I grew up in Dingley.
Depending on how progressive or worried you are about urban sprawl, it’s a classic outer middle or inner outer suburb of Melbourne. It’s best known for the mooted Dingley Freeway that sat dotted on or around Page 192 of The Melways for decades, a bunch of market gardens and the mighty Dingley Dingoes.
And just like many of the 3,800-odd suburbs across the country, it has many (fixable) problems.
Back in the 80’s, the Dingley Shopping Centre was the centre of my solar system. My first job was at the Dingley Newsagency, neatly tucked in between Tuckerbag and the bakery. For two uninterrupted years, I rose at 4:45am, 6-days a week and delivered The Sun, The Age & the odd Weekly Times on the back of my racer. The owner nicknamed me “Flash” because I was always rushing around. I wore my nickname and the responsibility of delivering more papers than all of the other grubby little grommits with pride.
Saturday’s were nirvana - pay day! I would greedily rip into the little yellow envelope containing the principle sum of $18 and walk into the bakery like billionaire. I’ve eaten many a fine meal in my time. But those pizza rolls straight out of the bakers oven washed down with a chocolate Big-M are still hard to beat.
When I wasn’t in the nets or on my BMX, I spent a lot of those weekends burning the rest of my loot in the video shop playing Double Dragon & Mortal Combat. The Beta-Max format was still alive and well. As was every other shop on the strip.
Fast forward 30 years and Tuckerbag is a Woolies, the bakery is a Baker’s Delight, and the newsagency, like most of its counterparts is struggling for relevance and survival. Four of the 20-odd shops are currently vacant, and this is probably typical of any time over the past 10 years.
But unlike many other struggling retail strips, Dingley SC is fortunate to be zoned C1Z. Those shops will remain vacant as long as the owner likes or can afford. But as Dear Reader would know far better than I, at least it has a choice.
Yet for those strips where any other sensible commercial or social use are expressly forbidden, the irrefutable benefits of the local multiplier effect that they would contribute are a pipedream.
Our planning system is a contemporary as the two-tone brown tracksuit I used rock on my paper round. (Don’t get me started on the defined term, Main Road.) Countless councils are pouring (wasting?) squillions of dollars into schemes to “activate” local centres like they’re David Copperfield.
And office tenants are swept up into the Retail Leases Act but cannot occupy the very properties that its moniker would otherwise suggest.
Tenants are bashing landlords. Landlords are bashing tenants. And no one is winning. Like their immortal Dead Parrot skit, John Cleese and his Monty Python cohorts would have a field day with sum of these parts.
So, you may be thinking, ok smarty, what’s your solution?
Well, I think in some ways the high-street retail problem shares similarities with the greatest challenge of our time: climate change.
In his recent essay, 4 Ways the U.S. Can Reassert Leadership on Climate Change, Bill Gates opines that “Climate change is the definition of a global issue. Temperatures won’t stop going up in Texas unless emissions stop going up in India (and temperatures in India won’t stop going up until emissions stop going up in Texas).
That is why governments need to work together to develop common goals, share knowledge, and make sure that clean technologies developed in one country will spread quickly to others.”
Now I detest the word collaboration, largely because it’s been taken hostage and used every second second by many in my industry. (See also future of work, hybrid working, community, WFH, culture, flexspace, 3-days a week, hub & spoke, third spaces, wellness, proptech & biophilic design…. amongst others). But I love it (and them) in practise.
The seemingly unstoppable freight train that is the growing retail vacancy rate is a national problem, so let’s solve it as a bloody nation!
There is so much social, economic and environmental upside in bringing together a true cross-section of all community stakeholders to discuss and implement something different. Shops can be changerooms for the homeless. They can be mini-distribution centres. They can be band rooms or galleries for and arts sector that’s on its knees. They can be counselling centres to address that other great challenge of our generation: mental health. And dare I say it, they can be fantastic offices filled with people that spend locally. Insert your ridiculous idea here.
Let’s make some new mistakes, over and over again. But not the same ones we have, are and are destined to keep making with the disparate status-quo.
If there’s anyone else out there that feels the same way, please send a stamped self-addressed envelope to PO Box 8888, Utopia, and I’ll send you a pamphlet. This article was published in March 2021 in Planning News.