australia’s sixth largest city and second biggest local government administration. Coastal settlements such as Southport, Surfers Paradise, Burleigh Heads and Coolangatta integrate with inland suburbs such as Nerang and Mudgeeraba to form a long, narrow urban conurbation.

Skyscrapers-on-Sea. Image: Gibtach/Flickr/creative commons.

Often described as Australia’s most “American” city, Gold Coast features clusters of high rise buildings in Surfers Paradise and Broadbeach. But these are not clusters of office blocks – they are vertical tourist resorts. Because of Gold Coast’s unusual development history – described by academic Patrick Mullins as “tourism urbanisation” – there is no obvious centre.

Determined to shake off Gold Coast’s reputation as a cultural void, organisers of the games staged an extensive cultural programme called Festival 2018 alongside the games. A series of 160 free events staged in parks, streets and squares created a festive atmosphere and engaged audiences less interested in sport. The City of Gold Coast sees arts and culture as “a key economic driver”, and the AUS$30m Festival 2018 is part of a wider strategy to develop local creative industries in the area.

Clearing the hurdles

But at times, this strategy has been inconsistent. While the aim was to present Gold Coast as a city that is cultural and cosmopolitan, rather than crass and commercialised, much of the promotional material and media coverage has actually reinforced its image as a beach resort.

The opening ceremony was full of references to beach culture: teams entered the stadium led by their nation’s name displayed on a kid’s surfboard and dancers with beach towels performed on sand. Television coverage of the games has emphasised the Gold Coast’s reputation as a pleasure periphery, rather than a bona fide city. This shows how important – and how difficult - it is to deliver consistent messages about a city during a global media event.

Despite these difficulties, Gold Coast has cleared hurdles which have sent other host cities tumbling in the past. Organisations such as the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, UEFA and the Commonwealth Games Federation are all attempting to spread their events out over a wider area – even allowing events to be staged across continents. Gold Coast 2018 has provided a textbook example of how mega-events can work well in regions with many centres.

The 17 Gold Coast 2018 sports venues were spread across a large geographical area – from Coomera in the north to Coolangatta in the South. There were even sports events in Townsville and Cairns - over a thousand miles from the Gold Coast in northern Queensland. Combined with the extensive use of existing venues and temporary seating, this approach minimises the chances of white elephants later on.


A city in the making

While dispersing events helps to avoid “investment overdose” in one particular part of the city, Gold Coast authorities are also trying to use the Commonwealth Games to develop a more conventional urban form, by reinforcing Southport as the central business district while diversifying the local economy away from tourism and construction, and towards knowledge industries.

There’s no doubt the Commonwealth Games have assisted this ambition. The AU$520m Commonwealth Games Village has been located near the region’s main university (Griffith) and hospital (Gold Coast University Hospital), and the plan is to develop a precinct here dedicated to health and education.

Over the past 50 years, various municipal authorities have tried to use mega-events to revive their fortunes and reinvent themselves as post-industrial cities. The Gold Coast marks a departure from this model. In this rapidly growing region, we are now witnessing the ways that mega-events can be used to help turn a series of coastal settlements into a coherent city.

The ConversationOne of the most significant legacies of the Commonwealth Games might be to further the idea among citizens and visitors that Gold Coast is actually a city, rather than a tourism brand. It is too early to judge the outcomes of this event, but coastal resorts, city regions and event organisers across the world will be watching to see whether the 21st Commonwealth Games will be the making of the Gold Coast.

Andrew Smith, Reader in Tourism and Events, University of Westminster.

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

 
 
 
 

How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?


Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  


(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.