Creating Cities: A bespoke tale

It’s been a treat to get to read Creating Cities while Bespoke is also airing across these three weeks. In a superb fluke of matched timing, Marcus Westbury is setting a national agenda across all media platforms, encouraging us to think about the world that we make together as individuals as well as among our creative communities. And it’s a world over which we have a surprising amount of control, despite what its regulation would have us imagine.

Creating Cities tells the story of Renew Newcastle: the complex and often deeply frustrating journey to find a simple solution that would make a struggling city’s vacant spaces accessible to those least likely to be able to afford them, yet most likely to be able to transform them. Bespoke profiles a series of makers from Australia and around the world, characterising our times as marked by the need to understand our world as an environment of our own making. Both set out to tip the balance away from the incomprehensible large scale and towards the highly accessible small scale of cultural change moments. We can make our world a better place – we can make our world. We’re doing it every day.

On first reading through Creating Cities, the architectural theorist in me wanted explicit engagement with Arjun Appadurai on flow, with Jane Jacobs on eyes on the street, with everyone from Guy Debord to Michel de Certeau to Greyworld, Blast Theory, Rochus Hinkel and One Step At A Time Like This on tactical urbanism. Quite rightly, however, Marcus poses more questions than can be answered, and in this sense, Creating Cities presents itself as a primer for similar adventures. The tale Marcus tells is a bespoke tale: his own. It’s Marcus who, as he goes, is working the flow, assembling the eyes, identifying the tasks that create cities.

These “series of tasks to be completed at street level” appear for the first time in Marcus’ formative 2008 Griffith REVIEW paper ‘Fluid Cities Create’ (included as the appendix to Creating Cities): “tasks such as finding somewhere to play, somewhere to rehearse, somewhere to exhibit, hang out and discuss with relativity limited capital.” Success on precisely these factors shot Newcastle to Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Cities in the World. By contrast, the Economist’s Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) that consistently ranks Melbourne the World’s Most Liveable City uses measures such as the ready availability of a standardised range of goods, services and infrastructure, as well as low levels of personal risk. Cost of living, astoundingly, is not among these measures, and nor of course is the ability to take creative risks.

It’s a different kind of flow that the EIU seeks to measure: the flow of capital as measured by mass-attendee global conferences in convention centres racking up hotel room nights that yield significant net gains to the state or the nation. This is city-making at a scale so large as to lack subtlety and craft. Ironically, Renew Newcastle would never have been funded as a major initiative because by definition it would need to have brought people from outside Newcastle or even outside of NSW to have made a blip on the standard measures. And yet for those who might suspect that there is no economic impact to such redistribution, SGS Economics have assessed otherwise, measuring it at a 10.8 multiplier for every dollar spent. This is remarkable impact worthy of global attention.

Creating Cities is replete with the kinds of ironies that have halted many a venture. That it’s often in a property owner’s interest to let a building remain vacant rather than undergo the risk of transferring rights through a lease. That it’s easier to borrow a privately-owned space for free than to rent it cheaply. That to create substantial change at the large scale, you need to focus on the small scale. And that maintaining that close focus will have consequences that are far more enabling than any wholesale approach.

The ideology of this is no irony, and it’s something that Marcus addresses explicitly in describing the ongoing focus of his political advocacy (and his own flirtations with political roles). Create the conditions where people who want to do something, can do something, and you build a thriving nation. Apart from the equitable redistribution of income and the provision of essential services, this is one of the only functions of government. Create instead the conditions where only certain groups can achieve, and you entrench a class structure. With the former being so achievable an option, it’s hard to believe that any government who chooses the latter is not making a clearly ideological determination designed to promote access for some groups and deny others.

The solution is not just about arts funding (though why no government has yet put Marcus on the big biscuits to lead change is beyond me), but rather, it’s about what governments, property owners, planners and other decision-makers can do to become and remain enablers.

It’s long been a catch-phrase of mine that if you want to make a significant change in your life, you can’t start with a big change; you must start instead with a very small change. Breath. Movement. Daily practice. The human body is infinitely more complex than the city when we consider that the brain’s neural pathways resemble the stars in number. When we make something with our hands, we activate that complexity – and we draw on cultural histories that are longer than time. The future of our bodies, our cities and our worlds is in our own hands.

 

Creating Cities (2015) is published by Niche Press. Bespoke airs on ABC1 at 10:00pm on 3, 10 and 17 September 2015 and is also available on iView.

IMAGE: Old Municipal Chambers, Corner Hunter and Market Streets, Newcastle. From the Ralph Snowball/Norm Barney Collection, University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections, as discussed in Creating Cities p.132ff. Photographer: Ralph Snowball, c. 1891.