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.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”