Monday, October 26, 2015

Creating cities by reinventing them – ‘Creating Cities’ reviewed

‘At first glance Marcus Westbury’s ‘Creating Cities’ book looks small, but it’s far bigger than it looks. The book is about re-energising cities by reinventing them but it’s starting point is a deep appreciation of the particular regional city of Newcastle. The revival of Newcastle is a reflection of the more general trend towards the revival of regional centres in Australia. Cities are crucial to the innovation and creativity that interaction and partnerships based on physical proximity can produce – whether major capital cities or regional cities. The efforts at revival all reflected the critical importance of cities. Each in its own way draws upon creativity and innovation and the cultural diversity which underpins it to create places which are pleasant and interesting to live in and to drive economic prosperity’.

At first glance Marcus Westbury’s ‘Creating Cities’ book looks small, but it’s far bigger than it looks. Perhaps it’s like Doctor Who’s cosmic transportation, the TARDIS – coming from a universe of it’s own, in this case the world of Newcastle, and larger inside than outside. There’s a great deal packed into it’s tiny frame – and the compressed ideas it will generate are even bigger in reach and relevance.

It’s hard to imagine a more timely moment for a book such as this to appear. A new Prime Minister has underlined the importance of cities for Australia’s well-being and prosperity and there is a renewed focus on innovation. What this means in practice and whether it will last will be fascinating to watch.

Cargo ship leaving Newcastle Harbour, 2005
There have been moments in the past where government has been interested in cities. During the production of the still recent National Cultural Policy, the Department of Infrastructure, under various names, had a focus on cities, and there have been other attempts to address the importance of this issue. Perhaps we will see a resurgence of Australian Government interest.

The book is about re-energising cities by reinventing them but it’s starting point is a deep appreciation of the particular regional city of Newcastle. In a strange way understanding the particular story of Newcastle helps us better grasp the huge general lessons about cities nation-wide – and indeed world-wide.

In his outline of what went wrong – and right – in Newcastle Marcus Westbury encounters plenty of barriers, starting with the dead hand of regulation, in a classic state of New South Wales old boys’ network of liquor license holders, rusted on to an economic universe of ubiquitous poker machines. He sees a city not ‘merely slipping, but accelerating into decay’. As he outlines ‘a contagious blight of abandoned spaces and boarded up windows had spread  to the point where it had a toehold on almost every block’. Once established it developed its own logic, with broken windows ‘seemingly inviting further decay’.

The story of what followed next – how slow, steady trial and error, learning along the way, led to new uses for venues and the building of a critical mass of revival is at the heart of this book. It was problem solving of an audacious and lateral kind, tapping the creativity and innovation which so many of the new businesses that sprang up relied upon as part of their core ethos.

Newcastle has long been a city that never says die and keeps reinventing itself – and a city of cultural revival of many different kinds.

I have had a long history of connection with Newcastle and it’s a city I admire greatly – there is even an extended family history in Newcastle, with some family members emigrating there after World War 2 and others being born there. I’ve driven round my fair share of New Lambton streets looking for dimly remembered childhood homes.

My first experience of this was long ago, back in 1983, with the Workers Cultural Action Committee of the Newcastle Trades Hall Council when I was South Australian United Trades and Labor Council Arts Officer and then ACTU Arts Officer. This committee played a crucial role in reinvigorating long traditions of arts and cultural activity by unions and in workplaces and in helping make arts and culture part of everyday working life once again. The more general cultural ferment occurring in those times in Newcastle produced such classic and influential performing groups as the Castanet Club.

My more recent experience of Newcastle cultural revival has been through the Arwarbukarl Cultural Resource Association, the Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre which grew out of it ­and the inspiring CEO of both, Daryn McKenny. Unknown to most of the general public this small community organisation tucked away in the heart of Newcastle is at the centre of one of the great unsung exploits of community achievement in Australia. It is building and refining the tools of the 21st century to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities save languages that had been spoken in this country for many thousands of years but which now have often been silent for decades, or even generations.

The work of this Centre started simply from enthusiasm and grew just like a garage band, but for languages. Daryn went on the build Miromaa as a brave nation-wide historic project – a tiny community organisation distributing free software, advice and support to Indigenous communities across Australia. In a strange turn of events, the Miromaa Centre has built a close working relationship with Native American communities of our close cousin, the United States. This has developed over the last five years and is now producing one of the most intriguing partnerships in the world of languages revival.

I remember being in Newcastle at the very first of the Puliima languages forums, that brought together local language activists from across Australia. During one talk I heard ‘Blackfellas’ played, a song by the Newcastle band ‘Local Knowledge’, with its roll call of Indigenous languages from across the nation. 'Blackfellas' is sung in English but at a critical moment the song pauses and breaks into the local Awabakal language of Newcastle. Listening to it in that place I recognised the powerful link between popular culture and languages and the force of cultural revival.

The revival of Newcastle is a reflection of the more general trend towards the revival of regional centres in Australia. The other side of the coin to the massive and ever-accelerating urbanisation of Australia is a search for the value of local and regional. The two trends are not simply opposites as the growing urbanisation also benefits larger regional centres and the presence of large, internationally connected cities can benefit other centres. The mobility of modern populations and the increased flexibility of working patterns is also an asset as it makes it easier to obtain the benefits of large cities, while also engaging with regional life. There are negative sides to this as well but the challenge is to fight against the attempts by a limited number of wealthy and powerful to capture the value of these immense changes, rather than see them shared more equitably.

A similar transformation is underway in Canberra, where I live. Recently I ventured forth on a cold Canberra night for the launch of the new Craft ACT design store, ‘Agency’, in the heart of hipster heaven, the rapidly funkifying precinct in Braddon. When I moved here almost 15 years ago, Braddon’s main feature was its car yards. The new store features top end craft and design work – you can even buy the lighting, shelving and display cases and hand-made clothes hangers. I thought there’s finally an outlet suitable for the craft and design talent of this burgeoning region – which just happens to be our capital as well.

This is not peculiar to Canberra. It’s happening in other lucky regional towns and cities and in some suburban and outer suburban areas – witness Sydney, where it’s increasingly clear that the excitement never really stopped at the edges of the inner city. I only notice it here because it’s where I live.

What has art and culture got to do with this revival? The keys are innovation, which links closely to creativity, as innovation is a kind of ‘applied creativity’, and the ‘maker’ phenomenon, which also resonates with the craft sector in visual arts. The craft sector has always been a highly ‘applied’ area of arts practice, often with strong links to industrial processes and technologies. The way in which the contemporary craft sector is cross-pollinating with innovation in the knowledge economy more generally is fascinating and mirrors the way the ubiquitous spread of digital technologies is transforming all arts and cultural practices.

Cities are crucial to the innovation and creativity that interaction and partnerships based on physical proximity can produce – whether major capital cities or regional cities. As a result of this and the associated growth of culturally diverse and exciting communities, they drive economic prosperity. Reviving them when they have lapsed into torpor and disuse can tap immense possibilities far beyond the initial immediate benefits. A range of commentators have offered insights into how cities work – or don’t. One of these with broad experience in the United Kingdom and South Australia has recently posted a speculative outline of what the Adelaide of 2050 might look like.

In May this year The Centre for Creative and Cultural Research in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra presented a 'Transformations in Cultural Leadership Masterclass'. One of the keynote speakers at this, Edwin Marshall, a Senior Urban Planner in the Manhattan Office of the New York City Department of City Planning, brought a perspective from an iconic local neighbourhood in one of the best-known cities in the world – Harlem in New York City.

He outlined his role in the cultural and creative rejuvenation of the suburb and its famous 125th Street. He spearheads the special district's Arts Bonus where public, private and state investment is brought together to invest in the cultural rebirth of Harlem. The Arts Bonus facilitates the establishment of street level cultural, arts and/or entertainment organisations in any new Harlem development. Edwin links together Columbia University, private developers, arts and cultural organisations, entertainment venues, residents and diverse communities, as stakeholders in the planning for the urban renewal, housing, cultural and commercial advance in Harlem. He has managed a ten-year consultative process with residents and diverse communities and across Harlem as a precursor to the area's cultural, economic and residential redevelopment.

So many of the issues being addressed in Harlem were the very same ones faced in Newcastle. These efforts all reflected the critical importance of cities, whether capital cities or regional ones. Each in its own way draws upon creativity and innovation and the cultural diversity which underpins it to create places which are pleasant and interesting to live in and to drive economic prosperity. It is no surprise that there is such a strong interest in the health of our cities. Marcus Westbury’s get well handbook is an invaluable addition to a discussion with a long future.

See also

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.

Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities
‘It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. This development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications’, Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities.

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding 
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

In praise of the Berra
‘When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere’, In praise of the Berra.

Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems to arrive before it has even left
‘Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems increasingly to come around almost before the preceding one has passed on. At a pre-election ACT arts forum contenders in local elections pitched their policies and plans. There was too much talk of infrastructure and public arts, not quite enough of local, regional and national (and international) synergies and nowhere near enough of the crucial role of operational funding and the importance of creative industries and the clever and clean knowledge economy of the future’, Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems to arrive before it has even left.

Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world
‘Design and the language of design is very broad – much broader than architecture or industrial or graphic design – the forms we are most conscious of. Design is also very much about processes and the development of concepts across almost all areas of human activity. This means it also has a high relevance to the development of policy to solve pressing social challenges, moving beyond the world of design to embrace the design of the world. In a highlight of DESIGN Canberra this year, respected Dutch presenter Ingrid Van der Wacht led discussion about the relevance of design to innovative policy – from local, highly specific policy to grand strategic policy designed to change whole regions and even nations’, Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

My nephew just got a job with Weta – the long road of the interconnected world
‘My nephew just got a job in Wellington New Zealand with Weta Digital, which makes the digital effects for Peter Jackson’s epics. Expertise, specialist skills and industry pockets can occur just about anywhere, as long as you have connectivity, talent and a framework of support that makes it possible. This is part of the new knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape. Increasingly the industries of the future are both clever and clean. At their heart are the developing creative industries which are based on the power of creativity and are a critical part of Australia’s future – innovative, in most cases centred on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally. This is transforming the political landscape of Australia, challenging old political franchises and upping the stakes in the offerings department’, My nephew just got a job with Weta – the long road of the interconnected world.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

Notes from a steadily shrinking universe
‘Following the Big Bang the universe may have been steadily expanding but in the world of Australian Government arts and culture the universe has definitely been heading the other way. In the end does government of any shade really think at heart that Australian arts and culture is important? Why should it when it’s a vexed question for our society as a whole and we are ambivalent about its worth? Yet this part of the Australian Government’s public service is incredibly important. To have a real impact though, it needs to be refocused and reinvigorated to operate once again across the broader government landscape’, Notes from a steadily shrinking universe.

Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats
‘The impact of the changes to national arts funding flowing from the Budget are likely to be deep and severe. The main issue for me is what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. There are hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major arts galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture’, Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats.

‘Having a go’ at Australia’s arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2
We are seeing is the steady skewing of Australia’s arts and culture sector as the most dynamic component, the one most connected to both artistic innovation and to community engagement, atrophies and withers. This is the absolute opposite of innovation and excellence. It is cultural vandalism of the worst kind, ‘Having a go’ at Australia’s arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2.

Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister
‘I ventured out through the dark wilds of the Australian National University to hear the Opposition Spokesperson on the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, share his view of what a contemporary arts and culture policy might look like. It was a timely moment, given the turmoil stirred up by recent changes to national arts funding arrangements and the #freethearts response from small arts and cultural organisations and artists. Luckily, as he himself noted, he has a very recent model to work with. The National Cultural Policy is little more than two years old,’ Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.


The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

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