While the South East Queensland Regional Plan 2009-2031 talks up the benefits of ‘activity centres’ in places like Chermside and Springwood, what incentives are in place for business? With CBD vacancy rates hovering around 11 per cent, Urban Economics managing director Kerrianne Bonwick explains what’s required if these hubs are to reach their full potential.

IN a bid to reduce city sprawl and encourage infill development, it is only logical that we set up activity centres and transit oriented developments (TODs), but creating a community is more than just bricks and mortar.

Chermside, Springwood, Dutton Park, Hamilton and Milton are just a few examples of proposed centres, but we are likely to see continued resistance to high-rise developments from local residents, along with questions about what new roles these areas will play.

Consumer behaviour is inextricably linked to the function of a town or suburban centre, but expectations about what this function is are largely shaped by emotions and memories. In other words, adequately carrying out this development plan is not just about building density but meeting community needs.

The needs of a community are diverse, and there are also branding factors that relate to people’s aspirations, living in a suburb ‘to see and be seen’, while people are often driven by possession-based needs too with attitudes like ‘I just have to have it’.

But are our CBDs and suburban centres keeping pace? Are they remaining relevant to these evolving consumer trends and do they provide the right opportunities for businesses?

The Brisbane City Council and the Logan City Council have invested considerably in planning for growth, in seeking to channel investment activity to centres. But unfortunately, when we think of these centres it is the ‘big box’ shopping centre that comes to mind rather than the diversity of activity available within these areas.

Typically, other facilities like commercial office space and hospitals are poorly connected to the shopping centre, resulting in more difficult trading environments and higher vacancy rates. Are these the centres that will really cater for evolving needs?

The big issue here is that you need incentives for businesses to go somewhere like Springwood or Chermside, because businesses need to be accessible for clients, for employees and they want to establish a particular image too.

In South East Queensland there are no pressing factors in the current economic climate that are pushing businesses to look outside the CBD or near-city areas – vacancy rates in the CBD are 11 per cent and demand to look further afield is nowhere near as strong as it was.

It will probably be beyond 2013 before significant demand pressures in the CBD again start to act as push factors for businesses to consider more affordable locations. Other factors such as increasing parking charges, commuting and congestion times, access to clients, access to skilled labour force will become increasingly important over time.

A concerted effort is needed to support local authority investment in activity centres, if they are to be vibrant and accessible business centres. This calls for innovative solutions, like Wi-Fi for commuters on public transport, reducing commuting times through improved access to employment closer to home, as well as flexible working hours. It is also important to develop the networks that link the busways, or they will be little else than funnels for CBD commuters.

Policies towards health, education and community services will also play a vital role, but in the meantime there is also a ‘hearts and minds’ task ahead in implementing these centres. Take the public hype surrounding FKP Property Group’s development in Milton for instance, which would be over the rail station.

It would form a part of a major commercial office employment node adjacent to frequent public transport, supported by lifestyle and convenience retailing. There would be a direct injection of spending to local businesses, giving a new lease on life. But this is a debate that will probably be repeated in every activity centre.

For the plan to go as intended, the key advice is to get the infrastructure right. By that I mean access to parks, public transport, community facilities, schools, facilities that cater to families as well as the traditional occupants of higher density living such as young professionals and empty nesters.

These need to be spaces that evoke memories, with emotional aspects to them which carry-on to the business realm, providing exciting and vibrant places to work.

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