In his new book Creating Cities author, festival director, urbanist and television presenter, Marcus Westbury details the transformation that Newcastle underwent to catapult the city from a wasteland of vacant and empty buildings in 2008 into one of Lonely Planet’s top 10 cities in 2011.
Not only does the book tell an extraordinary success story, particularly against a backdrop of failure, where many governments, urban planners and developers were unable to re-invigorate the city, it set an Australian record on crowd funding platform Pozible by meeting its target in less than a day.
In 2008 Marcus Westbury returned to his hometown of Newcastle – one of Australia’s largest regional centres – and found more than 150 empty buildings lining its two main streets, some had been vacant for decades. He set out to renew the city, but not in the traditional way.
Working from the ground up to engage the community’s initiative, creativity and ‘sweat equity’, Westbury and his team re-invigorated Newcastle by filling the empty buildings with artists, creators and their work, reconnecting the community and bringing it back into town.
Their model focuses on how cities behave and optimising a city’s best assets, be it a built or natural environment. It opposes the traditional tenets of town planning, which are usually slow, complex, expensive, strive for permanency and work from the top down.
This initiative and model became Renew Newcastle, and by extension, Renew Australia. It has been adopted the world over. Key to their success was an approach that supports people to work with low budgets, innovative partnerships and nimble infrastructure.
“It’s faster, quicker and cheaper to do lots of small things than to push through a few big things,” says Westbury. “Often we look so much at the big things we forget about the small things. Every community I’ve ever been to has a lot of people wanting to start, create and imagine small scale things.”
“There has been an explosion in small scale creativity and cities and communities should be trying to harness it,” he says. “It makes economic sense, it builds community, it grows value in every sense of the word and the old patterns of production and distribution are changing.”
With the transformation of bricks and mortar retail to online retail, especially with giants like Amazon and ITunes, whole categories of businesses today are disappearing. Westbury sees the enormous opportunity for those who are creative and adaptable, “there has never been a better time to make or create something, he says. “Local creativity now has access to global markets that weren’t even imaginable a decade or two ago. Create spaces (literally and metaphorically) for people to flourish,”
With cities and towns like Adelaide, Sydney, Devonport, Cooma, Melbourne’s Docklands adopting the Renew approach there is more opportunity for using creativity to build community. “Empty spaces are lost opportunities,” he says. “Every day a shop, an office or a building sits empty is a lost chance to do something, try something start something. I want every town, every city and every property owner in Australia to start to think like that.”
The launch of Creating Cities coincides with ABC TV’s BESPOKE, an irreverent but thought provoking look at the rise of the handmade. BESPOKE has been written and presented by Westbury and will be broadcast on Thursdays in September at 10pm on ABC1.
Marcus Westbury is an accidental urbanist, consultant, speaker, writer and broadcaster and the founder of Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia. A former columnist for The Age, his writing has appeared in many of Australia’s leading publications including Griffith REVIEW, Meanjin, and Crikey.
In an earlier life Marcus was a festival director: the founder of This Is Not Art, The National Young Writers Festival, Free Play, and the Artistic Director of Next Wave. Marcus is based in Melbourne and is regularly engaged to present nationally and internationally at conferences and summits on cities, culture and communities. Creating Cities is his first book.
For more information or to buy the book, visit: www.creatingcities.net for details.
Image: Creating Cities by Marcus Westbury