Sarah Horsfield is a director of town planning at Urbis. She’s working with SRL to ensure that the plan for the new Sunbury South town centre aligns with the needs of the local community – now and for years ahead – in a way that goes beyond retail.

Tell us about Urbis, and how they’re part of the Sunbury South story.
We’re a multidisciplinary firm that advises the property industry and government. We bring an integrated skill-set to create solutions for clients in cities and regional areas.

For the Sunbury South major town centre, Urbis was engaged for its planning services. We’ve been working closely with SRL and the broader project team – architects, engineers, landscape architects and traffic engineers – to develop an urban design framework.

What was SRL’s brief to you?
SRL has a vision to do things differently. Their view is that greenfield communities in the outer suburbs are being delivered retail centres that are reflective of old thinking. These spaces don’t offer the same level of amenity that people in the inner city experience – places that are richly varied, vibrant, have nighttime activities and offer a wide range of cultural, educational, retail and housing opportunities.

How is this model changing?
There’s been a huge evolution in thinking around retail centres over the last 10 to 20 years. Successful centres can’t be one dimensional anymore.
There’s got to be something that draws people to visit that centre for things other than grocery shopping. There might be a fabulous cafe, a great community space where people can socialise, or even a library.

Our economists tell me that the more diverse, mixed-use and vibrant you can make these centres, the better the retail tenants will trade. You’ll get more foot traffic, more visitation and people staying longer when there’s consideration of entertainment and culture, and more open space and public realm.

This is how SRL is breaking new ground with Sunbury, and they’ve applied a similar approach to their neighbourhood centre at Wollert.

Urbis has published an industry benchmark report on retail since 1992. How has this influenced your work with SRL?
The movement towards outdoor public spaces and cultural amenities from a purely retail-based experience is a huge trend. Our economists have carried out international retail tours, and they tell us this is exactly where centres are going overseas.

This also reflects a major trend towards localisation that is here to stay. I think the CBD still has a role, but our local centres will take on increased importance in our day-to-day lives. That means that they need to be designed differently, for different purposes, if they’re going to be successfully used by local communities.

How has this thinking been applied to Sunbury South?
One of the incredible features of the Sunbury South plan is that the whole ground plane is available for landscaped public realm areas rather than expanses of car parking. It’s a fantastic model where there’s just so much more amenity available for visitors.

It will be a very different experience. You will have opportunities for things like outdoor dining, yoga, or a plaza area that may be used for a community market on Sundays.

Is there one element you believe will have the biggest impact?
A distinguishing feature of the design is a dedicated pedestrian loop that basically wraps around the centre, containing a series of community spaces. There will also be childcare and medical centres, as well as the potential for a hotel, restaurants and co-working spaces.

SRL had a vision that this centre should be able to evolve vertically over time as the market matures. There’s no need for a five or six-storey office building in Sunbury South right now. But in 10 years, maybe there will be demand for that, as we may all be working more locally and flexibly in coworking hubs. So the design makes provisions to adapt to future trends, which is another strength.

Finally, what are you most excited to see come to life at Sunbury South?
I’m excited to see the pedestrian loop become a thriving space. Visitors will be parking in the basement, coming up into this interesting public environment where they can walk inside and outside, go shopping, have a coffee and experience the whole centre.

They’ll be inclined to spend more time there. It’s a space where mums can go with their kids as there are play spaces for young families. Older people can go because there might be community space or a library resource.

Greenfield communities deserve this kind of amenity. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we’re seeing this kind of innovative format being delivered.
I think the community will embrace it, and I think there will be other developers wanting to follow in SRL’s footsteps.