marcus westbury

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Can arcades fire? (or are old arcades the new laneways?)

May 18th, 2013 by marcus

Arcades Fire

A strange obsession of mine of late is the fate of old suburban shopping arcades. I am, as far as i can tell, pretty much alone in believing they’re a rich vein of untapped urban and suburban gold. Or, to put it in language that hipsters, planners and local politicians can reflexively and instinctively respond to they’re kind of like lane-ways. (You know the kind that made Melbourne interesting and everyone wants to artificially reproduce while missing the point about them entirely).

Arcades are cheap, small scale, low barrier to entry, slightly off the grid spaces capable of sustaining the rich ecology of niche uses that every city and suburban centre needs but struggles to make economic. Or at least they have the potential to be. Unfortunately in most cases they aren’t and no one is thinking about how to get them there.

Shopping arcades are, for the most part, a dead form. Typically they are a design that creates small tenancies on a larger block. In larger cities the best and most successful ones that are still around are thoroughfares leading between streets or along high traffic areas such as the entrance to railway stations. But across Australia there are literally hundreds of suburban ones — often they go nowhere, or once connected a mainstreet through to a car park that is no longer there, or a destination that has become a dead end point.

They were once buzzing hubs when shiny and new. Recently though that form and functions that supported it have mostly been dying since the 70s and 80s. While you can still find grand ones that are more than 100 year old, there are still some amazing ones around from the 50s and some horribly renovated ones from the 80s, but you are going to struggle to find any that have been built in the last decade or two.

The short version of the history, as far as i can tell, is that the rise of the suburban shopping centre and consolidation of national retail chains gradually made the arcade model redundant. They lacked the anchor tenants, the scale, the parking, the variety or the “destination” pull to compete with the big shopping centres. They weren’t suitable in scale or footfall to chain stores. As people started to drive straight into car parks their role as foot traffic thoroughfares dwindled. Some in the inner cities survived as connectors but in the suburbs and smaller regional centres they were either demolished, made over and converted into large scale shopping centres, or have been spiralling into disuse and disrepair.

In my travels around the country I’ve seen seen dozens of these places. They almost always seem to be half empty. In some cases they are closed off — literally shuttered up at one end or other. Often they are full of spaces that seem to be being used for storage and offices rather than retail. Often they are peppered with tenancies who seem to do everything but activate the place: local clubs and societies that meet once a month, an accountant (the only one in the town without a computer) who never seems to be there, a travel agent with fading signs for defunct airlines in the window, and often mixed in with the single quirky shop (they seem to be the last bastion of vinyl record shops in a lot of towns) that you need to persevere past half a dozen dusty “closing down” signs to find.



The return of the arcade? 

So, why on earth am I fascinated by them then? Well, in the immortal words of Bob Roberts the times are changing back.  Some of the very factors that once counted against them: the scale of their spaces, their relatively low foot-traffic (and hence low cost), and the fact that they require some effort to discover are actually features not bugs in the brave new world where mass markets are shattering into hundreds of niches. Indeed among the fastest growing segments of business and creativity is small, home based, mixed online and offline businesses and arcades are logical places for these rapidly growing businesses to grow into. I could probably go off into a segue about the changing dynamics of suburban and decentralised creativity but if you want to follow that logic through think i’ve got that reasonably well covered elsewhere.

The form is actually a good one. So many of my favourite spaces share the basic configuration of a shopping arcade. At one point early in the process of Renew Newcastle, I described the approach I wanted to seed in Newcastle as  like a long horizontal Nicholas Building. The Nicholas building is probably Melbourne’s best living small scale cultural and creative enterprise laboratory — it’s bottom few floors are a literal arcade while it’s upper floors follow the same basic eclectic-mix-of-small-tenants pattern. So many of the city’s artists, small creative enterprises and artisans have had studios in there that has become almost impossible to keep track of them. So many successful makers and retailers got their start there.

It’s not an inner city Melbourne thing though, both the raw ABS statistics and my own experience with Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia demonstrate that there is a massive amount of pent up demand for entry level space for niche, creative, distinctive businesses and enterprises. Many of them don’t actually need or want high foot traffic. Many cant afford it because they are makers or specialising in a niche where at least part of their business online. Many don’t want or particularly need to pay the premium that goes with being a major shopping centre of having a thousand people an hour (only a tiny fraction of whom are likely to be interested in their niche product) walking by. What they do have is interesting ideas, creative approaches to business and the capacity to make a place interesting by their presence.

Marketing too has changed and it is changing the viability of spaces and places. Social and online media means small retailers, makers, and enterprises can build successful businesses with a dedicated following who will go out of their way to seek them out either physically or virtually. Etsy stores are spilling over into design markets and design market stalls want to morph into shops.

This is where the arcade form really starts to make sense. Successful places in other communities have taught me  that the while a small jeweller, a talented photographer, a purveyor of specialist records or hand made toys, or kids clothes might be capable of sustaining a small niche business in a variety of locations, something really interesting starts to happen if you bring them into proximity with each other. The clustering effect takes what would otherwise be a bunch of individual businesses and turns them into a destination. The downside of the low-profile location becomes the excitement of discovery and all the little niches start to cross pollinate. As Renew Newcastle has been rolling out more than a hundred such projects in and around the centre of Newcastle, i’ve looked enviously at empty arcades in various cities and suburbs and wondered just how much easier it would be to do something similar there.

arcade II

The problem of curation

So why isn’t it happening more? The more I’ve looked into the decline and fall of old arcades (and why there seems to be so few successful attempts at rebooting them) one factor more than any other has jumped out at me: with very few exceptions no one is curating them. No one is thinking about them as destinations or trying to work with them as a whole.

Big monolithic shopping centres for all their faults invariably have an entire team of people whose job it is to make sure they don’t look crap, to ensure that empty shops don’t look empty, to hunt down the brands or “offers” that they need and to invest in marketing and keeping them interesting. By contrast you’re average half-empty arcade seems to have almost no thought going into the mix, is willing to accept uses that actually deter other tenants and drive people away (storage anyone?) and have almost given up on the idea that property in its current form is anything more than a development play.

For arcades to fire again they need to become eclectic, engaging, active destinational places. Activity will generate activity while decay begets decay. There are no lack of small businesses, online enterprises, hole-in-the-wall cafe or bar proprietors and others for whom the actual configuration of space is potentially tempting and it’s not that hard to find them. In some cases a straight up Renew-type empty space activation model could be the simple catalyst to get to that critical mass quickly  but  more generally owners and agents need to start from the premise that an arcade must be made interesting before it can be made economic. For as long as half the shops sit, partially decaying, with the public facing spaces being left empty or used for storage owners need to realise that they are deterring not growing future value.

In that alternate universe — the one where i’m well capitalised enough to indulge my pet theories  — i’d set up an investment fund and start swooping in and livening up any old half empty shopping arcades with a decent location and ideally a bit of character. I can think of few areas where so much value could be unlocked so cheaply and quickly. In this universe i’ll content myself simply float the idea out there and remind anyone who is sitting on a half empty shopping that they’re welcome to drop me a line.

The photos above are from arcades i’ve visited in Ringwood (Vic), Frankston (Vic) and Wollongong (NSW) in my recent travels. 

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Speaking of (or on or about) the #NBN … Yep, i’m available.

May 16th, 2013 by marcus

Picuture via NBNCo

Since i posted my life-on-the-NBN review a few days ago I’ve been a little inundated with responses. It was a bit of an afterthought post written while i was on holidays but it has easily smashed the record for the most views, incoming links, and general buzzitude of anything I’ve posted around here in quite some time. It’s even smashed my heroic efforts at failure a few weeks back.

I’ve gotten back from holidays to a small backlog of email requests from companies, communities and academics asking me to write for, be interviewed for, or speak at events about the NBN. They are variously asking whether i’d be interested to talk about it from a consumer, business or community perspective or elaborating on how some of the experiences i’ve identified might relate to what they’re doing or what their communities might expect as the NBN gets turned on. Obviously, my work involves more than a bit of public speaking so it’s not something i’m at all daunted by. In my home-town spirit of never-letting-a-chance-go-by I thought I should quickly post a follow up to offer up my services.

My current work is flexible enough that i have some potential availability (i.e. it can’t pay me full time so i am scrapping around for other bits and pieces of work). After several years of directly and indirectly subsidising Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia suffice to say it wouldn’t hurt financially to get the odd other gig. (Is that subtle enough? This stuff is driving me broke!)

So… NBN coming to your community and want a perspective from someone other than NBN Co PR hack to talk about it? Sure. Want to know how it is changing working from home or small business? Yep, doing that. Interested in what the NBN means for cloud-based products and services from actual experience? Yep, got some stories for you. Want someone to talk about the impact of the NBN on your business from a consumer perspective? Sure… well, maybe… depends what your business does actually.

Anyhow, in most cases I’ve been there done that and can whack together a good preso about it. In another life (when digital watches were a pretty neat idea) I used to write, work with and talk about technology for a living, and of late i’ve written a lot — and even made a TV series a few years back — about how technology is changing culture  so i mostly know what i’m talking about on the tech front.

So if you’re interested and would like me to speak at an event, write a piece for a publication, or otherwise engage in something longer than a phone interview for something you are doing that is NBN related then drop me a line. But, without trying to sound like a total bastard, it’d need to pay me — happy to calibrate the cost to client but every spare minute of volunteer time i have to spare is already taken up with talking, spruiking and promoting my Renew work.

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How the #NBN has (actually) changed my life

May 13th, 2013 by marcus

NBN Fibre

It’s a quirk of fate and geography that our family home and my work at the Renew Australia office in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick are both smack bang in the middle of one of the first mainland rollout zones for the Australia’s fibre-to-the-home National Broadband Network. We’ve now been on it for more than a year.

Recently, our family was asked by a PR company (long story!) whether we would be be happy to feature in a media event to showcase how the NBN was changing our life. It is and I was happy to talk about it. Apparently a prominent celebrity was going to come to our house with a gaggle of press types in tow and show us doing “typical” NBN-type things. Of course, because it was to be a staged media event the “typical” things they wanted us to do bore little if any relation to what we actually do with the network, and (as it transpired) the whole thing got cancelled at the last minute anyway.

Now i’m free of any obligation to say the right things about the NBN (having had a big insight into what the PR people thought the “right” things were) it did inspire me to reflect on how access to a 100 megabit NBN connection at home and work has actually changed the way we live and work and how it might continue to do so as the network evolves. I’d been meaning to post this for a while, but as i’m on holidays with time on my hands (and ironically on a dodgy wifi connection) I thought it might be timely to sit down and do it…

It has greatly improved my efficiency and my ability to move seamlessly between home and office

This is probably the biggest thing that has changed. I work from home a couple of days a week and from an NBN connected office in the same street. A lot of my life involves talking to people about Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia. I only realised this recently but my typical photo and animation heavy Renew presentation is currently in the order of just under a gigabyte (a random example of me delivering one is here). I customise it virtually every time I do it. Through the combination of a 100 megabit NBN connection at both home and at work and dropbox, I literally don’t even have to think about where I am, which device i’m editing it on or whether it’s up to date.

I can open it at home in the morning for half an hour, add or hide a few videos, tweak a few slides, hit save, take a few minute walk to the office and grab a coffee, faff about for a bit with my colleagues then sit down at the office and be 100% confident that the 700mb file is there on the desk for me to continue to work on it. Of course the same is true for word files, spreadsheets, or anything else but the seamlessness is much more noticeable for media heavy presentations. As a result of the NBN I communicate in words, pictures and videos much more than I ever did before because it is very easy to.

Outside of NBN land it’s a different story. It’s common that i’m asked after a conference presentation whether the hosts can have a copy of the presentation  — almost without exception once they realise that it’s 700mb they don’t bother. While I can move it between home and office while getting a coffee, most of the country lacks the infrastructure to simply download it and share it with their networks.

Which leads me to my second work-related observation…

It’s about connection quality not download speed

I spend an inordinate amount of time on the road visiting cities and communities across regional Australia. To be perfectly honest I actually hate it a lot of the time — I don’t much like flying, i’m no great fan of hotels, and I have young family i’d rather not be away from. A lot of what I do is training people up and talking about the Renew Newcastle/ Renew Australia model. To give you a simple example the last few weeks alone there have been stories in local papers from Ballarat, the Illawarra, Launceston, and Dubbo and that’s pretty typical of the interest from month to month. Most of these communities want or need me to go there but they often lack the resources to pay for it or I lack the time to do it or a bit of both.

Being on the NBN has allowed me and Renew Australia to dip our toe in the water of supporting these communities remotely. I’ve done presentations to Champions of the Bush from Broken Hill to Kalgoolie/Boulder and Geraldton in WA all online. Unfortunately, right now, the reality is that for most communities the bandwidth isn’t there at the other end … yet. As an organisation Renew Australia needs to invest in using the internet as the primary means of communicating and supporting these communities. To the extent that we’ve dabbled in it it has become obvious that somewhere between the live-in-HD world of the NBN and the sketchy satellite, DSL and dialup that are lot of these communities are on the technological advantage breaks down. I need to be able to connect with these communities at high speed and not simply get “fast downloads.” We’re not there yet.

Ironically communities with NBN connections may well be the best candidates for the kind of creative-industries-seeding local economic revitalisation strategies that Renew Australia promotes and pursue (see my Makers and Places argument here for a hint as to why). The real efficiencies to our organisation, the chance to spend more time with my family and even the potential to transform regional Australia through our work (and dozens of other strategies and models in other fields) are entirely dependent on it becoming a network and not a series of places that have access to great bandwidth trying to do business with places that don’t.

On a more personal note… 

Our media consumption habits have changed pretty dramatically — and no Australian company is catering to them yet

The DVD player was one of the first casualties — I think it’s in a cupboard somewhere but we have literally not watched a DVD in our house for more than a year. It’s a dead medium to us. Early in the piece we invested in an Set top box to go with our hi-def flat screen TV and prepared to take advantage of the bandwidth to watch HD streaming movies, video rentals on demand and the vast library of infinite entertainment that was suddenly available to watch.

Then we came to a stunning conclusion rather quickly… no one is actually even selling us anything useful in Australia. It may have changed in the last 12 months but when we last looked into it it became very obvious that all of the Australian streaming video services are, to put it bluntly, a complete and total joke. They either have a poor range of content, are overpriced, or come bundled with a whole bunch of junk we simply have no need for.

So, one of the perhaps more unlikely consequences of the NBN is that, for media consumption purposes, I live in America now. Through the wonders of and various VPN type technologies I also live in Canada, the UK and wherever else there are companies offering a respectable range of reasonably priced HD video download services, free broadcasts and other services. Technically, i’m sure i’m breaching some rules and regulations by bypassing geo-blocking but the reality is that it is becoming the norm not just for us but anyone trying to access high bandwidth video on demand.

On one level, through my own work and that of other businesses in my neighbourhood i’m aware that the NBN is seeding all sorts of start up enterprises, opening up all sorts of sunrise industries and possibilities. Yet  in terms of the goliaths of Australian media meeting my family’s practical media habits it seems like we have opened the floodgates to Amazon, Netflix, the BBC, CBC, PBS and dozens of other media providers and the Australian media industry has responded by a retreat into technological protectionism. Australian media is thinking small and local when the rest of the world and the nation itself is thinking and moving big. Real big. Real fast.

It’s about the network

The more I think about the NBN and how it’s working for us the more obvious it becomes that the value is in the network. I’m not going to weigh in here about the coalitions plans v the NBN Co plans but I am keen to observe that the value of the NBN grows with the number of people, places and communities that are connected to it. This is obvious in my work right now.

The difference in how I seamlessly move files between home and work and how hard I find it to just send them to anyone outside the local NBN bubble and back onto the regular internet is a microcosm for me of the efficiencies the NBN generates. I want and am starting to expect that frictionlessness in all manner of communications and connections to all different communities. With every connection the value of the network increases, with every community that comes online the costs of me working with them drops, the efficiencies of what we can do increases and the days I have to spend away from my family start to diminish. Indeed, a critical mass of customers will also go some way towards solving the lack of NBN specific content and services in Australia.

There are probably dozens of tangents I could go off on here: is the NBN better than wireless? (Yes, obviously – wifi is the bottleneck in our house now), Is it expensive? (No, i’m not paying much more than I was before and the service is infinitely better), What about the low take up rates? (Our house was in the “opt-in” phase where every property owner had to explicitly sign up to get it connected — we spend three f***ing months chasing our landlord to get him to sign the piece of paper so I can see why a lot of others didn’t bother) and chances are there are a few dozen obvious questions i’ve missed.

Anyhow, free of any PR obligation to talk up how we are supposed to use the NBN, that’s the reality so far of how we are actually using it (slightly dubious international geoblock busting and all). Should anyone does actually need, as the NBN publicists proposed, a photo-op of the kid watching a streaming HD video, dad uploading a home video and mum talking on skype — we do actually do all that stuff and yep, you can do it all at the same time — we’d still be happy to oblige. Thus far the reality is a lot more complex and interesting.

[Yep, I’m available to speak at events about life on the NBN for more info see here]

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Renewing the new? Early reflections from Docklands Spaces

April 27th, 2013 by marcus

Batch and Musk

Renew Australia has been working on a pilot project Docklands Spaces in Melbourne with partners including Places Victoria, The City of Melbourne, and MAB corporation. Docklands, unlike Newcastle or Adelaide, or some of the other places the Renew model has been obviously useful to date is not an old area that has fallen on hard times but instead a relatively new precinct where, for a variety of reasons, the activities that are needed to give it ongoing life have not yet taken hold.

Docklands, typical of many waterfront redevelopments in cities around the world, has been master-planned and opened over the last decade or so — bits of it are working (actually more so than Melbourne mythology would have you believe when I actually started looking around down there) but other places are clearly struggling for a variety of reasons. There was a prominent story about our program in The Age this morning.

Our work has only really become visible in the last few weeks. The first Dockland Spaces projects include a 3D Printing studio Studio Batch who are sharing a space with some young architects from Musk. Across the plaza in a kiosk under a no longer functioning and soon to be demolished large video screen is a space called Bird and Plane that provides organic, bio-degradable, locally produced picnic hampers for events of various kinds. On the waiting list we have artists, jewellers, craftspeople, artisans who wants shops and game developers, literary journals and makers of various kinds that want offices and studios. We have had about 80 submissions and most (if not quite all of them — there’s a few duds in any pile) would bring a lot to the area.

So, at this very early stage it’s probably worth floating aloud some of my thinking — particularly for the development community — about what i think we are trying to do here and how it my be applicable to similar new communities. It’s probably also worth noting is what some of the specific challenges are and what we might learn along the way.

What is similar to other Renew projects

At it’s core the symptoms and to a lesser extent the causes of the problems in both Docklands and Newcastle are actually similar. In both cases you have a surplus of space relative to market demand. You have (relatively) high barriers to entry that make it very hard for anyone to take a risk — particularly a creative risk — and then you have the self perpetuating feedback loops that go with that. Nothing is there so no one goes there. No one goes there so no one wants to open anything there.

In both cases you have the precedents of recently failed businesses that deter short term action. There are visible signs of places recently closed or never opened. You also have the promise of much larger changes over the horizon. Docklands is still only half way through a masterplan that will see places that are now on the edges become the centre and Newcastle has long had development and infrastructure plans that promise revival but not-quite-yet.  It’s rarely observed but the promise of future change for the better often inadvertently incentivises doing nothing now. In both cases the masterplans and the investment say the area will get better soon (and it may well) but if you believe it the short term incentive can be to sit and wait.

On the upside, and a good place for us to start, is that in both communities there are actually quite a few people around. Neither is a ghost town in the sense that they have lost their entire population or no one can get there. Both places have an adjacent community of residents, shoppers and workers that are within a short travelling distance — many within a walk. Beyond that they have a substantial inner urban and suburban hinterland and they have the capacity (sometimes evident sometimes not) to attract tourists and visitors but they are geographically at the end rather than in the middle of their respective catchments (at least of the time being in the case of where we are working in Docklands). However, at the moment there is no incentive for any of those people to explore, discover or take practical or philosophical ownership of the area because, you know, there’s little worth going out of their way for.

So this is where we start. Renew Australia with Docklands Spaces is following the Renew Newcastle model of iterative, low cost, creative led experimentation and activation. We are “borrowing” buildings that would otherwise be empty from their commercial owners and attempting to fill them with interesting things that will attract life and people to the area on a rolling short term basis. It is a platform for low-cost experimentation by a gently curated collection of people doing a mix of interesting things.

Our aim is not, as someone suggested on twitter this morning to “manufacture” authenticity but to create fertile ground for experiments and see what happens. We don’t actually set out to make the area “cool” or “hip” or whatever but to unpack the process and lower the barriers to entry so more people can try more things. We aim to make the place maleable and responsive to the initiative and experimentation of individuals or small groups who have imagination but have no capital. They may not have much money but they are people who can afford to take a risk in this context because they are taking a different kind of risk than someone deciding where to build a fast food franchise or a chain store.

In most part the tools and arguments we are using to allow that — the license agreements and to a lesser extent the our role as an intermediary between users, governing authorities and private property owners in the governance structures — are pretty similar.

The theory, somewhat proved in Newcastle, is that if we can get enough people to try enough interesting ideas we should be able to accelerate the process of discovering what works. If each of those experiments are sufficiently interesting in and of themselves then we can also expect that they will attract people and that regardless of their individual success (some may evolve into permanent tenants and projects but many for whatever reason will not) they will gradually raise the background level of activity, curiosity and interestingness in a way that will ultimately spin off on the place as a whole.

The new and unique challenges

Working in Docklands has posed some interesting questions and challenges that are worth noting for those who are interested in the replicability of this work. I don’t think the full consequences will become obvious until we are a little further along in the process but suffice to say we are aware of and I am gently evolving my thinking around a range of new and different factors.

On a most obvious level, the scale and state of the property is actually very different. Initially i had thought this might not be too big an issue (indeed i had initially naively assumed that while larger in most other respects the building stock in a new area would be better for our purposes) but on closer inspection it has created some challenges that we are still adapting to.

Vacant properties in new areas tend to be an odd combination of either over-designed or unfinished. On one end of the spectrum in Docklands there are many empty former restaurants with half million dollar (i’m completely guesstimating that figure in case you’re inclined to reference it) fit-outs that we need to somehow work around. Fixed fittings are very prescriptive about what can happen with them and while they may be of no use to our short term projects the sheer cost of them needs to be respected in the event that a future tenant may wish to use them. At the other you have a disproportionately large proportion of properties where the power has never been connected or a certificate of occupancy has not actually been issued.

In Newcastle we have mostly been talking about and working with properties that while presenting challenges (they are physically more deteriorated in most cases) have already adapted many times over many years and ours is simply the latest in a line of reuse. At a practical level the adaptability of of a new community is actually lower compared to other more established places — which to a certain extent is counterintuitive. Indeed newness should and could theoretically equal an openness to possibility but the master-planning and development processes tend to shut that out early. There’s an issue to explore in the context and that i will note below.

It is worth noting that the governance structures are very different. Our clients are Places Victoria (the initial development authority), the City of Melbourne (the local government) and MAB (a developer with a stake in the future of the precinct). Difference in governance models isn’t a particularly new factor for Renew organisations. Renew Newcastle and Renew Adelaide have very different relative relationships to the various levels of government. Renew Adelaide was taking place in the centre of a capital city with a great deal more oversight and investment — for better and for worse — from state and local government. Renew Newcastle took place quite a long way from a comparatively disinterested state capital and was not particularly close to local government. It was interesting to see the consequences of this both ways but suffice to say that Docklands is a lot more like Adelaide than Newcastle.

Finally, it’s worth noting that in both locations the expectations are very different. They are for the most part, reasonably low in the short term but in the case of Docklands i think they are a lot higher in the medium term because there has been a trajectory of progress — albeit slightly hiccupy at times. This has interesting consequences for our individual projects because it likely means the price gap between their capacity to pay and the owners long term expectation of the value of the properties may be a lot higher. In short that could play out in a number of ways: longer interim periods of activation because the “real” value may come along later, or it may simply take some time before the expectations of value between the properties and owners converge.

Some conclusions and observations about new communities in general

Some of our/my work recently has been in thinking about new and master-planned communities. Another client has asked Renew Australia to do a thought piece about the application of our thinking to new communities and some of the lessons of observing Docklands and other similar waterfront redevelopments (like Newcastle’s Honeysuckle) as well as some new master-planned greenfield communities has informed that thinking — although the comments that follow are not about anywhere in particular. For commercial and practical reasons I don’t want to share too much of that thinking here beyond acknowledging a few key points.

Master-planning is, in many respects (at least as currently practiced) the enemy of adaptability and iteration. It shouldn’t be and doesn’t need to be — indeed adaptability can actually be designed in to both the broad precinct plans and the designs of individual buildings — but it rarely if ever happens. For projects that will roll-out over 5, 10 or 20 years given the rapidly evolving economic and social climate in which we live it is actually particularly stupid that we don’t design adaptability more. For long term investors in property assets there is a huge potential and actual opportunity cost here and the industry needs to reconsider some key strategies.

Practical things we can do, by way of simple example, is design buildings that can rescale cheaply (where large spaces can be converted easily to smaller ones for example), and precincts that are less predictable (Docklands has a surplus of restaurants as noted above and they format makes them hard to undo), and use the evolution of precincts as a whole in greenfield and infill sites to test ideas that inform longer term planning and development. Currently we tend to have a binary flip between empty and finished with a whole bunch of construction in between. If you get it right it ends in “permanent tenant” but too often it ends in “For Lease” or “Business went bust.”

In building communities this process needs to become more iterative.  Empty land > iterative use > construction of buildings> occupation and adaptation > “permanence” (at least to the extent that anything can be “permanent”). If we can make those iteration and adaptation phases and processes both practical and, frankly, cheap then we will get to functioning, healthy, cohesive and successful communities and places much quicker.

In general, i am very positive about Docklands Spaces as an initiative. We are already starting to see signs of activity and interest in the precincts we are working and expect it to accumulate over time. The level of interest in the project and the experiment is good and the challenges for all the frustrations that they cause are actually pretty minor and very informative. It is a very satisfying thing to see the vacant windows we have been staring at all these months start to fill up and i look forward discovering, experimenting and exploring the paths where this activity might lead.

But communities, places and people are always in flux and experimentation and Renew’s approach and thinking at this point is no different.

 Image at the top via Studio Batch

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How to fail and why it’s important (Deakin University occasional address)

April 24th, 2013 by marcus

Deakin Photo Small


I was asked to give a commencement address at Deakin University today. For various reasons (mainly because i’ve never actually finished Uni myself) it felt like kind of a big deal to me. What follows below is my notes of more or less what i said. I kind of winged it in person…

Deputy Chancellor Meehan, Vice‐Chancellor, Professor Jane den Hollander; academic staff, distinguished guests, graduates, family and friends.

I am not sure why I was invited to be here. Let’s just say there are probably a fair few people far more famous and qualified than me who are otherwise engaged today.

I am sure that at least 80% of you don’t have any idea who I am. So a quick introduction. My name is Marcus. I’m 39 years old. I grew up in Newcastle – a place quite a lot like Geelong I reckon. I live in Melbourne. I have a beautiful wife and an adorable two and half year old son.

Over the course of the last decade I have done everything from run a few major-ish festivals, had a weekly column in a major newspaper for a bit, the ABC gave me a chance to write and present my own TV series. I even got to go to The Logies once.

A few years ago I accidentally started Renew Newcastle, a low budget cultural and creative project that borrows empty buildings and lends them to artists in my home town of Newcastle. It has become a model that has been picked up, adapted, and emulated in cities across Australia and around the world.

I feel lucky now. My life gives me the opportunity to travel. My work seems to have mostly earned the respect of colleagues and communities whose respect I personally value. I am, for the most part, a man who is I content in who I am and who enjoys what I do.

The interesting part is that I got here. I only got to anything like contentment through a process of almost continual failure.

Unlike those of you I am privileged to address today, I have never actually graduated from university. The only thing I feel qualified to talk to about today is failure.

Newcastle in the 1980s and 1990s was itself failing. Unemployment in my age group was more than 40%.

My own father’s business failed, and ultimately through no fault of their own my parents’ expectations for their own lives failed. They didn’t expect it and didnt handle it well. By the time that I was in my early 20s both my parents had killed themselves needlessly and way too young.

As you can imagine it had a profound effect on me.

At the time that I was attempting to study at university. On the upside I had a great time, it kept me distracted engaged and amused and I somehow managed to get sidetracked in every project and every initiative that wasn’t my study from the student paper and student politics to the uni bar. On the downside I was kicked out of my university degree.

I spent about three years unemployed.

It is customary for people at events like this to tell you how they never stopped pursuing their dream. How they had a vision and never let go of it. I didn’t. I actually stopped a lot. I gave up a lot. I went backwards quite a few times. And, truth be told, there never has actually been a big overarching vision. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

Yet somewhere, in the story of why I failed university there is a hint to how i ended up being good at something else. I responded to adversity not always by doing the best, or the right thing, but mostly by doing something.

In those years of unemployment my friends and I experimented in all manner of things. We took on spaces we couldn’t afford to try projects we hadn’t defined, and chase visions we hadn’t particularly thought through. I put on gigs and ultimately started festivals. We didn’t get grants — we didn’t know they existed — we mostly just got our mates and their mates to do stuff, joined it up and called it a festival.

Many of those early projects were terrible. They failed. Many of the gigs lost money. My idea for a small bar failed spectacularly. My events got shut down by over zealous authorities. I made many mistakes costly in coin and reputation.

But every time I stuffed something up I learnt something and became better at it.

Eventually, I made every mistake at everything I wanted to try my hand at and, as a result, I started to become good at it. I became uniquely and particualry good at some things because i was the only one stupid and persistent enough to keep doing them.

Understanding my own mistakes evolved into an understanding of the mistakes and the assumptions of the system i was operating in. Learning why I was failing taught me why others might be failing too. Renew Newcastle, which has now opened more than 100 creative projects in more than 50 empty buildings in that city, at its core is an exercise in removing the very same barriers that I have tripped over myself countless times. I have built on my own mistakes so that others can do what they want to try. Ironically, the main reason I started it was a failed idea for a TV show that never actually happened.

There is a Silicon Valley venture capital cliche that entrepreneurs should “Fail fast, fail cheap, and fail often.” Nothing quite so pithy was ever in my mind in Newcastle in 1995 but failing cheap and often has been one of the few constants in my life.

What are your horizons from today? Who knows? I could not have forseen where I ended up and I actually still have no idea where I’m going.

The only useful observation i can make is that it is not only possible but inevitable, that in order to do most things worth doing you will fail and flail along the way. It is ok. It is important.

The advice from me today is not so much to fail but dont be afraid to fail.

As as you do remember the golden rules of making mistakes: Own them and learn from them; Have another go; and, most importantly. NEVER REPEAT YOUR MISTAKES.

Congratulations to you all on achieving something I haven’t. I wish you well and I hope you find contentment and success.

I hope there is something useful that you can take away my words from today. If not, I’m certain I will be better at it next time.

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Four years on: Renew Newcastle’s video pitch to property owners

January 7th, 2013 by marcus

I’m really posting this here mainly because i just realised that i never have. This video is a pitch from Renew Newcastle to local property owners that was released a few months ago. It does a great job of capturing the energy and vitality of what we’ve been doing there. On current count we are up to more than ninety projects launched in what were more than fifty otherwise empty properties in Newcastle in what will be four years next month. That’s 50 buildings in Newcastle no longer empty as the direct result of our actions.

As we edged towards our hundredth project and think about how to celebrate it, I just read this post from the weekend in 2009 when our first projects were moving into their first buildings again and shed a little tear. The Newcastle Herald recently caught up with some of those 2009 alumni as well.

As always, you can get in touch with me or Renew Australia if you are keen to try something similar in your own communities.

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Help! Looking for inspiring examples of #MakerPlaces

December 30th, 2012 by marcus

 Studio Melt — A Renew Newcastle project

Help! I’m looking for interesting examples of Maker Places from around the world.

Over the last few months, i’ve been doing some extensive research and note taking for a book that explores the idea of what i’m calling Maker Places. The book builds on the work of Renew Newcastle, Renew Adelaide and Renew Australia and is about one particular aspect of that work: how a surge of DIY, small scale, maker based creativity online is reflected (or fails to be) in the real world.

A lot of what Renew Newcastle’s projects have been about is getting digital cottage industries, Etsy stores, Flickr photographers and other digitally connected creative types into real world spaces. As noticed in this recent TEDx talk it’s something I’ve noticed that most cities and places don’t do very well and (as I believe Renew Newcastle has demonstrated)  it is something that offers a great deal of untapped potential for bringing real business, economic development and cultural vitality to real world communities.

At this stage i’m working up a book that weaves together real world stories and examples from around the world of how makers have made the transition from the online world to the offline one. I’m interested particularly in examples of where makers have grown their online businesses into successful real world ones, where this new layer of activity has made a real difference and also stories of places where the cost, complexity or other difficulties of accessing spaces have made it too difficult for makers to bother with.

Over the next few months, all going to plan, i will be trying to gain the interest of a few publishers in Australian and around the world. I may well be trying to hit up the community to help crowd fund the project and trying to apply for a few fellowships and grants to travel and visit some of the more interesting examples i’d like to feature in the book. For now though, i’d really welcome people to contact me from all over the world with any leads, stories or examples of interesting makers, projects and places that it would be ideal to incorporate in the book or include in my own general research.

You can drop me a line via email ( via Facebook or via @unsungsongs or using the #makerplaces hashtag on twitter. Thanks for your help.

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Iterative cities … or why the activity is more important than the act…

December 5th, 2012 by marcus

Of late much my work has been with cities, towns and communities independently and latterly through Renew Australia. A lot of it involves taking the lessons learnt through Renew Newcastle and attempting to apply them in other communities and contexts. It also involves a lot of training up, talking to, working with and simply observing other places as they attempt to do similar things – sometimes very successfully and often less so.

In watching this and participating in these dialogues there are a lot of terms that get used to describe the project or applied to the process we’ve been doing that sit a little bit uncomfortably with me. More often than not it is not that they are wrong so much as that they capture something less important and miss the bigger point.

For example, the term “pop-up” gets used quite a bit but I’ve never been comfortable with it. The short-term thinking that it seems to imply and the association with stores as a pure marketing exercise for larger or bigger brands are not really the right angle. There is an implication inherent in there somewhere that the purpose is to come and go whereas in my mind the purpose is to come and discover what might endure. Temporariness is a tool or a feature and not, in itself, an outcome.

The term “tactical” urbanism also gets used quite a bit but again it sits a little uncomfortably. To me it implies a sense of a guerrilla action in service of a larger agenda – as protest, as theatre or as illustrative example. I’m all for it but again it is not exactly what Renew Newcastle is attempting to do. Closing a road to turn it into a park for a day or stealthily turning a wasteland into a garden greatly appeal to me but at the core it misses something quite essential about the logic of Renew.

Finally, a lot of what we have been doing is broadly captured under the term “DIY urbanism” which sits less uncomfortably — after all the logic of reducing the city to a level where you can influence it with your own sweat and imagination is critical to what we have been doing — however the low-budget nature is, in the larger sense, a tool. Ideally it is also the whole of the community (or at least a broad cross section of it) that are involved and not merely an individual or a small group.

The best way to explain the difference in thinking is to put forward the idea that the driving logic of Renew is the activity and not the act. It is not merely to showcase ideas about what might be possible in order to influence some future trajectory or to create something that might come and go fleetingly but to introduce a process of experimentation that allows that future to start now. It is to build layer upon layer of activity that endures over time and not merely a collection of powerful individual acts.

For lack of a better term, let me call it a form of Iterative Urbanism.

The most basic point at which cities, towns, communities and streets that are failing is often that they fail to fail enough. They become immune to experimentation and innovation and instead get stuck in a binary distinction between “the big solution” and “the status quo.” What Renew attempts to do — in a certain sense — is lower the cost of failure and accumulate small successes over time. It introduces a “fail fast fail cheap” dynamic to the urban experience.

The point of Renew projects collectively (although the logic of any individual project can be much broader) is not simply to pop up and disappear or to put forward a powerful provocation. It is instead to introduce a layer of experimentation and activity to the city and to build on that over time. The point, I have often said is “to discover what works by doing it” or — to put it another way — to discover what is sustainable by seeing what endures.

For whatever reason iteration and experimentation isn’t a fashionable subject. Blogs and magazines love powerful, beautiful, successful projects and examples that are beautifully designed, conceptually powerful and aesthetically pleasing and are logically self contained. As much as those examples appeal, to me it is the more mundane accumulation of unspectacular successes that make a place start to work.

It’s a tricky approach to advocate for. Planners, renewal and revitalisation experts and others tasked with making places work are generally expected to know what works, their job is not to discover it but to design, select and build it. The “renew” approach to renewal and revitalisation is not to design outcomes, or exciting short term blips, but to facilitate an iterative process that empowers individuals and local communities to experiment. Through iteration, accumulation and trial an error such an approach ideally gets to a working and successful place, through trial and error in the most cost effective and efficient way possible.

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Makers and Places: from creation to consumption (and back again)

December 3rd, 2012 by marcus

This is the video of a recent talk i gave as part of TEDx Moreton Bay. It’s really a balloon floating exercise as part of a larger argument than i will be running a bit in the not too distant future: that we are witnessing something of a cyclical turn from places largely of consumption to places — at least partly — of creation. In the video i argue that this is actually a return to something of an historical norm — albeit driven by very different economic dynamics — as we witness the decline (but probably not the fall) of mass retail as the dominant logic by which design and create space.

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The Design Files loves Newcastle

May 9th, 2012 by marcus


Melbourne based design blog The Design Files recently spent a week in Newcastle enabled by the outstandingly awesome Siobhan Curran

NEWCASTLE.  It is AWESOME.  I won’t hear a bad word said about it.  Totally and truly I am 100% cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die in love with the place.

Originally settled as an industrious coal mining town, Newcastle is Australia’s second-oldest city.  It’s around 160km North of Sydney.  Only about 150,000 people live there. But for a small-ish town I have got to say there is some seriously cool creative stuff going on there, and what’s more, you can go surfing on your lunchbreak. (No kidding!)

There is great coffee, incredible beaches, the best fish ‘n chips I have ever eaten,noticeably good looking people, cute hipster children on every street corner who appear to be able to skateboard from an extremely young age, an affordable housing market… all this and you’re only 2 hours from Sydney.  And YET, there’s not a skerrick of ‘Sydney’s little sister’ about it.  Newcastle really does have it’s own unique sense of pride and quietly confident vibe going on.  It is very attractive.

I agree – and it was particularly great to see so many Renew Newcastle projects being featured. See the various posts here or check out the special Guest blog on Renew Newcastle projects here.

In other news The Seattle Globalist named Newcastle as one of 5 Global Hipster Meccas.  Nice. Flattering. Almost certainly completely untrue. Unlike TDF i suspect they haven’t been there.

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