Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

611 words

Urban renewal: a user’s guide

1 December 2015

Books | The challenge for Australian cities is to introduce fluidity into a landscape often set in concrete, writes Jennifer Kent

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The anomalous and the everyday: ARThive, an artist-run initiative in Newcastle’s Hunter Street Mall. Renew Newcastle

The anomalous and the everyday: ARThive, an artist-run initiative in Newcastle’s Hunter Street Mall. Renew Newcastle

Creating Cities
By Marcus Westbury | Niche Press | $27.50


In 2008, festival director, urbanist and television presenter Marcus Westbury returned to his home town of Newcastle with the idea of opening a small bar. He found a city in the throes of decline. More than 150 shops in the main street were vacant, awaiting regeneration but paralysed by that special combination of capital and regulation that stifles innovation in favour of predictability.

The bar never opened. Instead, Westbury set about putting empty shops and offices to use by matching a grab bag of artistic and community uses with space. He waded through the inevitable regulatory, financial and material obstacles that stood in the way of making that happen.

The result was Renew Newcastle, a not-for-profit company that has transformed inner-urban Newcastle. Its success was recognised in 2011 when the world’s largest travel publisher, Lonely Planet, proclaimed the evolving industrial seaside city to be one of the top ten cities to visit, partly because of its embrace of transition and regeneration. Renew has gone on to launch more than 200 creative and community projects in Newcastle and across Australia.

Creating Cities chronicles Westbury’s journey and, in the process, exposes many of the issues facing urban areas in transition. The book was made possible by a record-breaking Australian crowdfunding campaign – an unsurprising avenue to publication given its topic. Apart from some small editorial errors, the bookis well-written and engaging, moving from chapter to chapter at times like an impulsive hitched ride, yet all the while maintaining momentum.

The book is personal, and anyone expecting an objective review of Renew Newcastle’s success will be left wanting. Despite an engaging reflection on the processes of Maslow’s Hammer at work (see chapter five) there is little acknowledgement of the subjectivity inherent in the author’s analysis of his home town. Nor are there perspectives from those outside the process, though it would be interesting to explore how Renew’s ventures have been received by the public, and whether its modus operandi has had any unintended consequences of exclusion, complication or veto.

As an urban planner, I’m acutely aware of why we have the regulations that so often seem to stand in the way of Renew’s creative force. Cities are made up not only by the anomalous but also by the everyday: the fire regulations, parking provisions, building codes and engineering specifications that make buildings survive and places work. Creating Cities chronicles how cities can benefit from a more balanced approach – a mindful contravention of regulation in the name of making something work. Indeed, the book opens with a story of the author’s grandfather, who erected (in concrete) a home-made sign back in the 1960s to provide direction to an otherwise obscured public park in northwest Newcastle. Now, the globalisation of the atypical, made possible by communication technologies, is exposing and upscaling metaphorical home-made signs. Flux is no longer ancillary to the status quo. Idiosyncrasy is the new normal, and that home-made sign foreshadowed an appreciation of the hand-made and bespoke.

This grounding makes Creating Cities an important record of how figurative signs are made and erected, and how they can change people’s lives and define space. Yet the book’s true contribution comes from the way it exposes the immense complexity of issues facing urban areas increasingly pressured by fluidity but literally set in concrete. Although Westbury never explicitly acknowledges it, Creating Cities is essentially a story about the tensions of geographical scale. It provides an instruction manual for how communities can use technologies to resist consumer monocultures, all the while working within regulatory and physical constraints. •

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The enemy within

28 November 2015

Television | Free-to-air TV can still shift public debate, writes Jane Goodall. But can it break free of its own conventions?

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Authority: the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson. Mark Rogers/ABC

Authority: the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson. Mark Rogers/ABC