marcus westbury

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Cities of Initiative, cities as festivals, hammers and nails

October 18th, 2010 by marcus

I’ve been meaning to write a long essay about this for a while but stumbled at figuring out exactly who would publish it. So brain dump follows…

One of the things that my friend, collaborator, enabler, and founding Renew Newcastle board member Craig Allchin has pointed out to me many times is that is that i used to be a festival director. For the first few times he said it i thought it no more or less significant than the fact i made TV shows for a bit or that once worked midnight to dawn in a service station – it gave me some useful skills but it was not particularly or directly relevant to why or how i was going about doing a project like Renew Newcastle.

Eventually Craig had said it so often that it clicked with me that to him it implied something reasonably significant. Indeed to Craig the fact that both myself and Renew Newcastle’s General Manager Marni Jackson had cut our teeth on organising and facilitating festivals and events (we’ve both served a stint as the honcho of Newcastle’s This Is Not Art Festival) was a far more significant feature of the project – which is ostensibly about urban renewal and place revitalisation – than either of us thought it was.

I’m slow. It has only slowly sunk in for me that he was actually on to something. It only recently dawned on me (particularly as i think about Renew Australia and how we might replicate the Renew Newcastle project elsewhere) that our background – or more specifically the assumptions it meant we both started with – may well be as significant to the whole thing as all the legal work we’ve done, the clever financial and insurance tweaks we’ve developed , the processes we’ve created and the lessons that we have learned along the way.

Through the Renew Newcastle project I have intersected with people from different fields – academia, local government, urban planning, architecture, community development – and attempted to explain the conceptual framework behind Renew Newcastle, I’ve often walked away with a slight sense of frustration. They see it but they don’t entirely get it.

I’ve often found myself evoking what i now discover is Maslow’s Law of the instrument or as i had always more crudely understood it “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” to explain what we’ve been grappling with in those encounters. With a few notable exceptions each and every professional i crossed paths with saw the problem – Newcastle’s 150 empty buildings or the decline in their own towns or centres – as being exactly like the ones they have been trained to identify from their discipline and were attempting to apply the tools of their discipline to solving it.

Craig himself can see well beyond it but as an architect and urban planner, he is no doubt used to meeting with people who want to build things and plan where they will be built. His clients and the agencies they work with see things in very fixed terms. They see things in light of development, of capital, of height and planning restrictions, return on investment, design and umm…  whatever else it is that ambitious and entrepreneurial people with more money than me deal with when they are planning on building stuff.

I suspect that’s the way that many see the problem. From the Newcastle media it’s certainly a dominant paradigm within the city as it is in most cities when questions of development and why the city is falling apart arise. The failure of the city to attract jobs, investors, developers and capital is the one and only definition of the problem. In turn in Newcastle as in most towns the debate starts from that assumption then continues down the path of whose fault that is, what can be done about it, who to blame, who should do something about it and who to blame in some kind of continuously recurring feedback loop of negativity and recrimination.

In local government – and government at all levels – you encounter similar issues.

Councils are complex beasts and mindsets can often tend to be segregated by their internal divisions. At the engineering end plenty of people certainly reduce the issue to the definition above and reduce the question to attracting capital, development and jobs but then there are variations. Engineers who are tasked with the addressing the problem of Renewing the city will generally see a series of fixed infrastructure problems. The footpaths need resurfacing, roads need widening, traffic needs speeding up/ calming down, ways to encourage/discourage more cars and/or cycling and/or pedestrian circulation.

In Newcastle i dread to think how many millions have been spent on schemes to change the footpaths, the pavers, the bunting, the street signs, the street furniture and the public toilets in the hope and or expectation that improving the physical appearance of the public realm will make 150 empty shops and buildings suddenly active again or bring an influx of new capital. It might help but that’s not the core issue.

The arts for their part is often no better. To a museum or gallery director there are many examples both real and perceived where gleaming galleries and museums have been catalysts for transformation of precincts, cities and towns. Plans are drawn up for grand infrastructure that may (or may not) spur cultural tourism led revivals or attract the right demographic to a particular part of town. Inevitably it follows that they devise ambitious plans and make a passionate case for the investment in state of the art facilities and iconic imagineering. Again, it might help and sometimes does.

At the warm fuzzy community end more grass roots cultural planners see nails too when they reduce the problem to a lack of public art, interesting community programs, live events, or anything else that might be their role. They seek to devise and initiate such programs and projects and seek funding to hire the artists and artsworkers to implement them. Obviously i’m not going to criticise the value of that – but it comes with limitations – short term projects are costly and starting from the top down in deciding what needs to be done is not the most efficient or effective way to go about it a lot of the time.

There’s actually nothing wrong with any of the above approaches. Each has its place. Executed well, each of them has the potential to contribute significantly to a process of rejuvenation. It is exciting to imagine a city – in this case Newcastle – with the new widened footpaths, the beautiful public art, the gleaming museums and the clever integrated transport plans and to think of the quality designed sympathetic investment such a mix could and should attract. Such visions have the power to animate and inspire.

They are beautiful and simple but all too often deceptively and seductively so. They fail, or simply evaporate into process more than they succeed. Often they are fiercely contested and debated. They struggle to survive the pendulum shifts of political fortune or simply peter out once their champions and advocates move elsewhere. They also often fail and they are often expensive to fail at – a lot of money can be spent on them never happening.

That’s what it’s like when you’ve got a hammer – all you can do is attack the problem by buildings and belting shinier newer louder nails and often we simply hit our own thumbs.

So what’s different about looking at the city as festival directors? Certainly not that we’re imune to the hammer/nail problem. We too see nails and we too have hammers but the ones we see are very different. The city we live in is full of people who want to make things happen – who are enthusiastic and keen and not waiting around to paid or cajoled into doing something. They are desperate and keen and simply want someone to remove the barriers that thwart or discourage them. When you’ve spent your life time dealing with passionate creative people busting for the slightest possibility the idea that you need to build anything much or even spend very much to encourage them seems self evidently absurd.

Every project i’ve ever worked on has had a surplus of talented motivated people looking for opportunities and a deficit of opportunities, spaces, places in which to do them. It’s not about money. It’s not about certainty. It’s about opportunity for experimentation – a shot at success that simply lowers the price of failure to one they can afford. They too may fail, but they fail cheap and often and quickly learn enough to try again.

To put it simply, the world I live in is full of “initiativists” – yes i made that word up but i’m going to keep using it for about as long as it takes for others to start using it too. From where i sit empty spaces look like wasted opportunities. They look like opportunities to experiment and incubate because I know or know how to find people that would and could use each and every one of them. We’ve found more than 60 of them in Newcastle and are still sitting on proposals from hundreds more. Such people won’t arrive with fully formed solutions but they will, if there are enough of them keep trying things until they stumble upon things that work.

Nothing from my world requires much in the way of permanent infrastructure – you build and unbuild it as needed. You adapt what’s available to your needs. The fact that everything is short term and lacks security doesn’t seem like a problem when everything you’ve ever done has been shorter and even less secure.

Nor are any of the obvious hard infrastructure complaints really all that big a deal. Most festivals don’t place things on street corners hoping for passing trade, they seed interesting things everywhere entirely confident that if you do so and the work is good enough that people will seek it out. You don’t look at a park as site for a gig and judge its suitability by how many people are there – you bring the people to the place with the activity. You curate, select, and connect. You do not expect everything to succeed or everything to appeal to everyone – you aim to create a critical mass of cross-pollination and to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. You see the value in the careful selection of co-located things, of mixing the commercial with the irrational, or cross polinating demographics and audiences by arranging interesting things in time and space.

Over the next six or so month i will be attempting to scale up from Renew Newcastle and trying to create Renew Australia. I’ll also be comparing notes with people with similar interests and problems in the USA and other parts of the world. As i think about how to seed these ideas elsewhere the hard part isn’t the legal agreements, the technicalities or even the convincing people to give us their properties or to take up the uncertain opportunities that the Renew Newcastle model inherently provides.

The hard part is actually the mindset. For the many communities, councils and others it’s going to be the challenge of seeing the city like a festival. For us – and me in particular – it’s also going to be the challenge of stepping back enough from my own ideas and obsessions to recognise when the the problem is and isn’t a nail.

This is published under Creative Commons. You can reprint some or all of it if you want providing you read the license bit. Alternately, feel free to contact me if you want me to elaborate on these themes elsewhere.

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8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 S Smith Oct 18, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Go for it Marcus…you are on the right track!

  • 2 john walker Oct 18, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    “talented motivated people” create— opportunity— they do not wait for it to fall out of the sky.

  • 3 marcus Oct 18, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    @John but than can and often are thwarted in their attempts to create. Renew Newcastle is in many respects an exercise in removing barriers rather than “creating” things.

  • 4 john walker Oct 19, 2010 at 8:12 am

    Renew Newcastle sounds very creative, as somebody once said the key to it is “only connect”

  • 5 anne sanders Oct 23, 2010 at 11:46 am

    From the ABaF website, announced last night: “Congratulations to AbaF Partnership of the Year winners Renew Newcastle and The GPT Group.” What a team! Brilliant.

  • […] I’ve happened across a couple of blog posts and articles that use the hammer and nail metaphor to explain why different people approach the […]

  • 7 Cities as Software | marcus westbury May 23, 2011 at 12:16 am

    […] are valuable skills and important catalysts but for better or for worse I am not a hardware person. I’ve spent much of my life as a festival director. Festivals – or at least the kind of un-institutional ones that I have been involved in […]

  • […] are valuable skills and important catalysts but for better or for worse I am not a hardware person. I’ve spent much of my life as a festival director. Festivals – or at least the kind of un-institutional ones that I have been involved in […]