The Energy of Empty Spaces

Marcus Westbury’s Renew Newcastle organization has provided an exciting, replicable, low-budget model for urban renewal, focused on taking down not just the boards in the windows but the barriers to entry.

Ugh. Downtown renewal stories. You’ve heard them all, right? The factories are emptied out and the hipsters move in with their pickle jars, while others in the city look for big fixes in replacement industries and white elephant property developments.

On the surface, Newcastle’s story looks to be the same one. For decades, this small coastal city was the derelict butt-end of a picturesque train ride up the coast from Sydney. Beautiful beaches, great surf and one of the world’s finest ocean pools, obscured by rows of empty shop fronts and crumbling buildings. It was a classic industrial town, run to the rhythms of its steelworks shifts. Now the industry had left, with an earthquake finish-ing the job for good measure. Much of its population had fled to sprawling suburbs. To the casual visitor, the empty downtown was a ghost town. Fertile ground, of course, for the punks and the iconoclasts, local boy Marcus Westbury amongst them. Following many years as an instigator of arts festivals—the iconic This Is Not Art, named for graffiti scrawled on an old building on the edge of town by persons definitely unknown—and upstart organizations of various flavors in the city, Westbury eventually left town, going on to a career as a major festival director, television host, and generally overachieving agitator. But the problems of his hometown still nagged at him.

His sort-of memoir, sort-of how-to book, Creating Cities, tells of the al-most accidental but inevitable birth of Renew Newcastle. Attempts to find space to open a small bar led to a discovery that all of those empty spaces were not just difficult to rent for those without the resources of a property developer, but essentially impossible. It is not goodwill alone that fixes something when it is broken by inept design. His organization (which eventually grew into Renew Australia, taking on similar projects in other problematic city spaces) found low budget ways to reduce barriers to entry for small businesses, backing short-term leases for boarded-up spaces, setting up the paperwork and agreements to mitigate risk for previously reluctant landlords. Soon enough, all over downtown, businesses were popping up, from record and zine stores to small craft outlets and clothing labels. The energy of festival weekends began to persist year round. Pedestrian traffic increased. After the pop-ups popped off, new businesses remained. The city had swagger. Lonely Planet somewhat controversially named it one of the world’s top 10 cities to visit in 2011.

Though the city’s problems are by no means solved, the jolt of energy that Renew gave it is undeniable. Its model is almost too simple, and alluringly replicable—its licensing agreements are made available online, and Marcus has consulted and spoken with cities and neighborhood improvement groups all around the world. As he settles into a new job in Melbourne, overseeing the development of a new arts precinct in the shell of an old inner-city technical school, I asked him to reflect on the now mature Renew model.


People often make the mistake of thinking Renew is about pop-up stores, but that's not really the general principle is it?

The mistake would be to think that the purpose of the exercise is to have pop-up stores. The purpose of the exercise is actually to lower barriers to entry so that lots of people can experiment and try lots of different things. To that extent, a pop-up shop is a means to an end.

At one end of the spectrum, there's a whole bunch of short-term commercial big brand pop-up store projects, or flagship store projects, or activation projects or whatever. At the other end, the sort of stuff that we're doing is really about providing a framework in which people can test ideas. Sometimes that's a short-term shop, but nowadays most of our projects aren't shops, they're offices or workspaces or other things. It's a difference between the means and the intent.

In your book, you say, “Our cities aren't simply grand projects and megavisions, they are constellations of small acts and activities.” How did you come to learn that?

I guess I've never had a huge budget or lots of money to work with. I've al-ways tended to work on mostly art projects, and mostly with communities of people who, the primary thing they have to contribute is their imagination and their ideas. They don't have deep pockets. They can't spend their way out of a problem if they find a problem, but they are the quintessential people that every community needs. People who experiment, innovate, try things that are a bit out of the box, and by doing so, help discover ways that things can work better. Sometimes they go up wonderful dead ends.

In an ideal world, a city is something that you can influence by your actions, and I think the danger that we've had in most first-world cities for a long time is that cities are the domain of capital, not action. So, the only people that can influence them are people with deep pockets and lawyers and advice, who can negotiate a building process and throw lots of money at a problem if they find it. To me that's profoundly undemocratic, but it's also failing to cap the potential of the people who are in any given community, if only one per cent or five per cent or twenty per cent of them can influence the trajectory of it.

That's my starting premise. How does the city behave for people who have ideas and an imagination but don't have money? If the answer is, "Well, they're shut out," then something's wrong with the system, and you need to rethink the system.

Is it easier for those ideas and that kind of thinking to come about in a broken city rather than a thriving one where capital is able to run free and tell its usual story? Does a city fallen on hard times find its way more naturally towards these creative solutions?

I don't think there's any inevitability about the idea that it does, but the value that can be generated is much more obvious in a city where it's struggling. The desperate need for someone to do something makes it easier to entertain some of these ideas. When you've got a situation where land values are booming and everyone's making money, and the market seemingly is solving its own problems, it's easy to simply paper over the cracks of what individuals are unable to do. There's much less of a sense of what's missing.

It's become a bit of a cliché that run-down places are literally trans-formed by artistic and creative communities. The reality is that mostly they're not. Certainly for most midsized towns, they're not necessarily attracting or harnessing the imagination and the initiative of the people that are there. But it's certainly much easier to do that in an environment where there's a sense of need for someone to do something. I think that's one of the observations I’ve learnt from the experience of Renew. I've traveled and looked at potential to replicate aspects in other cities. It's much easier to get all of the stakeholders involved in a city where all of the stakeholders acknowledge that someone has to do something. It's much harder where a whole bunch of people are making money even if a place is becoming very dysfunctional.


What is repeatable from your model for smaller towns and cities that don't necessarily have Newcastle's pre-baked DIY creative culture—for which you are also partly responsible—and they're looking to this kind of renewal?

One of the arguments in the book is that creativity itself is becoming much more decentralized, so there are possibilities now. You can make a “career” now, at least a living, or a contribution to your living, selling, making, or creating things from just about anywhere to everywhere. I think that does change the trajectory. I was in a country town and I gave this talk and someone put a quick hand up, an old established gentleman of the town, and said, "Well that's all well and good, but we don't have anyone doing anything like that here. We don’t have anyone making or creating.” And then a dozen hands shot up in the audience, people going, “Actually no, that's me. I'm al-ready doing that.”

What's replicable is this idea that you can create frameworks that pro-vide entry-level opportunities for people in your community to start, try and grow things. Some of the specific things that we developed for Renew—like the contracts, and the legal templates, and the insurance stuff—all those practical things are part of a tool kit that can be applied to that. Equally, there's lots of communities that can solve that problem in some kind of ways, but that basic question of, "Are the people who want to try things here actually doing it?" is to me the starting point that you need to engage with if you’re thinking about how to transform the fortunes of the place.

The instinct of a lot of cities, particularly industrial cities that have fallen on hard times, is to look for the “big fix”. I come from Newfoundland, which has lost cod, and is now losing oil, and you see that there's this constant need to find a replacement industry that's going to come in and make it right. Your story and the story of Renew is partly about realizing that there's another way to look at it, right?

I'm really skeptical of the one-off things. I'm sure there are examples where it has worked, but for every example where it has worked, there are a hundred examples of a project that never happened. For a while there, the biggest industry in Newcastle was artists' impressions of things that were go-ing to be there eventually. Everything from new steelworks to an airport. Some of these things might be of inherent value for reasons in their own right, but by and large, that temptation to want to replace something huge with something equally huge is a dead end. Just looking for that one big industry to come in from outside and fix everything. Politicians of both left and right are pretty susceptible to that. It's great to be able to announce a fictitious idea of 5,000 jobs coming in with a new industry or whatever that may be. It's much, much harder to do that dogged. ground up, bit by bit, block by block, job by job reconstruction of a community.

What tends to happen is these things are often illusory, they're often ex-pensive if they do happen, and often they're white elephants. You end up putting huge amounts of money into some grand redevelopment and then five or ten years later, it's aging, it's tired, it's empty and it's requiring even more money to service the mistake, so I think you just have to be very wary of that way of thinking. It's hard to tell that to a community or a politician looking for the comfort that you get in the illusion.

Renew, at least in terms of Newcastle, isn't a new experiment. It's pretty bedded-in as a process and a way of thinking, for the inner city at least. Can you compare Newcastle before and Newcastle now? What do you see as the systemic changes that have come about through this?

There are big visual differences, just in terms of the number of buildings that are empty and the various things that have started. But sometimes the biggest successes are cultural. If you go back to Newcastle in 2008, it wasn't a place where people who had ideas were particularly inclined to start them. Newcastle in 2016 is a place that, not just through Renew but through a broader cultural shift, has created a cultural dynamic where people want to start things, and that's happening much, much more broadly.

It's not just our projects—I mean, we’ve supported 200 and something projects—but around those, there are people that are creative, that are entrepreneurial, that are community-minded, and they're coming in and start-ing all manner of things, because the perception is that it's a place that is conducive to that, and it is. On a cultural level, that's probably the biggest change.

But the other thing is that Renew has created a system where space is turned over regularly. Just through the stuff that we're doing, we’re constantly incubating things. We actually have more projects right now running under our umbrella than at any point in the last eight years, so the area's improved, but there's still lots of new things starting as well. To me, that's the ultimate success. I think you get these really interesting discus-sions and debates around the end goal, or what are you going to if the area becomes gentrified or whatever. To me, the basic question is, "Is it a place where the people who live there are able to start new things?"

Eight years later, it is even more a place where people who live there can do that than it was when we started. To me, that's a measure of success.


Your role is often described as a means of hacking bureaucracy. Is that a fair representation?

I think so. There's always a danger in the over-extended metaphor of the “hacking the city” thing—the first time I heard it I thought it was a really good metaphor, and then the next few times I heard it, I was a bit sketchy about it and then the next 600 times I heard it, I went, "Ugh” and cringed a bit. But it is. The point for us is that what's happened with Renew hasn't involved changing laws, it hasn't involved throwing lots of money at any-thing. It hasn't involved the typical things you think you need to do in order to get something done. We haven't bought anything. We don't build any-thing. We don't buy anything. We don't own anything. We haven't changed any laws. It involves a very modest amount of money just to facilitate or enable a process.

That process has been one of identifying and collecting up all of the gaps and loopholes and exemptions within the existing systems to create a new system. It's got its constraints, because we're working within the constraints of a system we haven't been able to, and haven't particularly had the inclination to, invest our energy in trying to change. But, by doing that, we've been able to identify a whole bunch of ways that you could do things cheaply, easily, and quickly, within a certain set of constraints, but when put together in the right way, they've opened up opportunities for a whole bunch of people who would never have found those opportunities them-selves, because they lack the advice or expertise or relationships.

It's introduced a whole bunch of new people and players and communities into the city. If anything, that's one of the things that I am probably proudest of, in the way in which things come together, is the relatively light touch that's enabled all of this stuff to happen. If I had half a billion dollars, I would not have done it this way, but I’m not sure it would necessarily have been any better. The constraints have actually given us a very clear sense of what the opportunities are and aren't. Even within the constraints, we've been able to make a lot of things happen.


Does acting within the existing constraints of the system eventually change the system, or does the system react in such a way that a body like Renew can eventually step out and the things which it encourages can continue to happen? Or are you constantly required to intervene to enable the kind of things you do?

What we've done, partially in Newcastle and partially more broadly, is we've created a better systemic sense of the understanding of the role that barriers to entry play. It's certainly seen the thinking and the rhetoric of the council and state governments, some of the other players, shift a little bit, not 100 per cent, but a little bit away from that massive, big project thinking and more towards, “How do we create fertile ground for lots of smaller things to emerge?”

That's an example of the system moving a bit. That's streamlining the processes or thinking about scale of built environment. So the system does move a little bit. We jokingly say that one of our goals at Renew Newcastle is to make ourselves redundant, but we're still a fair bit short of that. There's no sign really that's going to happen tomorrow. That's partially because we just fill a very particular gap that no one else is filling. Having said that, the stuff I pointed to before, which is the way in which the spaces around the spaces we're using are becoming much more used by people who want to start things and try things and do things, is probably indicative of a role that we played in changing the culture. If we died tomorrow, that culture would probably be much more enduring than Renew Newcastle is.

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