“Maitland main street revitalisation and the levee” is presented as an exemplar of urban design and not just architecture or landscape architecture. It transforms a declining town centre on a flood prone site and alongside a river into a place that is a community focal point with a distinct identity and having a future. The Australian town heritage streetscape of the main street is preserved, the main street refurbished and the entire open natural space along the river brought into the domain of the town centre through the physical and visual links created, water sensitive urban design and landscape. Importantly, the human scale of the built fabric is kept and new built elements such as the landmark “Riverlink” gateway made to respect it. A ‘24-hour’ economy has been created as part of the urban design.
About the Authors
Raeburn Chapman is an architect, urban designer and city and regional planner and an American Planning Association Life Member who has worked in academics, private consulting and government internationally. Over the past two decades he has specialized in transport infrastructure and design. He is currently an urban design commentator and advisor and editor of the Urban Design Review which he founded. This article is a collaboration with international design companies McGregor Coxall and CHROFI.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT
The revitalisation and levee project in Maitland has been widely acknowledged for its excellence in architecture and landscape architecture design but not recognized for what it really is, a model of urban design.
About Maitland and the project brief
Maitland is a regional city of about 80,000 people in the Lower Hunter Valley of New South Wales, Australia. While referred to as a ‘city’, governed by a City Council and having its own sprawl, in urban design terms, Maitland has a centre with a main street character typical of Australian country towns. (1)
It is located on the Hunter River 166kms north of Sydney and 35kms north-west of Newcastle, which lies at the river mouth. The town centre is on the right bank of the river close to its horse shoe bend. Its 270m long main street, an historic linear shopping and civic strip, had declined as a result of periodic flooding and, as is typical world-wide, competition from expanding suburban malls. The response, in 1988, was to convert the main street from a retail street to a heritage pedestrian mall. This was consistent with the global practice of removing cars from city and town centres. The mall however was a failure. By 2010 retail vacancy rates had reached 50 per cent, with many shops boarded up and petty crime on the increase.
In 2012, having been encouraged by the local Chamber of Commerce, Maitland City Council commissioned the Sydney-based urban and landscape design and environment company McGregor Coxall to lead the development of a regeneration master plan in consultation with the community and to also prepare construction documentation. (2) Architectural company CHROFI played a major design role in partnership with McGregor Coxall.
Maitland sits within a network of water tributaries and on an extensive floodplain. It is called a ‘’city of levees’’. A flood levee system was built to protect Hunter River towns in the 1970’s with one built at the riverbank edge to protect the Maitland town centre. This enabled its revitalisation. The entire revitalization of the centre including the main street and adjoining river precinct has been planned, designed and understood by the community as a single entity and thus rebranded from Historic Mall to, simply, The Levee.
URBAN DESIGN CONCEPT
The design structure (3) for the town centre has the three key elements:
A town centre spine
- Acting as a linear market with multiple activities.
- Defined spatially by continuous building frontages on the river side and having a predominantly historic character.
- Upgraded and renewed with trees.
A parallel walkway/cycleway in a natural setting along the river bank
- An open space domain for active transport and recreation
A system of links joining the two
- A primary link breaking open the contiguous mass of building fabric and creating a significant gateway and public space between the linear market and the waterfront
- Two secondary links in the form of lanes connecting the river walk and parking.
This Concept Plan for the project reflects the key elements of design structure.
PRESERVING THE SCALE AND HERITAGE CHARACTER OF THE MAIN STREET
The design reflects a change of use from a pedestrian mall to a shared zone. Cars are now able to permeate the main street without undermining pedestrian use. This helps keep the centre active. The shared zone of the main street has an intact historic building stock dating from the town’s establishment in the early 1800’s including Georgian, Victorian and Federation periods, making up a charming heritage streetscape. This whole centre is defined as a Conservation Zone with selected buildings listed as heritage.
One of the town’s fine historic buildings in a prominent location at one end of the main street, with the old “Taylor’s” name above the front entrance
The ground plane of the main street has a continuous stone floor allowing the heritage fabric to remain the dominant element, a good compositional decision. A rich split-faced porphyry stone is used, matching beautifully with the heritage buildings. Detailing of the bluestone drainage fits the feel of water and its movement.
The street furniture range, way finding and lighting was custom-designed to complement the town’s heritage. Under-awning lighting illuminates the shop fronts and walkways. The upper facades of buildings are lit to highlight their architectural merit. Tree planting has been done in front of facades requiring restoration, leaving the intact heritage buildings visible.
Composition of the main street shared zone with plantings, drainage, seating, parking, building frontages, and the beautiful stone floor that forms a continuous ground plane.
The now highly pedestrianised and active main street with its plantings and seating elements.
The main street is an attractive place to be in day and night with a variety of shopping and eating possibilities
View from the main street through the Riverlink gateway bringing the riverfront into close spatial relationship. The main street has a spaciousness at this gateway location, uncluttered by lighting poles and signage and having a continuous ground plane
CREATING A RIVER LINK
Connectivity is a key urban design principle that is apparent in the design. This principle has been vital to link the town centre with the waterfront to form a whole precinct – The Levee. It necessitated breaking through the continuous mass of buildings backing the foreshore and severing the centre from the river. The design team worked closely with Maitland City Council to find buildings which could be purchased and redeveloped to achieve this connectivity and revitalization.
A key purchase was the strategic site used to create Riverlink, an architectural gateway that forms the main connection to the river physically and visually. It is a landmark structure, described as “a civic set piece in a street full of great buildings.” This is experienced from many points within its visual field, including the river crossing from Horseshoe Bend.
It goes to the full height of the ensemble of main street buildings, which keeps the scale of the streetscape while forming a monumental void. As well as a link, it acts as a frame for a shaded social gathering space containing benches and tables, an outdoor cinema, a stage, a forecourt to a two-story restaurant, café, a gallery for urban art and public amenities. Architecturally, the space is shaped three-dimensionally with angular walls. This directs the pedestrian to the waterfront whilst giving users a unique visual experience. Timber-battened ceilings and use of clay bricks, with a fine-scaled patterning, give the structure warmth, add visual interest and maintains a human scale.
A major sculpture work by Braddon Snape sits within the frame of the gateway building but just outside on the podium. It is the result of a public art commission for this space. Its title “Clouds Gathering” refers generically to the cycle of renewal that rain clouds represent. Contextually, it alludes to the history of rain, river flooding and the eventful history of floods in the Maitland region. Its mirrored stainless steel, which gives a refracted reflection of the environment, simultaneously contrasts with the brick and timber surfaces of the Riverlink building.
Riverlink has altered the footprint of the built fabric to create a finer grain and a more interesting ‘streetscape’. The resulting permeability extends the town centre beyond the main street to the river, reactivates an unused part of town and brings the waterfront into the domain of the town centre physically, visually and socially. The gateway building is omnipresent – a focal point of the town, visible from many angles and distances, and symbolic of Maitland. Riverlink is a clever if not stunning architectural and urban design solution.
These “Before” and “After” figure-ground diagrams reveal the intended changes to the permeability of the built form.
Cross-sectional drawing through the Riverlink gateway structure: This shows profile of the site contouring, and the built and natural relationships from main street through to the waterfront. Note the voluminous space of the gateway building and, by contrast, the finely detailed internal elevation that breaks down the scale.
The dramatic open space setting in front of the Riverlink gateway: Note the great forecourt to the building that forms a podium, its well-designed stepping to the embankment, its slope down to the river, the vegetation and the use of this wonderful public domain for relaxing.
Frontal views of the Riverlink structure from the waterfront side by day and night, through which the main street is visible.
This gateway building is in perfect scale and harmony with built fabric of the town. It contains a sculpture within its frame.
Close up view of Riverlink building highlighting the mirror-polished stainless-steel sculpture, “Clouds Gathering”, by Braddon Snape.
CREATING A RIVERSIDE WALK IN AN REINVIGORATED OPEN SPACE SETTING
The riverside has an improved walkway, a community promenade, that meanders along the river. There is an upper and lower walk. The former, which leads to the town’s art gallery, has a terrace café with panoramic views across Horseshoe Bend, while the lower walkway is suitable for cycling. The river walk has been enhanced with trees, extra lighting and dining areas with outdoor furniture replaced. With limited funds, the riverside has been kept simple.
This photograph shows the dramatic angularity of the monumental gateway and how it connects to the upper riverside walk at the top of the open space setting.
The upper and lower river walkways at Horseshoe Bend organized for walking, cycling socialization. There is a rich variety of vegetation created in this expansive landscape.
CREATING A MULTI-USE AND FLEXIBLE PUBLIC REALM
The public realm in general is a 24-hour domain with a night time economy. An important design intention was to “capture the night.”
After dark shot of the active main street with its lighting and signature Levee totem.
Trading hours have been extended. Multi-generational family businesses have returned bringing artisans back. New food and wine-based businesses have been encouraged together with speak easy bars, cafes and fine-dining restaurants. Interestingly, the restaurant operator along the waterfront offers a menu of local produce and foods derived from the area, such is the attachment to the place.
Associated with the new recreational and cultural economy is an annual calendar of events and festivals: The River Lights Multicultural Festival, New Year’s Eve activities and seasonal events which have become regionally attractions. Smart technologies enable free WiFi and programmable LED lighting allows the mood of the main street to be instantly changed to support the new.
Parking spaces can be shuffled and swapped with outdoor dining as retail tenancies change. The river side of the main street shared zone has a mix of half hour parking, disabled parking, loading zones and no parking areas. On the opposite side is a no-stopping drive-through pathway. There is on- and off-street parking within a 500m radius outside the levee shared zone.
It has been the intention to introduce a residential component into the city but this has not been possible due to financial insurance restrictions governing flood prone areas such as this. The Levee however has withstood the current extreme floods very well.
CREATING A GREEN AND NATURAL TOWN CENTRE
The design of the town centre/Levee embraces a water sensitive urban design approach (4) that includes harvesting the street run-off to passively irrigate the native trees and grassed levee bank (rain gardens capture) and filtering out pollutants before they reach the river. The shared zone of the main street has a substructure of soil cell-modules made of recycled polypropylene. They are arranged in a matrix pattern allowing trees to grow in a shared space with vehicles over the top. The design allows for the sustainable harvesting of the storm water collected from inlet pits set into the stone pavement. Stormwater is piped below the pavement into the loam tree vault to feed the trees. It also assists in removing pollutants and managing water flows.
Planting is derived from the endemic ecological community of Lowland Rainforest of sub-tropical Australia. This provides habitat for native flora and fauna. The selected species have aesthetic and spatial attributes in terms of form and enclosure, texture and colour. They have a functional role providing biodiversity, shade and protection. Street trees and flower pots are Australian native. The latter (Australian pot plants, low shrubs and ground cover species) have been chosen to give year-round floral display.
The overall built outcome is an exemplar of urban design – the three-dimensional design of human settlements encompassing the built and natural environment.
Aerial view of the resulting LEVEE in its totality – a complete piece of settlement design inclusive of riverfront, main street, connections, built form and constructed landscape.
This project is a transformation of a declining town centre into a special and vibrant place for people with the promise of a future. It is the result of an urban design approach, collaboration and imaginative design, funding and planning mechanisms, traffic management and having a client with a vision. While transformative, it is both rooted in history and conditioned by the environmental constraints of the site. Prior to COVID, vacancy rates of businesses are reported to have dropped to zero.
The integrity of the architectural and streetscape scale and character of the main street has been preserved as part of the identity of the town. At the same time the centre is transformed into a green environment. The design of the centre as a whole – the levee – fundamentally addresses the vulnerability of the site to flooding through water sensitive urban design, tree planting and waterfront improvement with the health of the river and trees improved. It is an ecological project.
The community can now engage meaningfully with their revitalized riverfront recreationally and as part of town life. They have a fine main street and spaces and views to enjoy day and night in an environment that has a human scale, something that has to be fought for in urban design. The place is walkable with parking more fine-grained so as not to dominate the centre. Cycling is facilitated through design. The landmark Riverlink structure that acts as a gateway to the waterfront brakes open the barrier created by the old line of buildings; it has a civic monumentality but fits comfortably with the built fabric, and is viewed from a wide visual field. Artworks and lighting are an integral part of the design. All of this gives the town its image and makes the centre a community focal point.
It was intended to introduce affordable housing into the town centre. Unfortunately, insurance issues related to building in flood prone areas have prevented this. Meanwhile, Maitland flood levees have withstood the latest historic level of flood inundation pretty well.
While transformative, the whole place outcome is fairly low-key and unpretentious, appropriate for Maitland. The designers have described this as minimalist. It is design with restraint and therein lies its strength. This project shows the making of place in the best sense of the word.
This article has been written in consultation with McGregor Coxall and CHROFI Architects
McGregor Coxall were the lead planners and landscape designers of the total Maitland Revitalization Project.
The Maitland Riverlink was designed by architects CHROFI in collaboration with McGregor Coxall.
Ethos Planning collaborated on the master plan. City Plan were the heritage consultants and Braddon Snape the art consultants. Whipps Wood were responsible for the hydraulic engineering. Northrop Consulting Engineers did the lighting and mechanical engineering. The accessibility consultant was BCA Access Solutions.
Photographs and drawings in this article are supplied courtesy of McGregor Coxall and CHROFI.
McGregor Coxall (Responsible Partner: Adrian McGregor)
Consultants in landscape architecture, urbanism, environment and bio-city research with offices globally and a portfolio of international award-winning projects.
TELEPHONE: +61 (0)2 9188 7500
WEBSITE ADDRESS: www.mcgregorcoxall.com
CHROFI (Responsible Partner: Tai Ropiha)
Architectural practice based in Sydney with a portfolio of international award-winning projects.
TELEPHONE: +61 (0)2 8096 8500
WEBSITE ADDRESS: www.chrofi.com
Notes & References
(1) The name of the main street happens to be High Street. The generic urban design terminologies main street and high street, which are synonymous, are used to describe a central movement spine with shopping and the likes. This article uses the term main street.
(2)McGregor Coxall. High Street Shared Zone and the Levee, Maitland. Public Domain Development Application Report.
(3) According to Richard Dover, design structure is “an organizing principle through which parts and pieces are brought together into a unified shape and form … it is an art with social purpose to develop the physical forms of social life and is apparent at all scales”. See: Dover, R. Environmental Design. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, 1969, p70.
(4) Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) is about integration of water cycle management into urban planning and design. The principal objectives are to improve catchment and water health, and encourage conservation and management of this precious natural resource.