In the first of a new series on the Cairns CBD, experienced local planners Nikki Huddy and Sharon Harwood delve into the traditional and modern versions of our city’s heart.

A traditional city centre has a Main Street where business evolved. As they took advantage of passing trade and easy access by all modes of transport, including trucks, carts, cars, pedestrians, cycling, rail, and the port. The modern city centre is characterised by stand-alone shopping centres, dominated by retail and entertainment with less businesses, community and residential uses.

Cairns has had many versions of our city centre over the years. It started as a traditional city, built around Abbott Street. This bustling strip contained government buildings, access to the port facilities, shops, pubs, customs house and various services. Since the 1980’s, we have tinkered with some of the really critical elements that attract and retain people in the centre such as the post office, council chambers, banks, school, and court house. At the same time, air-conditioned shopping centres sprung up at Earlville and Smithfield. But the most significant impact on the Cairns CBD was the development of Cairns Central shopping centre in 1997. Up until this point, the primary function of the Cairns CBD was as a freight hub for the region, for mining, forestry, and agriculture. Our main streets ran north-south along Abbott Street and then later Lake Street. The opening of Cairns Central changed the orientation of the CBD to east-west along Shields Street. This subtle change to the flow of passing traffic has seen Cairns morph from a traditional centre to a modern centre with a focus on tourism and the businesses it serves. Our key businesses - including the port office, government services and community spaces - moved to the periphery. 

More residential options
We are also yet to realise the permanent residential opportunities of our CBD. We should not rely on bringing people into the CBD - this highlights or creates problems with cars, parking, public transport, cyclists, and more. We have to put people there by making space for permanent residential development. This will go a long way towards resolving parking and traffic issues due to on-site parking and fewer commuting workers, and put more people into the CBD for our small businesses. So, now we are in between being a traditional and modern city and as a consequence we have lost our identity, along with the purpose and function of our CBD.

Walkable catchments
Urban design in the CBD is based on either 400 metre (5 minutes walk) or at the most 800 metre (10 minute walk) catchments measured from a centre point. 800 metres is recognised as the maximum distance from the centre point that a person will walk, irrespective of climate, time of day and design and attractiveness of the walk. This is due to the practicalities of time budgets and human nature. The current centre point of the Cairns CBD is on Shields Street, located between the lagoon and Cairns Central at about the location of the fig tree in front of the Woolshed. If we draw a 400m radius from that centre point, the main elements of this walkable catchment (at the street level) is predominantly retail and restaurants. At the level above, we have two university campuses, several international language schools,
tourist accommodation and offices. There is very little residential. Only three permanent residential apartment blocks are in this
catchment and sadly the library and art gallery are the only remaining community facilities.

All the elements
Our CBD has all the elements of a predominately open air, modern centre, such as retail, restaurants and tourist facilities. These are the same successful features of internationally renowned cities such as Auckland, Honolulu, Stockholm, and Vienna. But Cairns isn’t sure of itself. It hasn’t matured into its potential. Currently, the Cairns CBD is a hot, open air centre and it continues to compete with the air-conditioned convenience of shopping centres at Cairns Central, Smithfield, Earlville, Westcourt, Raintrees and Mt Sheridan.

The CBD is for all of us. We need to lift our gaze and our goal. What would it take for Cairns to be recognised by UNESCO, or receive an international award for being an engaged city, a smart city, or a healthy city?

Published in Issue 17 / Tropic Magazine