I was asked to write an article around ‘bottom-up planning’ by Architectural Review Australia a while ago. It was published in the last issue, and I’m re-posting here. ‘Bottom-up’ is hardly the most elegant phrase, but I suspect you know what I mean. Either way, I re-cast it in the article as ‘emergent urbanism’ which captured a little more of the non-planning approaches I was interested in (note also the blog of same name, which I didn’t know about beforehand).
It partly concerns increased transparency over the urban planning process but also, and perhaps more interestingly, how citizens might be able to proactively engage in the creation of their cities. While it applies to Australian cities most closely, I hope the ideas here might be more generally interesting.
And for those of you outside Australia, there are a few subtitles required to read this. The ‘iSnack 2.0 debacle’ refers to Kraft’s unbelievably wrong-headed approach to ‘crowd-sourcing’ (sort of) a new name for a new cheesy derivative on the legendary Vegemite spread - more here.
And regarding this broad idea of emergent urbanism, a particularly inspirational recent project over this way has been ‘Renew Newcastle’ (Newcastle, New South Wales that is) initiated by Marcus Westbury. I mention it briefly in the AR piece, but it’s worth spending a little more time on it.
I’ve been working with Marcus on The Edge project in Brisbane over the last year, and it’s been hugely heartening to watch the project’s development from relatively low-key beginnings to its now-evident success.
In short, the city of Newcastle, NSW is the largest coal port in the world. Yet as the harbour has essentially become a giant open mouth belching coal to China, and people and other business have drifted to the suburbs (an over-simplification, but ...), the historic core of the city has hollowed out, leaving numerous vacant buildings. Heading into the heart of all this, the Renew Newcastle project enabled small businesses, artists, entrepreneurs and various creatives to find a temporary home in these largely unoccupied city centre spaces. By liaising with the building owners, the project found a way of offering super-short-term leases at peppercorn rents in all kinds of pretty vacant spaces. They overlaid a free wi-fi network, enabling basic connectivity, and offered a few other basic amenities. The smart trick of the rolling 30-day lease gave start-ups a contract they could afford to get into, and landlords a secure way of getting them out of it should a better offer arise. Simple.
The project has been achieved without any meaningful funding at all (though funding came later - see comment from Marcus below). As a result, the almost derelict city centre is being used again, and the spaces are rapidly being reconfigured, becoming increasingly active, safe, productive.
I can think of few more positive examples of how to quickly make a genuine difference in cities I.e. not just at the surface layers of urban design, as important as that is, or festivals, or marketing, but at the very core of economic, cultural and social sustainability, with all the ensuring knock-on effects for repairing urban fabric and civic confidence. This is why cities exist, after all, and for Marucs and his colleagues to have addressed this aspect directly, with literally no funding, is thoroughly inspirational.
Do read Marcus’s account, written a few months ago now, and this update, which outlines the story. It’s chock-full of potential insight for urban projects elsewhere.
It’ll be interesting to observe how it develops from this point on. When we worked on the Northern Quarter Network about 15 years ago, the development of Network from start-up to ‘matured’ agency was tricky. It’s similar to the growing pains encountered by most start-ups, if they choose to take the ‘growth’ model of development. Renew Newcastle may fade into the woodwork, maintain its resourceful focus, grow to bigger and better things, franchise across different cities, or simply self-destruct (intentionally or not). In some respects this will be dictated by the development of Newcastle itself, but that’s now a symbiotic relationship. Whatever happens, these kind of stages are catalysts - akin to Jaime Lerner’s famous ‘urban acupunctures’ - and in that respect, it’s already done its job.
Since I wrote the piece, I've also discovered the YIMBY movement in Stockholm, which is one of the best things I’ve heard of recently in any field.
Yimby = Yes In My Backyard
This is evidence of what I was trying to get at with the piece below; that we need systems, structures, vocabularies, applications for enabling positive, progressive responses to our urban fabric that are derived from a love for the city.
With that, have a read. (And thanks to Mat Ward at AR for asking me to write it. And then secretly expecting, accounting for - and of course getting - double the word-count he asked for.)