One train stop from the Perth CBD sits a burgeoning main street oriented activity centre anchored by a major government infrastructure corporation, with a growing mass of small and medium engineering and professional services firms, a vibrant entertainment scene, and gradual encroachment of medium and high density housing.  The activity centre is vibrant for at least 18 hours a day 7 days a week.

By contrast, 13.5 kilometres north of Perth sits an internal mall anchored by national department stores chains.  The quality of retail offer draws residents from throughout the northern sub-regions of the City with carparks overflowing every Thursday night and Saturday. Public transport services are intermittent, with busses running down a major road past the centre.  A public library and small community centre are the only truly public spaces, with a service station being the only node activated outside of retail operating hours.

Both of these centres are very successful at meeting the needs of specific users, but few would argue that they perform the same function.  Yet within Perth’s Strategic Growth Plan – Directions 2031 and Beyond, their position in the defined hierarchy of centres is the same.

This inconsistency exists in many urban planning strategies in Australia (plus many regional strategies) due to both an ongoing belief that defining a hierarchy of centres is necessary, and the wide range of factors that are considered by planning agencies in establishing such a hierarchy.  These include:

  • Encouraging a spatially logical, and equitable network of centres
  • Recognising the historic (and potentially political) importance of a centre
  • Recognising the current physical characteristics of centres including major activity drivers and infrastructure
  • Foreshadowing places of priority public sector investment
  • Foreshadowing desired changes in the scale and function of centres

By taking into account all of these considerations, the resulting classification of centres can be, at best, illogical and, at worst, counterproductive to the development of a productive, vibrant and resilient urban system.  This is due to the hierarchy not answering some fundamental questions, including:

  • Are we assessing current performance or anticipating future performance?
  • Are we placating local interests or are we planning for the best possible outcome for our City?
  • Does a spatial distribution that looks balanced on a map equate to the best possible outcome?
  • Do all public sector investment agencies agree and support the priority areas identified in the hierarchy?

A far more effective tool for strategic activity centre decision-making is to move from the assignment of a hierarchy based upon a wide range of factors, to assignment of an activity centre typology based upon a single area of focus – the current function of a centre.

Pracsys defines activity centre typology as the manner in which centre in relates to, and engages with its users (residents, workers, visitors and enterprises).  Based upon the activity resulting from the interaction of users it is possible to classify commercial activity centres as one of four types (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Activity Centre Typology

This allows for the comparison of ‘apples with apples’ in a system where scale takes a back seat to function.  It also provides a more constructive language to use in setting a vision for a centre, i.e. remain performing the same function, or evolve over time into a different typology.

Finally, defining the typology of an activity centre provides a more useful, common language for different disciplines to utilise in defining and designing targeted interventions.  Pracsys draws upon an extensive benchmarking database that can help inform engineers (civil, traffic and structural), urban designers and planners as to the drivers that trigger a change in typology.  These are broken down into:

  • Commercial drivers
  • Accessibility drivers
  • Social drivers; and
  • Amenity/environmental drivers

Based upon an understanding of these, ultimate plans and designs can be developed to accommodate appropriate solutions, and encourage the desired change in function.

Focusing on how activity centres function provides a simplified framework in which City development can be planned.  It places the onus on justification of performance and constructive planning rather than loose, subjective and often political arguments for attraction of infrastructure investment, to focus decision-makers on initiatives that work to support the interaction between a centre and its existing and future users.