2 December 2007

Dullsville: What is missing?

In the world's most isolated city with over 1 million inhabitants, some are making a 3300km journey to Sydney on the opposite side of the country seeking a change of lifestyle. While Perth, or Dullsville as it is dubbed, is seen as an ideal place to study by parents of overseas students who want their children to be free of the distractions typical of city life, we have to wonder how Perth earned this unenviable title and what is driving away young professionals who will give reasons other than just the better opportunities that are offered elsewhere.

Perth is a clean and beautiful city and many of its residents would not want to live anywhere else. However, there are also many who want to call some other place home. On most days the CBD becomes virtually a ghost town in the evening, and except for Friday and Saturday night, the majority of clubs, pubs and bars in Northbridge - Perth's entertainment precinct - are either closed or have few customers.

Many sense a lack of vibrancy in the atmosphere of this city, and upon careful consideration, the underlying reasons for this may not be as simple and obvious as they at first seem.

What Is Meant By Dull?

The meaning of dull depends on the individual's perspective. Some Perth residents will have no idea what the proponents of change are seeking that the city does not already have. The proponents of change themselves will have differing ideas on what is needed to make the city more vibrant. However, most of these people would like to see more facilities and changes to laws that are conducive to social activity.

Does Size Matter?

With 1.5 million inhabitants, Perth is indeed small when compared to the world's largest urban agglomerations:

Agglomeration    Population
Tokyo            33.6 million
Seoul            23.4 million
Mexico City      22.4 million

Size certainly does make a difference, and the larger cities do tend to be more exciting, simply because there are more things to see and do.

There are other factors that contribute to the vibrancy of a city, however. Take for example Gold Coast City, famous for its expanse of surfing beaches, high rise apartments and theme parks, such as Warner Bros. Movie World. It is home to just 550 thousand. Gold Coast City owes its success as a popular tourist destination to geography, which attracted investment in tourist and entertainment facilities.

However, you do not need good beaches to create an exciting city, and Perth has good beaches anyway (even though they are not ideal for surfing).

Food and Entertainment Facilities

What can you do in other cities but not in Perth?

There is always a pub nearby. The hard part is choosing which one to go to.

There are nightclubs to cater to a range of tastes, including dance, R&B, house, rock and retro. They are concentrated in Northbridge, the CBD and Fremantle.

There is a wide variety of restaurants reflecting the multiculturalism of Australia, including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, French and Italian, just to name a few.

The cafes are plentiful. You see them everywhere you go in the CBD and Fremantle, and they can be found in many locations throughout the metropolitan area.

Aside from the above, the facilities exist for many other social activities, including watching movies on the big screen, pool, gambling and karaoke.

While Perth does have amusement and theme parks, it is debatable whether they can be considered world class. Perth would benefit from an amusement park with the same type of attractions as Disney Land in Los Angeles, but such a facility would not transform the atmosphere of Perth on its own, because it would not provide a regular social venue for local residents. The boost to tourism would be more significant, because it would encourage greater investment in the infrastructure and entertainment facilities that are needed to make Perth a more vibrant city.

Do the existing facilities just need to be bigger, better and greater in number in the capital of Australia's richest state? One would have to think not; presently, it is a meaningless proposition because on most nights almost all the social venues in the CBD are either closed or do not attract many customers. One would not describe the CBD as just dull six nights of the week; almost everywhere it is dead, eerily so. Visitors are left asking "Where can I get something to eat?". While there are restaurants (many of which only offer fast food) open in the evening, they are few and far between and lone visitors can be forgiven for not wanting to wander around the dark abandoned streets late at night searching for them. The few restaurants and nightclubs that are open for business tend to lie in obscure places where people are unlikely to find them on their own.

There are many restaurants and cafes open in Northbridge on every night of the week, but to get to these places one has to make a trek over the railway line which separates it from the centre of Perth's business activities. Some might argue that having a separate precinct exclusively for dining and entertainment is desirable, since it keeps the booming dance clubs and drunkards away from Perth's office blocks, but a lot of important business is done in restaurants and cafes outside normal business hours.


Visitors might think that the exodus from the city centre at dusk is simply a lifestyle choice which fits popular stereotypes of Australian culture. It can be considered a choice, but not one made by individual retailers and shoppers.

The Retail Trading Hours Act 1987 was introduced by the state government with the aim of assisting small retailers against competition from larger businesses by restricting opening hours depending on the size, type and location of the business. Standard trading hours are as follows:

  • 8.00am-6.00pm, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday
  • 8.00am-9.00pm, Thursday
  • 8.00am-5.00pm, Saturday

The Perth and Fremantle tourism precincts have expanded trading hours:

  • 8.00am-7.00pm, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
  • 8.00am-9.00pm, Friday
  • 8.00am-5.00pm, Saturday
  • 12 noon-6.00pm, Sunday

Small retail shops that meet a certain criteria may trade 24 hours of the day. The Act also allows 24 hour trading for filling stations. Retailers falling under the special retail shops category, such as pharmacies, video stores and duty free stores, are permitted to trade longer hours.

To the frustration of many consumers, the legislation has made many items such as clothes, electrical appliances and homewares generally impossible to obtain outside standard hours (or expanded hours in tourism precincts) because small businesses offering such products during these hours are simply not viable.

It is highly likely that the restricted trading hours of retailers would at least partly explain why other businesses such as cafes are legally permitted to remain open outside these hours but must close because they have too few potential customers. Consequently, there is little left to attract people into the CBD in the evening apart from a few convenience stores, fast food outlets and Internet cafes.

The Big Picture: Urban Design

Most of the discussion on transforming Perth that receives attention in the media appears to concentrate on the CBD and adjacent areas. It is easy for people to accept and appreciate the benefits of change in this part of the city. There is no question that the vitality of the city centre is important, but there are other issues that have an impact on the city's social structure.

The urban geography of Perth is characterised by urban sprawl and one of the world's highest dependencies on the automobile for transport. The highly segregated land use has resulted in suburbs featuring low-density, homogeneous residential areas serviced by large shopping centres. Urban sprawl is a phenomenon that became particularly evident in Australian and American cities after World War II and has been the subject of numerous studies.

Evidence exists that the car dependent lifestyle which is a fundamental characteristic of urban sprawl not only has an adverse impact on the environment, physical health and the economy, but also on social capital, or the benefit delivered by social networks. The only form of face-to-face interaction drivers have with people outside the car is road rage.

Reducing dependence on the private automobile is not a simple matter of increasing funding for public transport. Perth's urban geography has already made it one of the most costly cities to service in the world when measured as a percentage of Gross Regional Product.

Planning the city so that people spend less time behind the wheel and there is more space and money available for entertainment facilities and the services that support them can only make the CBD and surrounding suburbs more exciting places to live.

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