SCN: The Economy of Play in our Town Centres

The economy of play in Town Centres

Anyone who’s ever raised young kids would acknowledge the proficiency one develops to sniff out a quality playground. In our household, the weekend routine of choosing a playscape is treated as any competitive tender analysis – weighting each bid with careful consideration based on a myriad of appraisal criteria, including ease of travel (will kids go feral getting there), play quality (will kids still request iPad); safety (can I take my eye off them for 4 seconds); and most importantly, proximity to amenity (can mum and dad nail 7 coffees on arrival).

Eastern Creek Quarter playground supports the economy of play
The playground at Eastern Creek Quarter

So why is the latter so difficult to find when the value of directly linking quality community space with retail and casual dining seems obvious? As it turns out, quantifying the economic value of public space and the return on investment for delivering quality placemaking isn’t in fact obvious at all.

While cost benefit analyses and economic impact assessments provide justification for the development of new town centres in terms of the wider economic community benefits (such as future employment), the estimated dollar value of place-making tends to be ignored in the majority of business cases. The result appears to be an unfavourable assessment of investing in the public realm and the economic uplift afforded to developments that meaningfully incorporate spaces for the community to congregate, connect and play.

Within the context of town centres, whether Metropolitan Activity Centres (MACs) or Neighbourhood Activity Centres (NACs) the allocation of public open space is more often prescribed at a local council level. Planning instruments such as Precinct Structure Plans and Urban Design Frameworks provide developers with guidelines on where open space should be located, and in some instances, even a suggested minimum size allocation for community space, town squares and the like. Furthermore, buildings that seek Green Star certification may achieve the ‘enjoyable places’ credits if they can successfully demonstrate that “the building delivers memorable, beautiful, vibrant communal or public places where people want to gather and participate in the community.” In this instance, communal space requirements are measured at a rate of 2.5% of the total GFA and must: accommodate community-based activities; have capacity and flexibility to operate in multiple modes of usage; demonstrate relevance of the space for local people; demonstrate the space has been designed for enjoyment and; be available to the community to use for free[1].

While there doesn’t exist an overarching national urban design policy on neighbourhood creation, the development of town centres are typically underpinned by the 20-minute neighbourhood strategy. Variations of this theme exist across different states including the 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide (2017), Walkable Neighbourhoods Amendments Regulation 2020 in Queensland and Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 (Principle 5: Living Locally – 20-minute neighbourhoods). Simply put, 20-minute neighbourhoods promote the notion of ‘living locally’ whereby people can meet their daily needs within a 20-minute walk from home, or approximately an 800m return journey. Thus, multifunctional urban design with encouraged densification is a vital ingredient to the success of this strategy with research suggesting that 25 residents per hectare is the minimum density required for neighbourhoods to claim the walkable banner[2].

The 20 minute neighbourhood supports the principles for the economy of play;

But what does this all mean for local retail centres in the context of creating more walkable, multifunctional neighbourhoods? In The Economic Case for Investing in Walking, prepared for Victoria Walks and Arup in 2018, the findings indicated that improved walkability within neighbourhoods can impact significantly on placemaking, increasing retail spend, rental income, land value and economic development. “Research has shown that walking interventions can increase the number of people entering shops and trading by up to 40% and retail rents by 20%.”[3] Further to this, RMIT’s Placemaking Economics Group published similar results in 2019 in a report prepared for DELWP titled Identifying the Economic Benefits of 20-min Neighbourhoods in which the findings indicated that high street walking, cycling and public realm improvements helped grow retail sales by up to 30%. They also found that people who chose to walk to retail areas were likely to spend up to 40% more than those who drove. However important it appears to communicate the link between quality places and economic health, the report concluded that “a review of current practices in Australia found no well established, objective methodologies for evaluating the economic impact of multifunction urban design”.[4]

In the absence of overarching and specific economic evaluation tools that demonstrate the correlation between quality placemaking in town centres and retail uplift, we can fortunately turn to countless benchmark examples across Australia for powerful case studies. While it remains difficult to quantify this in greenfield sites, existing retail centres that have undergone transformations through the introduction of community focussed public space show some powerful before and after results.

Over the past decade, the evolution of Australian retail centres, particularly within the Big Guns arena has seen the successful transformation of many through an experience economy lens, where the integration of casual outdoor dining and entertainment and lifestyle precincts, have helped introduce concentrated community focussed spaces within the context of otherwise traditional retail shopping malls. In SCN’s 2023 Big Guns edition, Scentre Group’s CEO Elliott Rusanow spoke to the recent casual dining and entertainment and leisure expansions at Westfield Mt Druitt ($55mil) and Westfield Penrith ($33mil) as driving visitation up 36% and 22% respectively when compared to the corresponding period in 2021. Furthermore, across Australia “experiential retail now represents up to 40% of leading super regionals’ composition”[5] according to recent retail research at Colliers.

While the existing methodologies for quantifying the economic benefits of placemaking in town centres remain unestablished in Australia, examples adopted abroad such as the Valuing Urban Realm Toolkit (VURT), developed by Transport for London (TfL) are helping to provide objective, evidence-based justifications for public realm investment. Until we see a robust and consistent framework implemented locally however, the industry benchmarks set within Australia will continue to show us the way.

The Economy of Play by Joe Wright Design Director, Associate Director was published in vol 42, number 1, 2024 of Shopping Centre News magazine.

[1] GBCA, Green Star Buildings Submission Guidelines, V1, 29th October 2020

[2] Strategies and initiatives for 20-minute-neighbourhoods

[3] The Economic Case for Investment in Walking.pdf

[4] The Economic-benefits-of-20-minute-neighbourhoods.pdf

[5] Nik Potter, How do Australian Big Guns stack up on a global scale, SCN Vol 41, number 1, 2023

Joe Wright

Joe Wright

Design Director