Newcastle Renew project shows way

20:03, Oct 27 2011
Newcastle
NEW START: The Honeysuckle project of new apartments and retail on the Newcastle waterfront are part of the city's urban renewal story.

Christchurch has much to learn from Newcastle, Australia, when it comes to creative urban renewal, writes MARCUS WESTBURY.


Late last year, travel publishers Lonely Planet named Newcastle, Australia, as one of its top 10 cities in the world to visit this year.

Kiwis might know just enough about Newcastle to realise why to many Australians the idea that Newcastle might be a place worth visiting - let alone one of the top 10 cities in the world - was ridiculous.

Most Australians probably still perceive Newcastle - a city of similar size to Christchurch or Wellington - as an ugly, dirty, wreck of a town. It's a stereotype that like many stereotypes is at least partially true.

Newcastle, about two hours north of Sydney, is a seaside city that has been hammered in turn by an earthquake, the loss of the steelworks that were once its largest employer and an array of shocks from the flight to the suburbs to recent floods that have left the city centre in decline and despair.

In late 2008, there were about 150 empty retail and commercial buildings in the two main streets of Newcastle. Many of them are still there.

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Yet it's how parts of the city have been bouncing back that caught the eye of Lonely Planet and that might also be relevant to Christchurch's long, hard road to recovery.

In elevating Newcastle, Lonely Planet cited 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.

Renew Newcastle is a low-cost, low- budget DIY urban renewal scheme that started with a simple premise: the empty spaces of the city are wasted opportunities.

In each of them is the dormant potential to launch new creative projects, businesses and initiatives and to incubate new ideas.

In Newcastle's case that is block after block of empty retail and commercial buildings, but as local initiatives like Gap Filler demonstrate, the same principles can apply to many of Christchurch's vacant buildings and blocks.

Bringing a city back from disasters can be traumatic, time-consuming and difficult. It can often involve contentious debates about big picture ideas, about the scale, style and nature of new developments, about blame, cost and responsibility that have the effect of deferring big decisions.

The wait can be part of the problem. While everyone is peering over the horizon a city should never lose sight of what can it do today, tomorrow and the next day. While others were arguing about the big solutions Renew Newcastle instead became a catalyst for the small stuff.

Since the beginning of 2009, Renew Newcastle launched more than 70 creative businesses and initiatives.

They are a wide range of projects but they each draw on the creative talent and community initiative within the local community from artist-run galleries and studios, to designers, record labels, publishers, fashion labels, craftspeople, artisans, one of Australia's few dedicated zine stores and a food co-op.

We've convinced and cajoled the owners of more than 40 once-empty buildings to allow us to open up, clean up and fix them up and use the spaces to launch these new local projects. It has yielded incredible results.

Two years ago Newcastle's once main shopping strip, the Hunter Street Mall, was in near terminal decline, with more than 20 empty shops along four city blocks.

Today the area is full of new commercial tenants, both graduates from our scheme and others who have followed the creative community and the foot traffic they have generated back to the city.

Interesting culture doesn't just happen somewhere else. These days creative people in regional cities such as Newcastle and Christchurch have possibilities that didn't exist even a decade ago.

They can work from their bedrooms and garages distributing their wares to a global audience through websites such as Etsy.com or the new global networks of artists and musicians.

When people think about the role of arts and creativity in revitalisation they tend to think of expensive, fixed infrastructure that takes years to build and costs a lot to run. That should be part of the long-term plan but transition should encourage the small and self-motivated. It should encourage experimentation.

Christchurch needs to make it cheap and simple for people who want to try things - through providing access to wasted space, through cutting inappropriate red tape, by finding ways to do things and not reasons not to.

Renew Newcastle has allowed hundreds of people to take what they do to the next level. In turn, it has given the city a surge of creativity, originality and distinctiveness that differentiates it from other cities and the suburban shopping centres that have sucked the life out of its once beating heart.

They've created jobs for themselves and others.

Christchurch's local creativity can be a driver of tourism, resilience, originality and innovation. It is needed now more than ever.

Embracing some of the ideas and strategies used by Renew Newcastle could really help - it won't solve all the city's problems but it can make a big difference for a small investment.

Harnessing the talent latent within the local community is something you can't afford not to do.

* Marcus Westbury, the founder of Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia, will give a free public lecture about Renew Newcastle and creative, urban renewal at 6pm on November 1. It will be held in CPIT's D Block lecture theatre. Enter from Madras St, opposite Countdown. Westbury's visit has been organised by the Gap Filler Trust.

The Press