marcus westbury

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Renew Newcastle’s coming to America tour

October 9th, 2010 by marcus

I’ve booked a trip to the USA next year between the 22nd of January and the 13th of February 2011. For the last two years i have been working on Renew Newcastle and i’m keen to touch base with other projects involved in of revitalising cities, urbanism, culture and low cost/ low budget revitalisation of urban areas. I think we have an interesting story to tell from Newcastle and i suspect there are quite a few people with over there with stories i’d be interested in. [Oh, In my other life i’m sometimes a festival director, newspaper columnist and television presenter in Australia.]

I’m keen to find people to meet, share ideas with, projects to check out and places to visit. I do a pretty mean talk with some pretty neat before and after slides and photos – although i have a funny Australian accent.

DIY transforming a dying city from Marcus Westbury on Vimeo. (This video was actually part of a funding application – hence the pitch at the end there :)

So what is out our story?

In late 2008 we established a low cost, low budget DIY urban renewal scheme called Renew Newcastle. Newcastle, Australia is a city of about half a million people about 2 hours drive north of Sydney. It’s probably reasonably typical of a lot of working class, industrial towns in much of the developed world where fading industries have set the city backwards. Newcastle was once home to Australia’s largest steelworks (see here for a awesome but sad video of it being blown  up) and industries like shipbuilding that there isn’t a lot of left in Australia anymore. Its has old central business district had hollowed out leaving behind more than 150 empty buildings along the main streets of the city. Much of the inner city had been in a long slow spiral of decline since the 1980s.

Renew Newcastle wasn’t (and isn’t) a big budget scheme. Indeed, that’s the point of it. Rather than attract capital to the city we started from the other end – trying to make the city work for those without it. In the early stages Renew Newcastle was cheap enough that we were able to start it on a credit card and the plan was deceptively simple. We made extensive use of Facebook and social media because that’s all we could afford. We created a not for profit company that effectively borrows as many of those empty buildings from their owners that we can get our hands on and use them as incubators for experimentation. You can read our full FAQ here. The Renew Newcastle company takes on costs like basic maintenance and insurance, we set up free wifi so temporary projects could have decent connectivity, we came up with some very smart solutions to what might otherwise be legal and accounting complexities and then in turn we make those spaces available to folks i like to call initiativists— creative people who want to roll up their sleeves and try something.

There are a lot of things that are interesting about the Renew Newcastle model but over and above all of them is one obvious stand out one: it works.

We have taken parts of a city that were previously verging on a ghost town — the liabilities of a fading city — and turned into the seeds of the new. We have used it to launch spaces for more than 60 new projects and initiatives from artist run galleries and studios, to designers and more designersrecord labels, to publishers and fashion labelscraftspeople, artisans, one of Australia’s few dedicated zine stores and even a food co-op. We’ve opened up more than 30 once empty buildings. We’ve launched several businesses that have gone on to have a life of their own (and more than a few noble failed experiments). Most importantly from the Newcastle’s point of view we have succeeded in bringing commerce back to what was once a dead four block strip in the city centre. We’ve  filled it not only with our projects but with new commercial tenants and we’ve seeded many pockets of new activity. These before and after maps are a pretty good indicator of just what we’ve managed to achieve.

If you don’t believe us have a look at the press coverage. The local paper, The Newcastle Herald has described Renew Newcastle simply as “the miracle on Hunter Street“, the transformation of the dead centre of town as “nothing short of outstanding“, and as the city’s biggest news story of 2009, “AFTER years of depression and desperation about Newcastle’s decay, … Young and creative people have helped make the Renew Newcastle project the signature move to get the city thinking positive again.” ABC Television in Australia said simply that Renew Newcastle had “recycled, reinvigorated, revived, revitalised, recreated and reimagnied the city.

Beyond Australia Renew Newcastle has attracted much attention for the innovation of the model and the quality of the execution. Blogger and internationally renowned urbanist Dan Hill wrote in City of Sound “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 Marcus and his colleagues to have addressed this aspect directly, with literally no funding, is thoroughly inspirational.”

Justin Fox, editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group and formerly of Time magazine described the Renew Newcastle model as a “clever partial solution” for the failures of dysfunctional commercial real estate markets while  Felix Salmon of Reuters – also reflecting on the failure of commercial real estate markets described the Renew Newcastle model as “the obvious solution to this problem: short-dated leases, often just 30 days long, which roll over so long as the landlord hasn’t found a permanent tenant. That’s good for the neighborhood, and helps drive up prevailing rents, so everybody wins.” The ever enthusiastic Bruce Sterling of described Renew Newcastle as “Australian favela chic” and pointed out simply “There is genius in this.

In 2010 Renew Newcastle and GPT group were honoured with Australia’s leading award for partnerships between business and the arts the AbaF Partnership of the Year award and to top it all off in November 2010 the travel bible Lonely Planet decalred Newcastle, Australia one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2011 citing the “dozens of disused city-centre buildings occupied by photographers, fashion designers, digital artists and more as part of the inner-city regeneration scheme, Renew Newcastle” as a major factor.

So America, can you help me meet with like minded folks?

I’ve been through (to Canada and Belize – long story) but not to your country before. I’m going to be in the States from late January to early February. I’ll be travelling via LA and possibly San Francisco but mostly hanging in and around New York. I’m keen to make a side trip to pretty much anywhere there are folks to meet who might be interested in what we are up to. If you can pay me (or even if you cant) to talk to a class, a community or a conference that would be particularly great. If you work in the field and want to meet somewhere near where i’ll be or can get to that would be great too. If you’re broke but doing something interesting enough in your own place to make me curious i’d love to come and check out what you’re up to and see what we can learn from you.

I’m happy to talk formally or informally. I can muse about the legalities and technicalities, the ideas and inspiration, the legal and tax tricks of how we’ve executed it all, how we did much of it online via Facebook and (i have a theory about making cities have low barriers to entry as online communities and business do), how we fail to think about how things work at the micro scale or pretty much any angle to the whole thing you might be interested in. Even better and most simply I can just drink beer with people who do similar things and/or who like to think about this stuff.

So if you’re interested in meeting up drop me a line!  Leave a comment below or email me at marcus at marcuswestbury dot net. I’d love to chat.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • […] Via Bruces Hey urbanists: Renew Newcastle is coming to […]

  • […] will be heading to the US for three weeks next year and is looking for opportunities to meet interesting urbanists, see creative responses to decaying […]

  • […] Meanwhile, I’m off to New York city to take notes on how to bridge the gap to number one early in the new year. If you haven’t thought about heading to Newcastle before now might just be the time to consider it. You might want to get in quick before the tourists spoil it. Don’t forget to check out some of the “dozens of disused city-centre buildings occupied by photographers, fashion designers, digital artists” while you’re there. […]

  • 4 ben Jan 6, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Hi marcus, if I was going to the US i’d definitely visit Machine Project in LA, imagination station in denver MI and elsewhere colaborative in greensboro north carolina. the last two are probably way out of your way.. :)

  • […] i have posted my TEDxNewy talk above and there’s a bit more background on me from my last US trip here, a talk i gave at Project for Public Spaces in New York last […]