Westbury, Marcus. Creating Cities. Melbourne: Niche Press, 2015.
Creating Cities (1) is Marcus Westbury’s account of Renew Newcastle, a grass-roots effort to revitalize the run-down center of a Newcastle, a steel, coal and shipping city some two hours drive north of Sydney. The non-profit, which Westbury founded in 2008, acts as an intermediary between owners of vacant and sometimes semi-derelict properties and creative small businesses and arts organizations looking for spaces. The efforts have been highly successful and highly publicized. Newcastle, as a result, even made it to Lonely Planet’s global top ten ‘Best in Travel’ list in 2011. “Australia’s most underrated city....transformed...from steel to creative hub...an explosion of artists ...photographers...fashion designers, digital artists and more” it enthused.
Westbury, a festival programmer, documentary film maker and native of Newcastle, has boot-strapped a plan that involved persuading landlords that by licensing short term users rather than seeking renters, they could access an untapped market, regain their properties quickly if opportunities for longer term rentals arose, and enhance their value; meanwhile he persuaded users that they could trade security of tenure for very low rentals.
His success followed many more ambitious but stalled regeneration plans that sounded glorious but that never got past the feasibility stage. His thesis is that these larger ‘top down’ visions cause a form of planning blight that prevents incremental ad hoc use of spaces. Newcastle, stalled in transition, was waiting for Godot and he was definitely not coming. Although many specific projects sponsored by Renew Newcastle ‘failed’ in the sense that they were impermanent, a critical mass endured and many progressed from licences to a more permanent existence.
Westbury is now a very effective proselytizer around the world for this hard-scrapple boot-strapping approach – he was a great panellist at the New Cities Summit in Jakarta last June – whilst acknowledging its partial and occasionally palliative nature; the attendant risks, and the reality that the maker movement cannot simply replace the steel industry. That said, 170 businesses and community projects have been launched, 70 vacant properties reopened, and the CBD experienced a 60 to 90 per cent drop in vacancy rates. The Lonely Planet gush also supports his observation that there is a changed perception of the city both internally and externally as a result. Renew effectively rebranded the city.
An online lecture by Westbury that gives you a good overview of the approach is here (2). A summary of an evaluation of the impact of the Renew Newcastle initiative by SGS economics is here (3). And here (4) is the website, of Empty Spaces, an organization that provides a network for similar initiatives around the world and that seeks to describe the mechanics in detail. This whole experiment can be seen as part of the larger tactical urbanism (5) movement.