Vacant space a gap for growth

Last updated 08:20 08/04/2013
Coralie Winn
STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ

IDEAS INCUBATOR: Coralie Winn at the Pallet Pavilion.

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Coralie Winn of Gap Filler in Christchurch has been comparing notes with Newcastle, New South Wales.

OPINION: Lest you think Christchurch is alone in its challenges about how to deal with empty sites, meet Renew Newcastle: an independent urban regeneration initiative that temporarily connects creative people, emerging entrepreneurs and community organisations with the many vacant central city buildings in Newcastle, a couple hours north of Sydney.

In just five years, Renew has facilitated more than 100 projects, redefining the identity of one small part of the city centre. Some of the nascent businesses that Renew placed into empty storefronts have "graduated" into tenants with proper leases.

Budding artists or makers have gained the confidence to pursue their careers fulltime. Others have relocated multiple times to different vacant spaces as the ones they were using were leased.

Newcastle today still strikes one as a rundown city, suffering from economic decline as a result of the loss of industry and the impact of suburban shopping malls. But the changes that this tiny organisation has made to the Hunter Street Mall (similar to our Cashel Mall) are impressive.

Local people have been given the opportunity to contribute to rejuvenating the area with their own projects. These folks now have a stake in the place and its future. And their activity is giving others the confidence to have a go.

Renew's success has triggered many requests to visit other cities to help start projects inspired by their model. Rather than try to travel all over the country to meet groups one on one, Renew recently decided instead to bring everyone to Newcastle for the inaugural Creating Spaces conference. We at Gap Filler were honoured and humbled to be invited to deliver a keynote address.

Attendees ranged from local and state government policy makers and advisers, to representatives of arts organisations and community groups, to artists and young entrepreneurs.

Simon Crean,who was federal minister for the arts, even popped in. It was a tribe of vacant-space brethren, all dealing with similar barriers to temporary use: struggles with insurance requirements, wary landowners, building code requirements and a lack of financial support.

There were obvious differences, of course. In Christchurch we are dealing with destruction wrought by natural disaster, while most of the other cities represented are countering economic decline and the impact of suburbanisation and mega-malls. But the principles behind Gap Filler - encouraging small-scale experimentation and giving everyday people a chance to contribute to their city through temporary creative projects - are absolutely transferable.

The message from the conference was clear: interest is growing in the potential of vacant- space projects to encourage experimentation in our urban areas. Around the world, people are looking at the gaps in property and development cycles and seeing opportunities.

If certain universal barriers can be overcome, there is a chance for the creative and business communities to work together to breathe life back into defunct spaces.

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Thanks to the incredible publicity that Gap Filler and other transitional projects have had in the Australian media of late - Australian Geographic, The Weekend Australian newspaper, multiple airline magazines, the Gruen Planet TV show and more - many conference guests had already heard of us. Eyes are on Christchurch: on its ambitious blueprint-driven rebuild process, and on the explosion of post-quake, creative, transitional projects.

The sense of urgency, possibility, opportunity and experimentation that we have in Christchurch makes people from other cities salivate.

This extraordinary time in our history offers us the chance to trial what works and what doesn't and to feed this learning into the rebuild process. We're seeing it in projects like the Transitional Cathedral, Greening the Rubble, Life in Vacant Spaces, ArtBox and the temporary stadium.

The transitional movement allows Christchurch to have "conversations" on what we may or may not want in our city by doing, experiencing and discovering. Importantly, it also provides a way to give more and more people a stake in their city here and now so that it remains relevant.

Experimentation is key. Gap Filler's Dance-O-Mat risked never being used, but has proven that Christchurch people will dance in public if given a space to do so. Re:Start showed that people will return to the central city for a unique retail experience. Information like this allows urban planners to act with greater confidence when facing more permanent decisions.

But do we as a city really "get" just how big the impact of the transitional is? Do the powers-that- be grasp the potential that transitional activity has for Christchurch? Or do they just see it as a nice-to-have while the "grownups" get the proper rebuild under way?

Our experience in Newcastle has given me more confidence to proclaim that we need to get serious about the fact that the transitional city is full of potential, and not just about feel-good ornamentation making the vast emptiness that is post-demolition Christchurch look better.

The transitional movement here is gathering momentum and international respect, but seems to be losing funding support within Christchurch. Is it just that the return on investment - albeit massive - is slightly harder to measure? Or is there a sense that transitional projects are no longer needed because the rebuild is under way? This is a scary misunderstanding of what transitional projects are and the role they play.

There is an incredible opportunity right now for Christchurch to set itself up as a place for trialling and incubating new ideas.

It is an opportunity that continues to attract positive attention from around the world, that can inform long-term development so that it is more responsive to our citizens, and that inherently appeals to younger people - who, if we're not careful, will otherwise leave Christchurch as soon as they are able. It's an opportunity we can't let pass us by.

Coralie Winn is director of Gap Filler.

- The Press

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