A welcome feeling of change hangs over Topham Mall - one of the city’s most unloved thoroughfares. As public and private interests converge, they are set to unlock the neglected possibilities of a place that most of us have passed through at some point, without much invitation to linger.
Topham rising: More than a walkway
Stand in Topham Mall on any given day and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in one of those enclaves so often found at other cities’ urban metro stops. There is a hurried, transitory feel as people rush through, mostly heading north-south but occasionally veering off down a side route, intent on their destinations.
And yet, Topham Mall has been quietly attracting attention from various quarters for some time now. In any city, open tracts of civic space are unusual and Topham Mall happens to have two of these — albeit rather small ones — at either end. It is also exceedingly well frequented — 15,000 people per day pass through on their way to somewhere else; quite often to the established or establishing places that surround it — Leigh and Peel Streets on one side, Waymouth Street on the other.
Its natural advantages are good, then, but no one [it is safe to assume] would bother to include it in their list of favourite Adelaide places. In fact, they might not even consider it as a ‘place’ at all. This is a situation Peter Smith, Chief Executive Officer at the Adelaide City Council (ACC), hopes to redress through a series of placemaking initiatives that will not only help us see familiar spaces in a new light, but invite us to grow more fond of them too.
“One of the measures [of a successful place] is place attachment, which is a really qualitative thing,” he says. “We know people feel strongly attached to great places around the world and they keep going back to them and actively promoting them. You don’t give that advocacy for a place unless you’re strongly emotionally and socially attached to it in some way.”
What emotional attachment has got to do with Topham Mall and why the ACC cares is perhaps not immediately apparent. The concept of ‘placemaking’ is, however, strongly influencing the Council’s approach to delivering its strategic agenda, aptly tagged ‘One City: Many Places’.
Defined by its practitioners as both a process and a philosophy, placemaking is an international movement that seeks to understand what attaches people to places beyond the merely circumstantial, and to devise techniques for generating this elusive quality in places that just don’t have it.
It is an approach that the ACC has been using to inform initiatives like its Splash Adelaide program, its work with thinkers Jan Gehl, Charles Landry, and Ethan Kent, and now its Placemaking Strategy, which will see three ‘Place Pilots’ kick off in 2014. One of these Pilots will take in Topham Mall, Waymouth Street, and the two secondary roads that lead through to the Central Market: Bentham and Pitt Streets.
Peter Smith is convinced the placemaking approach has the power to transform the city into one that people not only feel more strongly positive about, but which will ultimately generate increased economic activity and lead to Adelaide being genuinely regarded as one of the world’s great small cities.
“We have to think about Adelaide not just as nationally competitive but internationally competitive and at the bottom of all this is the economy. Successful places actually contribute hugely to the economy in all sorts of ways, they bring in the intellectual capital you need as a city. Placemaking for me is not just about great places for people to live, work and play, it actually has to add to the competitiveness of the city as a whole,” he says, explaining that at the heart of it, this ambitious exercise is about engaging the community to “co-create” a vision of what a better place might be like.
“I think people sometimes feel we sit here at our desks and dream this stuff up, but it’s actually a real growing movement towards giving spaces back to people. Splash Adelaide was an example of that and the main lesson from Splash for us was that people are passionate about the places that they live in, but I think they’ve felt quite disenfranchised at times by the way government imposed change on the places. And when someone feels disenfranchised and not trusting of a process, they withdraw their discretionary effort and contribution.”
A key element of the pilot projects will therefore involve exploring the authentic ways people use the spaces now, and inviting them to imagine new possibilities. This process, grounded in the tested methodology of place-making, sounds like it has the potential to generate valuable outcomes and yet, the actual transformation of the areas in question will surely be trickier than it sounds.
With the exception of Waymouth Street, the other spaces earmarked for this Pilot—Topham Mall, Bentham Street, and Pitt Street—are notable primarily because they’re not. Topham Mall in particular is almost startlingly underwhelming when one comes to think about it, which at the moment there is not much temptation to do.
That this should be the case, however, is clearly one of the reasons it has been selected for the Place Pilot. Andrew Wallace, President of the West End Association, welcomes the signs that Topham Mall might be about to emerge from its extended hibernation; that it might be set to make the transition from conduit to contributor. He has previously described the place as “dirty, dark, and dangerous” and has long been keen to see some renewed, locally authentic, activity in the area.
“[Topham Mall] isn’t terra nullius because there are some really good little businesses in there despite the downright dreariness of the area. What’s good about this part of town is that we don’t have a whole lot of major brands playing their games here, it really is about local, creative, personality-driven business. The area has the potential to be a really good complement to the Rundle Mall and East End precincts.”
A window display outside the City Archives office, tucked around the corner from the main thoroughfare through Topham Mall, profiles its changing face through the years, from its early beginnings as a site for a timber yard and army barracks, through an industrial phase, and on to its current incarnation as a Council carpark atop a pedestrian walk-through. The display features photos of Topham Mall as it was in the late 1980s, soon after Topham Street was closed off and the current Council buildings were constructed; it is not going too far to say that the present day Mall looks disturbingly unchanged since these were taken.
Harmony Tea & Sushi has traded in Topham Mall for eight years and its manager, David Kochergen, agrees the space “hasn’t changed at all” in that time. He believes it is time for the covered section of the Mall to be redeveloped to allow more natural light through and for Council to focus attention on the open space that fronts Currie Street: “That space is not at all well utilised”, he says, “it would be good to see some trees and benches in there so that people can sit and enjoy their lunch”.
Despite the recent inertia, Topham Mall shares a rich historical capital with the broader West End district it is part of. This remains one of the area’s most distinctive assets and offers some hints as to a meaningful way forward: when imagining new uses for a space and new experiences for people to have in it, provenance matters.
“The history of this part of town is amazing,” says Andrew Wallace. “The west was a centre for manufacture. West End Beer is over 150 years old as a brand, it’s almost as old as this State, and there were farriers and coopers and it was a real centre for production. People made stuff and people still do make stuff – there are watchmakers and tailors and people hidden away upstairs – and without that, it’s completely soulless. You don’t want this to become bland – it needs to be grounded in quality and people should be allowed to take risks here.”
But can something capable of generating genuine attachment be created in a space dominated by a multi-storey carpark, an empty bank building, and quite a lot of smokers? The placemaking philosophy and the evidence of our own experience will tell us, yes, because places are more than their physical realities and often transcend them. Some of the world’s great urban places are at first glance conventionally unattractive; grungy, dirty streetscapes where real life nevertheless goes on regardless.
The essential foundation they are built on is people and the distinctive uses they find for a place over time. This is an untapped asset for Topham Mall, which is already doggedly occupied despite the lack of deliberate thought put into the place.
“It’s interesting, you’ll notice people at almost any time of the day sitting on the little benches by the pedestrian crossing [over Waymouth Street] because if you take a spatial view of it there’s almost nowhere else to sit outside. And people are prepared to sit right by a carpark entrance, in a wind tunnel but there’s always someone there,” observes Jane Booth, General Manager, City and Organisational Development at the ACC. The tangle of laneways leading into Topham Mall and the rabbit warren spreading out from Westpac House have the potential to enrich the place further.
“The way through Anster Street is a great little ant trail and has really interesting back alley characteristics,” says Andrew Wallace. “That’s never been very successful through there but with The Gallery and Proof opening onto it and a revitalised Topham Mall, maybe finally we might be able to make sense of that desolate space—it’s a great way through and this is what makes cities interesting.”
Jane Booth explains that this is a key part of the Council’s big-picture thinking.
“We won’t look at it in isolation, we’ll look at it as part of a whole. We’re looking at a city over the next 12 to 18 months that’s got a beautiful redeveloped Mall but has also got the riverbank, the Oval and the footbridge, and what will eventually be a really exciting, activated Victoria Square. Topham and Waymouth Street for us are actually a really critical linking point in terms of how people flow around the city.”
So what can be done to generate a more inviting, more attaching place out of these promising raw ingredients? Maybe it is time for the ACC to play its strong card: the fact that it itself is the primary landlord in Topham Mall and, aside from what might be achieved at street level, has within its power the ability to activate the site above the ground too; the carpark walls and roof, for example, are great swathes of space currently going begging—ripe for a High Line-inspired city park perhaps?
Daydreams aside, there seems to be collective agreement that while Council can assist the placemaking process—and step in when required to remove bureaucratic hurdles or make public infrastructure investments—lasting, sustainable transformation must be driven by place users interacting with local businesses.
“The reality is that once you get a couple of businesses next to each other—and in Adelaide it doesn’t take more than two or three—suddenly the precinct develops a reputation,” says Andrew. “People are attracted to it and can see the value and potential in critical mass. It comes directly back to being able to attract good businesses and uses that to contribute to a good sense of community. This makes a good street. You need a compelling reason to be there.
“So hopefully there’s a mixture of normal Council ‘we’re going to do something here’ plus new Council ‘we’re going to help you yourselves do something here’. I really hope that it is a blend of the two approaches,” is Andrew Wallace’s view – one that is thankfully echoed by Peter Smith.
“When government gets out of the way and becomes an enabler then community resources, including business resources and private sector resources come onto the table… We might think as government that we have a lot of levers on [the city] system but we don’t—we probably control 10 per cent of it—and most of the levers are not even in the hands of people, they’re sort of accidental and incidental,” says Peter.
“All we can do is put catalysts in that system and try to stimulate it and see what happens. If the right stimulants are there people grab it and the market takes over.”
Up in lights
The plaza at the north end of Topham Mall, where it fronts Leigh St, is a good barometer for what’s going on in the place. This expanse of open space has for several years been largely a smokers’ safe-haven—of late, however, they have had to compete for standing room with construction hoardings, builders’ trucks, and now great towers of scaffolding obscuring the former Dalgety’s building on the corner.
This building is undergoing a dramatic facelift thanks to the investment of a private developer, who has also lodged plans with the ACC for approval to construct a residential apartment tower on top of the mini carpark sandwiched between the scaffolding and the Council U-Park. If approved, this development would change the mix in Topham Mall significantly and bring residential tenants back into the space for the first time since the 1870s, when houses could be found along Topham Street.
There are also plans to install a dynamic 10m-high interactive light artwork in the open plaza as part of the ACC’s public artworks program. Developed collaboratively between the Council, Adelaide University’s Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing and artist John Tonkin, the artwork will consist of an array of long, thin light tubes suspended over the plaza, and two interactive ‘sensing poles’ at ground level.
Professor Tanya Munro, Institute Director, has been involved in the project since its inception several years ago and describes the piece as a three-dimensional display, capable of reflecting what’s going on at ground level.
“People will be able to interact with these totem pole-like objects which change the display above their heads. It will essentially detect people’s interactions with the poles and with each other”, she says.
“When it’s quiet at night and no one’s interacting with it, it will have a tantalising resting, breathing state but when people go up and play with it, hopefully they will start trying to figure out how what they’re doing affects what they see and I hope they’ll also start to think about light as a medium for asking questions.”
Whether the artwork will be capable of reflecting the changing mood in Topham Mall is a question that dwarfs into insignificance when you consider the types of applications the science behind it is being put to.
“We’re just at the beginning of the third revolution that photonics has brought to our lives,” Tanya says, speaking of the scientific study of light which has produced innovations such as the now ubiquitous laser and more recently the ability to communicate through optical fibres.
“This is about using light to interrogate the world around us and give us information that helps us make better decisions—whether about someone’s treatment for a disease or how to better manage our environmental resources. This is just starting today and Adelaide’s playing a really big part in that, which is why it’s lovely to have this artwork there to start this conversation about what is science and what is art, and hopefully it demystifies science a little bit and gets people thinking.”