Placeshakers and Earthquakers

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Published:  March 20, 2013
Estelle Pigot
Placeshakers and Earthquakers

The inaugural Creating Spaces Conference took place in Newcastle last week (12th to the 14th of March). Regional community leaders from across Australia gathered to learn share their experiences in reactivating spaces within their communities. It was hosted by Renew Australia, Marcus Westbury’s latest endeavour and supported by funding to the tune of $80,000 from the Australian Government.

Westbury invited kindred placemakers and the skills-based board of Renew Australia to share expertise gained during the successful Renew Newcastle project where city streets were transformed from struggling magnets for vandalism to creative and engaging places. Activation project leaders from Renew NewcastleGap Filler (Christchurch, NZ) and Empty Shops Network (UK) also presented to delegates who included local government employees charged with reinventing redundant spaces in their towns and creatives itching to take over empty spaces. Delegates also were schooled in tools and strategies for navigating building compliance, legalities and Public Liability Insurance identified as major barriers for many pop-up initiatives.

Marcus Westbury presenting his talk. Photography by Boony Loahajaroenyot for Renew Australia

Newcastle-raised Westbury remembers when the BHP steel works shut down in the late 90’s. Newcastle suffered 40% unemployment for several years. ‘None of my friends – nobody of our age group – had a job,’ he said. Pair this calamity with the decline of traditional retail, with shopping centres sucking the vitality out of the local high streets and Westbury admits, ‘The situation was pretty dire.’

He kicked-off Renew Newcastle in 2008, encouraging property owners to let artists into their vacant, street-level premises under temporary licenses for reduced rents. Westbury harnessed the creative capital that he discovered online. Researching local sellers he was surprised to fine low-budget DIY artmakers by the hundreds who were exporting their work around the world. He handed over empty spaces to imaginative people with limited capital making this entrepreneurial workforce visible. It was a game-changer that reinvented Newcastle’s identity.

The upshot came in 2011 when Lonely Planet declared Newcastle as ‘Australia’s most underrated city’ in their guide to the top 10 cities to visit in the world. Independent studies revealed that for every dollar invested, $11 was returned to the city, the Hunter Street mall was revitalised luring back wary visitors with photo galleries, designer skateboard deck shops, record labels, jewellery makers, co-working spaces and indigenous art galleries. ‘It’s not just about buildings and spaces and abstract real estate things, it’s about the hope it can inspire in the community,’ he says. The project has completed 100 projects so far and continues as a benchmark example of urban regeneration for planners around the world.

Dance-O-Mat. A pop-up community project developed as part of Gap Filler.

Dance-O-Mat. A pop-up community project developed as part of Gap Filler.

Coralie Winn and Ryan Reynolds lost their house in the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010. Like Westbury, their response was innovation.  They founded Gap Filler an initiative which revision the ‘gaps’ created when the city’s buildings were razed to the ground. For them one man’s vacant block was another’s pop-up music venue or one’s abandoned refrigerator, a public book exchange. Theirs is a post-disaster world where an empty lot turns into an open-space dance floor where jitterbuggers can plug in their iPods and for the price of a coin offering to the old washing machine, conquer the Dance-o-Mat for 30 minutes. The Gap Filler project has become an integral part of the rebuild efforts of Christchurch, the council appreciating the value of these gorilla projects in revitalising the cityscape and the hope of citizens in the wake of devastation. As Reynolds told the conference, ‘this is not just post-disaster recovery feel-good, but urban planning on the fly.’

Kate Murray, a Novocastrian working for Sydney City Council spoke candidly about the pop-ups Oxford St and William St, as did Merryn Spencer from Pop-Up Parramatta. Both were evidently passionate about working to enable imaginative business-owners and determined to change the perspective of the ‘dreaded council’.

Creating Spaces panel featuring Tim Horton. Marcus Westbury presenting his talk. Photography by Boony Loahajaroenyot for Renew Australia

Tim Horton urged attendees to build on the momentum created by the conference to achieve practical outcomes such as new insurance products for pop-ups and pushing the Government to release an issues paper. He launched a report at the conference which investigates the cost and economic benefits to communities of culture-led renewal projects. Job creation, creation of intellectual capital, mitigation of blight, improved regional ‘brand value’ and business confidence in an area are all listed as the bright side of the Renew Newcastle scheme which triggered Renew Adelaide.

MP Simon Crean address the conference. Marcus Westbury presenting his talk. Photography by Boony Loahajaroenyot for Renew Australia

Mr Horton was also seen whispering into Simon Crean’s advisor’s ear when the Minister made an appearance on the final day of the conference fresh from delivering his press conference in Canberra on the long-awaited National Cultural Policy. Crean won cheers when he mentioned the inequity between sports in schools versus Australia’s support of the arts in education, tapping into a topical conversation. He acknowledged the creative industry’s value to the economy (5% of the workforce) and the added contribution of the industries that support artists and designers.  ‘Creativity and design are the forces that shape the economy of the future,’ he said.

The ‘pecha kucha’ session revealed the budding renewal projects popping up across Australia. The Sunshine Coast (QLD) is home to SCAIP a collective, film projection space and creative business incubator and Create Innovate is shaking things up in Gosford (NSW) with artistic microbusinesses, street artists and budding fashion designers.

Feeling the overwhelming desire to get involved? Dan Thompson of the Empty Shops Network says it’s as easy as uploading pictures of empty shops in your area to theirFlickr group on May the 4th to help document vacant properties that are awaiting transformation.

One Response

  1. margaret naylor

    i found this well written article very inspiring by presenting a positive way that communities can improve their lives with a creative approach and an enthuastic attitude,with little cost and some welcome help from the government.

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