The Disney dream for the Pilbara

Community consultation planning looks to reimagine spaces and resolve social disparities that stick to the sidewalks of Pilbara mining towns.

Because if you look closely at these towns, it’s hard to see even a slice of Disney World, despite being designed on the same concept.

“When we reflect on the Radburn Principles there are two thoughts on it,” Dr Amanda Davies says. “One is that it’s a disaster in terms of planning and it led to crime.

“The other is that it’s quite successful and it leads to community bonds.”

Just like Disney’s experimental prototype community of tomorrow, the model Western cosmopolitan community of the future, Pilbara iron ore settlements were designed on the Radburn Principles.

The Radburn principles

Inspired by the Radburn Estate in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, the principles attempt to create community-based walkable suburbs with separate avenues for vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

Houses are built back-to-front. Radburn design is typified by homes with fronts that address a shared public open space and backs that address the street. Conceptually it increases walkability and fosters community.

When Australia lifted its embargo on iron ore exports in the 1960s it designed the booming Pilbara mining towns using Radburn principles.

Some consider the application in the region as a colossal planning failure.

Demographer and rural planning researcher Dr Amanda Davies says the Radburn principles, and its predecessor the Garden City design, have led to an array of problems within iron ore mining towns in Western Australia.

“The very first iron ore town in Western Australia was Wundowie which is just outside of Perth, and that was a Garden City town,” Dr Davies says. “That was developed fundamentally around the idea of housing workers and keeping them happy with parklands and public open spaces. Companies want to look after their workers and that influenced what happened in all our mining towns.

“But it’s quite a while on now and you’ve had layers of social problems, low investment in social housing, and poor-quality social housing, which gives rise to some of the problems in the built environment.”

Dr Amanda Davies

Several criticisms have been levelled at the use of Radburn principles in the Pilbara because, at its foundation, it’s a foreign concept, and perhaps ill-fit for the region’s environment and people.

Emergent community-led planning initiatives, like the East Newman Precinct Structure Plan, look to rectify the imposition of an American planning idea on the region.

The ENPSP is a collaborative approach to planning. Photo: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

The ENPSP is a large-scale infrastructure and social project that aims to address the socio-economic disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal people in East Newman.

The project is different because it’s led by Martu and Nyiyaparli Traditional Owners who are seeking to build a better and more sustainable life for their communities, based on what they believe to be the most suitable goals.

The Karlka Nyiyaparli Aboriginal Corporation, Jamukurnu Yapalikurnu Aboriginal Corporation, and Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Service are all proponents of the plan.

While community consultation planning has been practiced in metro Australia for several decades, Dr Davies says it’s largely new in regional WA. 

“(Community consultation) has been around for a very long time, you could go back to Network City in Perth where there were unbelievable amounts of consultation that went on for the metro scheme,” she says. Huge amounts of people were involved and lots of parties.

“What we have seen in regional areas is less consultation and the application of urban principles into rural spaces. Things that work well in Melbourne and downtown Sydney have been placed into rural environments.”

Radburn principles have been applied to numerous metropolitan suburbs throughout Australia with varying levels of success.

In Crestwood houses address public open space, separating vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Image: Google Maps.

The Perth suburb of Crestwood, 1600km to the Pilbara’s south, is considered one of the best applications of the principles in the world.

South Hedland’s Radburn failure

But the concept, which formed in populous temperate New England, could not find a footing in the Pilbara.

A loose suburban membrane, resolute in its loneliness, South Hedland emerges singularly from the arid red dust of sub-tropical North West Australia.

Standalone satellite suburb South Hedland emerges suddenly in the Pilbara desert. Photos: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

Its Radburn failure is infamous in the region.

A disconnected offshoot of the world’s largest bulk export port, Porth Hedland began growing in 1965 with the establishment of the town Development Program. As stated in the 2014 South Hedland Town Centre Development Plan Report, the goal was to create four large residential areas designed to accommodate 30,000 to 40,000 people.

Radburn design is evident in the founding suburbs of Lawson, Walnut Grove, Cassia, and Shellborough.

Shane Starling was one of the first residents of South Hedland when he moved to the town as a child in 1971. The satellite suburb was only five streets at the time, but even then, the foreign design stood out to him.

Shane Starling moved to South Hedland in 1971 when the town was only five streets. Photo: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

“The concept would have been fine if it was in a cooler area but not in the Pilbara because no one is going to walk around in 40-degree temperature,” he says.

“It should have just been square streets and you can imagine the damage to wheel alignment and tires over the years in South Hedland just driving around in circles. All you’re doing there is driving around corners and doing loops instead of just driving dead straight.”

The original suburbs attempted to separate pedestrian and vehicle traffic with loop, ring, and through roads around a central hub, to create a more socially connected populous.

A bird’s eye view of South Hedland looks like a rose, as the town loops in on itself, circular streets pulsate from the centre.

Andrew Watt worked on the South Hedland New Living Project, a planning initiative which worked with several community stakeholders to improve liveability and anti-social behaviour in town.

Mr Watt says South Hedland’s Radburn road network allowed crime to proliferate.

“Pedestrian-wise it might be quite helpful but from a crime perspective it’s problematic,” he says. “You could be a few hundred metres away from another street, but it takes you over 2km to drive there.

“Say for example a crime is committed, a person can easily access the back of a house and escape through a laneway while Police in cars have to drive 3 km to catch up with them.”

South Hedland’s alleyways, looped roads, and public open spaces have enabled anti-social behaviour. Photos: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

Mr Watt paints a picture which mirrors Mr Starling’s reality.

As the South Hedland boy grew so did the town and the level of crime.

“The next minute there were break-ins, then the next minute we had to lock our doors, the next minute we had a deadlock,” he says. “It was just completely different.”

The South Hedland New Living Project used community input to rebuild and redefine a suburb.

Community consultation planning

Community consultation in planning seeks to listen to and consider local voices.

The people who were raised there and will raise their kids there.

Shay Gap Park was designed by children in South Hedland. Photo: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

In the South Hedland New Living Project, Mr Watt was involved in the redevelopment of the Shay Gap Park which he says was largely inspired by the children who used it.

‘The real experts are the kids because they are the ones on their bikes and walking the streets,” he says.

“The first initial quick win project was to redevelop the Shay Gap Park and we did all community events, and activities, and went into the schools with kids to help them choose and design it.

“They chose different types of playground equipment and things, and then we put on a whole bunch of activities to activate that park and make it a community hub.”

On the southern end of East Newman, Train Park currently is undergoing a similar level of community engagement as Shay Gap Park did in South Hedland. Stakeholders across the community activate the park through sports workshops, entertainment activities, and philanthropic events.

Football clinic at Train Park, East Newman. Photos: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

The ENPSP seeks to rectify some of the planning mistakes brought on by the Radburn principles.

Creating Communities Australia planner Sam Wallis says the Radburn design of East Newman has detracted from the town’s sense of place.

“From my town planning knowledge, I would say that East Newman is similar to South Hedland in that it follows the Radburn principles,” he says. “Just like South Hedland, and any of the other Radburn developments, you can get very lost very quickly.

“There are all these bends, col de sacs – legibility is a term we like to use as town planners – and it’s not very legible. You sort of get trapped in a maze and you can’t get out. Whereas, if you drive around somewhere like Subiaco, where it’s a modified grid pattern, you can logically work out how to get from A to B.”  

Boarded and broken windows stare into the littered looping streets, concealing destroyed interiors of former homes and current hideouts.

Residents of East Newman experience some of the highest levels of overcrowding, poor health outcomes, low education attainment, and the largest income disparities in WA.

Frequently the suburb, which sits at the edge of the Pilbara’s Western desert, disconnected from Newman proper, and lacking several commonplace suburban services, is described as a warzone.

Many East Newman houses are in a state of utter disrepair. Photos: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

Just like South Hedland, Mr Wallis says the design of East Newman enables crime.

“Firstly, is that loss of sense of place and where you are, the second problem is a lack of connectivity – it takes longer to get from A to B in a car,” he says. “Radburn design does try to overcome that with pedestrian access ways between houses, which is normally a two-metre walkway.

“I don’t know why they were thinking this back in the day, and I know hindsight is a lovely thing, but they built a lot of parks and public open space with the houses backing onto the parks, so the way to access the parks is through these pedestrian access ways.

“The problem is, and this isn’t unique to East Newman, it enables anti-social behaviour to take place because these pedestrian access ways are at the side of houses where people have a two-metre fence so there is no passive surveillance from houses.”

This house was built to address the central park in East Newman. Photo: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

Passive surveillance helps prevent neighbourhood crime and is a noted problem with Radburn design. But surveillance also requires people, and in Newman they are often in short supply.

Many houses in the suburb were once the property of resource companies, but dwindling industry and the transient nature of the North West have left many within East Newman abandoned.

Mr Watt explains a large barrier to community consultation in the Pilbara is the transient nature of the towns.

“When you own your own house and you’re going to be there for the long term you are often more engaged because you have more skin in the game,” he says. “In a Pilbara town where the majority of places are rentals provided by the company, you have to work harder to get the same level of engagement.”

The ENPSP overcomes this challenge by being led by Martu and Nyiyaparli who will reside in East Newman long term.

On aggregate Newman’s population has declined over the last 18 years leaving many homes abandoned. Graphic: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

The ENPSP targets improvements in housing, the creation of a Neighbourhood Centre, a PAMS short-stay accommodation, better public open spaces, the creation of Nyiyaparli and Martu youth educational facilities, improved walking trails, and social activities.

It could also, as Mr Wallis explains, rectify some of Radburn’s wrongs by creating thoroughfares for vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

“We are looking at ways we can actually punch some roads through, and punch some connectivity through,” he says. “Where we have two privately held houses by the one entity, where they could possibly be seeded to the crown free of cost, we could construct a road through there. That just provides better connectivity for the roads and pedestrians.”

Mr Wallis also says changes to the density requirement could solve some of the issues in East Newman.

“With the ENPSP we have said you can subdivide to a higher density, and we encourage you to subdivide to a higher density if you follow the design principles required to provide passive surveillance,” he says “The blanket plan is just residential, so it didn’t provide any community gathering spaces.

“So, we have emphasised the need to have a community centre which would be a place where we can have activation.”

The ENPSP is one of the major initiatives to come out of the Martu and Nyiyaparli cultural compact, an agreement to forge a new path in East Newman based on strong culture and family.

The ENPSP is the result of over 400 instances of engagement with stakeholders, including 54 workshops, with approximately 200 people involved.

Cate Ballentyne the chief executive for KNAC, the prescribed body corporate for Nyiyaparli, says the project’s level of consultation was special.

“A lot of time was taken to really listen,” she says, “The project is unique in how much time and input was given to Martu and Nyiyaparli. The work Martu, Nyiyaparli, and Creating Communities Australia have done over the years deserves recognition.”

THRIVE Pilbara is a program by Mission Australia that engages people in public and Aboriginal housing so they can maintain their tenancy during the ongoing regional housing crisis.

The massive rental price increase in the Pilbara has caused a housing crisis in the region (Data from Pilbara Development Commission. Graphic: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

The program tailors its needs to the individual and community it’s engaging by connecting them to the appropriate service provider.

THRIVE Pilbara manager Meg Geutjes explains many projects in the region fail because they don’t engage in community consultation.

“From an organisation perspective, if we are going to do something in a community, we are really clear on our consultation process and take into consideration that it is something the community wants and needs,” she says.

“What that looks like for Newman is going to be different to Tom Price.

“In my experience, people who don’t go through that process really struggle to get their programs delivered within their goals because they haven’t gone through an appropriate consultation process.”

Meg Geutjes.

Still, work needs to be done to deliver a community-led planning project like the ENPSP.

In August the Shire of East Pilbara recommended the plan be approved when it’s submitted to the West Australian Planning Commission later in the year.  

While the project still needs to go through the appropriate hurdles, Ms Ballantyne believes it could set a model for future projects in regional Australia.

“I would love to see it,” she says, “A lot of work, time, and input is needed to make it work – Martu, Nyiyaparli, and Creating Communities Australia have done that.

“It could absolutely be a model – the model doesn’t just benefit Newman. It’s possible I guess that’s the point.”

Newman Women’s Shelter worker in East Newman. Photo: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

The way forward

In 1966, a couple of weeks after the first iron ore was loaded on a ship in Port Hedland, Walt Disney stepped aboard his own boat in British Colombia.

Under deteriorating health, the yacht trip was to be a brief sojourn from his tireless work cultivating business interest in his most daring project yet.

Disgruntled with city planning, he intended for the experimental prototype community of tomorrow to be a ‘city of the future’, a utopia, that would draw on the Radburn Principles, a concept in vogue.

That year he explained to Florida legislators he wanted to achieve a “planned environment demonstrating to the world what American communities can accomplish through proper control of planning and design.”

But that year his health continued to worsen, and his dream was never realised.

EPCOT would open in 1982 as a theme park, a perversion of Disney’s original idea, 16 years after his death.

In the interim the principles, with their basis in Northeast America, would spread across the world and set down on environments and cultures far-flung and dissimilar to their origin with varying levels of success.

In the Pilbara, the resulting societal disparity has led to Radburn being labelled a failure in the region.

Community consultation planning in East Newman will look to rezone the land to allow for higher-density living. Photos: Xander Sapsworth-Collis.

An article by Julian Boteller on Radburn planning in Karratha points out because of the remoteness, strangeness, and underlying indigeneity of the landscape, Radburn’s misapplication:

“perpetuates the feeling that despite two centuries of European Australian occupation we still seem to be struggling to settle Australia …”

The way forward for Pilbara planning, Mr Watt explains, is to consult the communities you’re planning for like the ENPSP intends to do.

“The lesson of Radburn was instead of doing stuff to a community, you do it with them. You have to get on the ground, understand the community, understand the context, and understand the environment.”