Post-COVID, a quiet reversal of fortunes is taking place in New Zealand. Where once they were brain-drained by cities, now many of our regions are thriving — and the cities centres', to some extent, are the ones being drained.
Young people are seeking affordability, retirees are cashing up, and returning expats are looking for a particular lifestyle, with the resulting trend being a move to the regions. Combined with the stimulatory effects of the Provincial Growth Fund and the Government’s post-COVID shovel-ready funding, it’s increasingly looking like boom time in our regional town centres.
In 2014, economist Shamubeel Equab famously wrote Zombie Towns, describing the inexorable decline of regional towns as they lost their people — and their vitality — to the cities. This was true at the time.
Yet with soaring house prices in the wake of the pandemic, the opposite is now playing out. It's looking more like our main cities' CBDs are the zombies, and the regional towns are the up-and-comers.
The month of September recorded the highest sales volumes and values in regional New Zealand in 14 years, with significant increases in places like Nelson and Tasman — which saw a 66% increase on the same time last year — and some 10 other regions recording upwards of 30% increases.
As a result, our regional town centres are undergoing a renaissance of sorts. High streets are coming alive, and interesting development is on the rise, from civic and mixed-use residential and commercial to place-centric retail and hospitality.
With regional councils having limited power to raise money for local projects, the centralised Provincial Growth Fund and shovel-ready funding — combined with increased activity on the part of private developers — are helping to liberate finance for regional infrastructure and projects.
What’s being funded might not be huge in scale — over half of the 147 shovel-ready projects worth $2.3 billion announced in August 2020 are for less than $15 million — but almost all have an important social or community focus.
In Taranaki’s Hawera, for instance, the district council recently received $30 million in shovel-ready project funding, with $3 million being put towards its new $11 million Te Ramanui o Ruapūtahanga civic centre, which will revitalise the entire high street and transform the town.
And two weeks ago, the Government announced $4.6 million in Provincial Growth Fund funding for the Mountains to Sea cycle trail in Ruapehu District.
Since these announcements, the Government has also released a funding package for regional councils to upgrade and protect their heritage assets, including the restoration of Timaru’s iconic Theatre Royal, the $11.6 million construction of a new Heritage Facility museum and exhibition, and the upgrade of Seddon House in Hokitika, once a hub for government on the West Coast.
According to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, ‘It’s critical we invest in local facilities that bring communities together and help tell local stories. The Government has made investments in theatres, galleries, pools, and stadiums, and rebuilding these is an important strand of our shovel-ready capital programme.”
The shovel-ready projects have the additional stimulatory effect of job creation, encouraging more young people to move to the regions.
Combined with the impetus for civic projects and the private development community’s capitalisation on the increased demand for housing and high streets, the planning and design dynamic of our regional towns is shifting — and we have the opportunity for future-proofing and critical revitalisation.
To do this, we need considered planning, strong urban and landscape design, coordinated transport and infrastructure, and community engagement.
Planning for tomorrow’s towns shouldn’t be all about maximising gross floor area (GFA) lettable space, as it used to be. Nor should it focus entirely on wide streets and parking.
Rather, it’s about creating connections between land and people — designing frameworks inside which we can shop, live, work, and play. It’s about finding the right scale and building a compact, friendly, flexible community hub that unites commercial, retail, and hospitality spaces in unique ways. It’s about promoting activity and vibrance and creating a sense of identity and belonging.
A key piece in future-proofing our regional towns is designing for flexible tenancies and mixed strata titling, which cater to the economic fluctuation that regions can experience.
As services like banking and post move out and install self-service or technology-enabled facilities in their places, face-to-face customer service remains critically important to older demographics, which comprise sizeable parts of the population in many regional areas.
These older populations also require accessible, pedestrian-friendly connections to good medical centres, pharmacies, cafés, and restaurants. Regional towns’ smaller sizes already promote truly walkable neighbourhoods (and therefore sustainable living) — but these accessibility requirements also make creating fit-for-purpose base-build tenancies that attract medical practitioners, pharmacists, supermarkets, and hospitality businesses absolutely essential.
So we have efficiencies and online trends driving banking, insurance, travel, and postal services to close their physical locations, alongside populations that still demand at least a marginal level of in-person contact — ultimately resulting in businesses looking for smaller, flexible, technology-enabled spaces that designers and landlords can effectively address with pop-ups and short-term retail tenancies.
From planning for flexible tenancies, we move to heritage buildings, which usually need structural and seismic upgrades and considerable funding to restore them to their former glory.
Thinking outside the square about mixed-use is important here. Instead of serving an occasional civic purpose, could the building work for the community in other ways and create additional revenue streams for council? Could it be turned into mixed-use tenure with a blend of residential, commercial, retail, hospitality, event, or civic functions?
Coordinated planning with local councils and iwi, as well as community engagement to determine what people want out of their high streets and community spaces, is critical.
And as we see a heightened desire to lift civic, heritage, hospitality, and placemaking values, so too is strengthening connection in our local communities by weaving an integrated landscape, wayfinding, and cultural strategy into our designs. That’s where the real magic happens.