Hamilton’s Central City Transformation Plan: Rebirth of a City?

As most people should be aware by now, Hamilton City Council have recently published a draft of their City Transformation Plan. This seems to be a more fleshed out version of the various plans for the CBD that have been floating around for some time, as evidenced by documents such as this 2011 residential intensification impact assessment prepared by the council with Waikato District Health Board. The current state, and future, of the Hamilton CBD have been a popular topic of discussion in the media (including this blog) for some time now, although until now there have been few signs of ideas for regeneration moving beyond the drawing board.

Signs are better this time, but at this early stage I don’t want to go into too much detail, so will just give my impressions of the general thrust of the plan.

For those not familiar with the content of earlier plans, the ideas are forward looking and laudable:

  • Addressing the general decline of commercial activity, foot traffic, and occupancy rates in the CBD
  • Making the area a more inviting place for people to spend time (and money) by making it more “people-friendly”
  • Making it easier to get around without a car
  • Making living in or around the CBD a more appealing prospect

The opening Transformation Strategies section observes:

Hamilton’s central city footprint is significantly larger when compared to most with populations our size or bigger including the new central city planned for Christchurch.

Indeed, the details of the proposed changes likely won’t seem unfamiliar to anybody who has been following Christchurch’s ongoing rebuild – the emphasis on a compact core, precincts with distinct identities and orientations around particular activities, green frame, and increased attention to walking and active transport will all work towards providing a space in which people will want to spend time and enhancing the sense of place, along with our shared sense of ownership of the city, which has been sadly lacking in recent times.


Broadly, the South End – the brightest light in the city’s recent history – will continue to be the chief entertainment zone. The Business District will see a greater concentration of commercial and retail space. Finally, planning changes in Victoria, Grantham and the city fringe will allow more of a mix of residential and commercial uses to coexist in closer proximity.

As the above diagram suggests, connections to the mighty Waikato river are also set to be enhanced, a prospect that has long been high on the wishlists of residents. I’m particularly keen on the Victoria on the River concept, a landscaped public park overlooking the river, which is proposed for the car parking area just south of the Riverbank Apartments.

Of equal importance, but less apparent from the above diagram is improvements to permeability by opening up more of the city’s laneways, no doubt hoping to replicate the success of Casabella Lane. People really do seem to enjoy these tighter spaces which are a feature of most cities built before the advent of the automobile.

Melbourne Laneway

A laneway in Melbourne


Overall, I am very excited by this plan, and only hope that the ideas presented won’t be diluted too much in their implementation. Of course, there are also risks inherent in such an undertaking, chief amongst which the possibility that the new ideas are insufficient to capture the public’s imagination, and decisively turn the tide of the CBD’s decline. The proposed doubling of CBD residents, from the current 3,000 to 6,000, while not particularly ambitious is likely to be a key factor in improving the fortunes of the city heart. However, homes built in the new residential/mixed use zones will be competing with planned future development around the city’s boundaries, principally Peacockes.

Hamilton is by no means the first city to find itself on the downward side of the growth curve, although we’re perhaps the foremost NZ example. So how have other cities around the world reacted to urban decay?

I recently came across an article entitled A Case Study in Reviving a Dying Downtown via CityLab, which details the impressive turnaround achieved in the Australian city of  Newcastle after the local steel industry dried up.

Marcus Westbury, a Newcastle resident, was instrumental in changing the city’s fortunes, as well as documenting the transformation. The chief strategy employed was the negotiation of free use of vacant properties in the city centre:

Through a nonprofit group dubbed Renew Newcastle, Westbury and his colleagues enabled artists, entrepreneurs, and small retailers to set up shop in vacant spaces without paying rent. The initiative was powered almost entirely through sweat equity, as well as a stubborn determination to make the most of human capital and municipal assets that were lying vacant. He writes:

Our system was designed to make the city work for people for whom it had not worked in a long time. Our stakeholders were people without capital, for whom barriers to entry, and not certainty or security of outcome were the defining challenge. Digital cottage industries. Online artisans. Artists and fashion designers with market stalls. Bedroom record labels. Flickr photographers. Community groups.

Some of these enterprises were designed to be temporary, writes Westbury. Others wanted to grow into more traditional businesses able to pay market rents for their spaces. Some succeeded on their own terms, some failed. But the overall picture for Newcastle’s Hunter Street, in the heart of town, has been one of success, hailed in the local press and noted by international guidebook publisher Lonely Planet, which in 2011 named Newcastle one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit.

Quite a transition, no? While things are certainly looking a lot less dire in Hamilton than what Newcastle faced, perhaps an initiative like this could play a significant role in the city’s regeneration.


Category: CBD, News, Planning, Walking

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