Kickstarting a City
May 24, 2011 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Cities as Software is an article by Marcus Westbury about Renew Newcastle's low-budget, DIY model for renewing urban spaces. "...You need to start by rewriting – or hacking – the software to change not what the city is but how it behaves."

Westbury is the founder and creative director of Renew Newcastle, an organization which facilitates artists, cultural projects and community groups making short-term use of vacant or disused buildings in Newcastle, Australia. This video provides more detail.

"All you have is the city – beautiful, fading but endowed with many interesting small scales spaces, a talented enthusiastic creative community and a generous broader community willing to donate their skills and time and resources in kind."

via Grist.
posted by oulipian (38 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
What. A whole article about urban planning and software and not one single mention of GIS?
posted by desjardins at 9:18 AM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


"...You need to start by rewriting – or hacking – the software to change not what the city is but how it behaves."

It's just wonderful that this unconsidered and trendy metaphor never ever drastically obfuscates what it purports to illuminate.
posted by clockzero at 9:22 AM on May 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


I just finished reading City, and one of the points the book makes (very subtly, over and over again) is that, ultimately, the well-being, economy, demographics, etc, of most cities are more the result of site, happenstance, global forces, 'titans of industry', and so forth, much more than enlightened leadership.

The book ends up being a rather depressing tome, as it doesn't paint a very good picture for most industrial cities (see also: Jane Jacobs' work), and more depressingly, seems to suggest that art projects/collectives and so forth can do a bit to spark tourism and/or raise the profile of places, but that this really isn't an effective, long-term salvation to urban decline (in the US, or anywhere).
posted by The Giant Squid at 9:27 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just hacked my decaf nonfat latte by adding a sprinkle of nutmeg!
Now I'm off to post this to my blog.
posted by Ratio at 9:29 AM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]




It's just wonderful that this unconsidered and trendy metaphor never ever drastically obfuscates what it purports to illuminate.


You're obviously not trying hard enough, I was able to figure out what you were trying to say.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:29 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what you're trying to say.
posted by clockzero at 9:40 AM on May 24, 2011


Taking the metaphor another step, he appears to be describing an emulator that allows novel software to run on incompatible hardware, in the hopes that the hardware will be upgraded in the image of the emulator.
posted by hanoixan at 9:42 AM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's just wonderful that this unconsidered and trendy metaphor never ever drastically obfuscates what it purports to illuminate.

I think it's fairly clear from the article that in this case the author is referring to changing the 'software' of a city (mindsets, behaviour, cultural contexts) as opposed to changing the 'hardware' (physical built environment and geography). In this case it seems like a useful metaphor.
posted by oulipian at 9:45 AM on May 24, 2011


My city is in a perpetual RAM deficit; some of its processes are sucking up all the memory.
posted by ofthestrait at 9:48 AM on May 24, 2011


In this case it seems like a useful metaphor.

I don't mean to cast aspersions on your post, oulipian, and his point probably does have merit.
posted by clockzero at 9:53 AM on May 24, 2011


I think it's fairly clear from the article that in this case the author is referring to changing the 'software' of a city (mindsets, behaviour, cultural contexts) as opposed to changing the 'hardware' (physical built environment and geography). In this case it seems like a useful metaphor.

no, he's talking about arranging explicit and implicit subsidies for his artist friends in terms of non-standard real estate contracts and rents as if it were some grand philosophical principle. movers and shakers always pull these kinds of scams for their special friends, the only difference is that he can ride on the idea that the 'art' or 'creative' economy can somehow replace the jobs and capital flows of manufacturing. if he's lucky he can spark a real estate bubble as the low-prices attract speculative capital. 'artists' moving in newly renovated lofts/condos while the native population rots in place or moves away.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:54 AM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


the only difference is that he can ride on the idea that the 'art' or 'creative' economy can somehow replace the jobs and capital flows of manufacturing.

I recall the fuss made a few years ago by Richard Florida's work, in which he chastised "old economy" cities for not attracting enough members of 'the creative class'.

"gays, rock bands, and art galleries" would be the things that would turn your city into Seattle or Austin.

And, civic leaders from Tucson to Cleveland engaged in gobs of hand-wringing, and some several insane ideas, trying to figure out how to lure more members of the creative class.

And, as a counterpoint, I could always mention New Orleans, which has no shortage of gays, rock bands, art galleries, great cuisine, etc, but ... uh ... seems to be sorely lacking in the snazzy, hi-tech, high-paying jobs that Richard Florida said always followed.

(In my own hometown, our local business paper now uses Florida's work as a cudgel.... "if you don't approve zoning this California Pizza Kitchen, all of the creative class will leave this town!")
posted by The Giant Squid at 10:04 AM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


I found the article opaque as to what it is he actually accomplishes with his "hacking". I guess by the end of it I had figured out that it is pretty much what ennui.bz says -- he manages to get building owners to let artist types to use the vacant spaces without leases and with the stipulation that the owners can kick out those to whom they've granted access anytime they want.

Could this even happen in the US? I'd imagine that the insurance issues alone would prohibit this from happening. I mean, it's a great idea overall -- making a vacated urban area useful for people who need the space and creating life in a dead zone.

Seems like it might carry a bit of a ticking bomb at the center of the idea. If a bunch of artist types move into an area and revitalize it so suddenly the property there is desirable to real paying tenants again, and all those who made that place work with their artistic endeavors end up getting kicked out, then won't that 1) build resentment toward the new businesses which displaced the ones who did all the work, and 2) won't that build frustration and reluctance in the displaced artists to embarking on that same endeavor in a new location with the same possibility for being kicked out?

It's also possible that my inability to fully understand how this could work is because I'm too caught up in the dominant paradigm.
posted by hippybear at 10:07 AM on May 24, 2011


Could this even happen in the US? I'd imagine that the insurance issues alone would prohibit this from happening. I mean, it's a great idea overall -- making a vacated urban area useful for people who need the space and creating life in a dead zone.

see North Adams, MA
Since its opening MASS MoCA has provided the catalyst and anchor for a larger economic transformation in the region centered on cultural, recreational, and educational offerings. North Adams has become home for several new restaurants, contemporary art galleries and cultural organizations. In addition, once shuttered area factories and mills have been rehabilitated as live/work lofts for artists.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:15 AM on May 24, 2011


The Giant Squid: Oh, yes. I watched exactly that go on here in the Spokane area. About 5 years ago, there was this HUGE push from the business community to make Spokane a more gay-friendly city for exactly those "lure in the creative class" reasons. And wow, did they ever go about doing it in the wrong way.

Lengthy discussions and meetings were held by business leaders and city officials about which neighborhood in town could be designated the gay ghetto. Enthusiastic people in expensive business outfits led seminars for interested members of the gay community about how to be better organized and have a better defined presence. There was much talk of marketing and organization and stuff...

Only at the same time, they allowed the cops to harass gays who were out on the town at night, even poisoning the well with a couple of pretty public incidents involving cop-on-gay violence which then had the cops acquitted by trial for really odd circumstances. (Missing 911 tapes, that kind of thing.) On top of that, the business community, EVER so desperate to lure teh queerz into town, refused to support the only gay newspaper in a 250-mile radius and allowed it to go out of business... twice.

Plus, the GLBT community center was allowed to go under because the donated space it was using was yanked out from under it and not a single other business entity with empty space was willing to let them in.

At this point, there is basically no gay community in town other than the drag queens, who have expanded their reach out of the one true gay bar in town and are doing shows in several locations around town, plus they've taken over Pride...

I mean, it's a complete contraction of the movement and a return to the 1990s as far as public image goes. And that creative class the business types wanted so desperately to lure here? They've stayed away in droves.
posted by hippybear at 10:15 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


"...You need to start by rewriting – or hacking – the software to change not what the city is but how it behaves."

The problem is that cities' software is usually surrounded by heavy-duty ICE, so if Case want's to actually get in to do the rewriting, he'd better come equipped with some surplus Chinese military Icebreaker, like a Kuang Grade Mark Eleven Penetration Program. Something that can cut an AI.

That IS what he's talking about, right?
posted by happyroach at 10:16 AM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


ennui.bz: sure I get that some places are using old industrial spaces for large supported projects which drive renewal. But isn't that MASS MoCA project exactly the opposite of what this FPP is about?
posted by hippybear at 10:18 AM on May 24, 2011


ennui.bz: And the Pittsfield MSA steadily loses about 500 residents a year.

Of course, I get it, a declining area will try ANYTHING to save itself.
posted by The Giant Squid at 10:20 AM on May 24, 2011


That article does not really say very much. So, they begged for free space and convinced kids that an empty space is like a virtual space. I sure would like to know what those buildings' insurers had to say. The software metaphor works if you have no concept of software engineering principles.
posted by Ardiril at 11:17 AM on May 24, 2011


The software metaphor works if you have no concept of software engineering principles.

Software is a garden! Software is a train! Software is a rocket-ship! Software is a taco!
posted by The Giant Squid at 11:21 AM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Ardiril: the video linked in the [more inside] provides better context and shows what some of the people have done with the spaces they've appropriated. The article is, at best, confused and confusing.
posted by hippybear at 11:22 AM on May 24, 2011


Thx, hippybear. That video is the only worthwhile link. Those aren't kids.
posted by Ardiril at 11:29 AM on May 24, 2011


I assume that being in Australia probably introduces some new elements that may make this easier than in the USA. But the video seems to be talking about a relatively concentrated collection of downtown storefronts: there are similar pop-up galleries or art exhibitions in Pittsburgh, Providence, Chicago, Brooklyn, and certainly other cities.

IMO, these projects have little to do with the most intractable problems of the "aging, faded industrial towns", and are kind of a low-hanging fruit of the creative-class economy that seem to be in vogue nowadays. So, to me, the software metaphor is a tad overblown, and definitely can't articulate the full range of solutions that are possible in post industrial cities.
posted by ofthestrait at 12:29 PM on May 24, 2011


And MassMOCA seems like the type of project that is really needed: one with massive and lasting instutional, philanthropic, and government support that can turn a huge liability (derelict industrial complex) into a economic-development asset. Unfortunately these projects are far too sparse and probably not happening in America's current cut-all-programs fiscal situation.
posted by ofthestrait at 12:33 PM on May 24, 2011


And MassMOCA seems like the type of project that is really needed: one with massive and lasting instutional, philanthropic, and government support that can turn a huge liability (derelict industrial complex) into a economic-development asset. Unfortunately these projects are far too sparse and probably not happening in America's current cut-all-programs fiscal situation.

I think, however, the truth is that MassMOCA, despite its considerable funding and successes, isn't making much of a dent at all in slowing Western Mass' decline.
posted by The Giant Squid at 12:39 PM on May 24, 2011


I don't know much about Pittsfield, but the Wikipedia entry pointed me to this FT article that seems to have some positive signs. Obviously it's one of the prototypical declining-city-booster articles, complete with links to local real estate professionals.

But in my experience, cities that are on the rebound can be experiencing concrete signs of rebirth even if the larger statistical trend continues downward. Detroit lost 25 percent of its population over the last decade; but it gained college-educated residents and there are many, many more signs of hope and new businesses opening recently than there were in the first few years of the 2000s; and as much as I dislike the aforementioned booster articles, they do play at least some role in advertising a city or at least providing a counterpoint to the narrative of decline.
posted by ofthestrait at 12:56 PM on May 24, 2011


Some acquaintances of mine are doing this on a small scale in Glendale, CA -- the project is called GATE, and it involves temporary art gallery installations in otherwise vacant spaces. I am particularly fond of how it seems to draw foot traffic past storefronts that would otherwise be dark and dreary, connecting non-vacant areas like a stepping stone across a river.
posted by davejay at 1:00 PM on May 24, 2011


oh, and credit due: GATE folks were inspired, it is my understanding, by these folks in downtown Los Angeles.
posted by davejay at 1:00 PM on May 24, 2011


davejay: fundamental difference is, Glendale is a growing city in greater Los Angeles, a city that grows by 1-2k people a year, in an area that grows by about 75k people a year. This isn't what I'd call a declining area, just one with some empty spaces.
posted by The Giant Squid at 1:39 PM on May 24, 2011


Clarification: Glendale grows by 1-2k while Greater Los Angeles grows by 75k.
posted by The Giant Squid at 1:40 PM on May 24, 2011


And MassMOCA seems like the type of project that is really needed: one with massive and lasting instutional, philanthropic, and government support that can turn a huge liability (derelict industrial complex) into a economic-development asset. Unfortunately these projects are far too sparse and probably not happening in America's current cut-all-programs fiscal situation.

Given the alternatives: derelict, collapsing, and burning old mill buildings, Mass MOCA is better. The problem is selling the idea that the whole regional economy can be a "creative" economy. And believe me, this is and has been sold hard with numerous incentives, zoning variances, etc. At best, it's a distraction from the real and hard problems in industrial towns that have been abandoned by manufacturing economy. At worst, it's a cover for real estate speculation which makes life harder for the people sticking it out in these areas.

My point isn't that it's bad to have artist/artisans taking over and abandoned storefront, it's selling it as a solution to large and structural problems. And besides, in the US at least, you could do as much good by taking on the legal and cultural issues that lead to slum housing as abandoned storefronts. Landlords are extracting the last dollars from the local economy as the sources of income collapse (while not investing in decaying properties.)
posted by ennui.bz at 2:03 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


First, thanks for the post here and the comments. At risk of jumping into the fray here, i thought i should have a go at clarifying a few things that have come up.

Firstly, the article has a long back history - i've been working on the Renew Newcastle project for about 2 and a half years. It probably makes more sense to look at the Renew Newcastle web site to get your head around that. See the FAQ and particularly the project profiles to get an idea what we do and how we've been doing it.

As for the "unconsidered and trendy metaphor", well it's not perfect but it was the best one i could come up with to try and illustrate a specific point. Almost everyone who works in the field of cities and urban revitalisation thinks of the problem as a hardware one. In Newcastle's case many tens of millions of dollars have been spent down the years on changing paving, street furniture, bunting, blocking and unblocking roads, and god-knows what else.

What i was trying to was explain that you can achieve a lot more, a lot more effectively, by spending much less by creating process, tools, techniques that allow people to experiment, try things and lowering the barrier to entries for people who ordinarily wouldn't get a chance. Perhaps the software metaphor is overdone but it is an alternative to the hardware driven revitalisaiton approach.

A quick response to some of the criticism: Firstly, the suggestion that this is all about "subsidies for my friends" -- well, you'll be pleased to hear that we've done more than 60 projects and about half a dozen of them are friends or people i knew before. We've run a very open process - that's part of the point.

"movers and shakers always pull these kinds of scams for their special friends". Umm, yeah. Not sure what to say to that except that this has been a very expensive "scam" for me to pull. It's cost me a lot of money, a lot of unpaid time. Renew Newcastle has been a community led initiative to try and save my dying home town and it has worked - at least to some extent. I'm not a politician, i'm not rich, i don't own any property, i didn't personally get access to any of the properties, and as i explained above most of the people involved aren't my friends.

As for the "native population" v. "the artists" you'll be shocked to hear that they are one and the same. We haven't brought a bunch of blow ins from out of town to take over the spaces - we have created opportunities for the people from Newcastle to get what they make out and visible and through doing so get some life and people back into the city again.

As for the question, can this happen in the US or what would the insurers say about it? Well, redesigning those processes are really good examples of the way we've created new processes where old ones didn't work.

Yes, we have insurance issues in Australia too. By default each and every project would have had to paid several thousands of dollars in property and liability insurance and none of them could afford that. They also would have had to negotiate with an insurance broker, deal with the paperwork, and generally get stuffed around. That, in and of itself, was enough to stop some people. Instead we negotiated a bulk insurance process - one large policy held by us to cover all the projects - and a simple arrangement that allowed to add projects for a few hundred rather than a few thousand dollars. The point is that the PROCESS was deterring people so we created a newer, simpler process.

Sorry, way too many other tangents to reply to here, but i'm happy to answer any questions that people might have. I would really encourage you all to look at the Renew Newcastle web site and see the results rather than try to work off what the essay shows. I left most of it out for fear of repeating myself.
posted by MarcusW at 6:18 PM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


One last thing, as for the whole creative economy/ Richard Florida/ "creative class" etc rhetoric -- i don't think you'll find it anywhere in anything i've written or said. I am not trying to make an argument that Newcastle should become more gay-friendly (not that i'm against that) or try and attract some transient global community of "creatives" or that it should spend zillions building fancy new facilities for artists.

I would argue something much simpler -- which is that there is a lot of wasted space (150 empty buildings in the main streets) in a lot of places. It's often seen as the problem and yet its a dormant asset. There are a lot of people who would experiment with those and activate them if the barriers stopping them weren't there. If you can create systems that remove, or redesign the barriers those people will experiment and create new things. If you start enough experiments some of them will work, some of them wont, but the very act of doing it will make the city a safer, more interesting, more viable place.
posted by MarcusW at 6:31 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey Marcus, G'day.
I haven't been to Newcastle for years, but a good friend moved there a few years ago, and the renewal is real. I'm not sure how much is due to Renew Newcastle specifically, but I am sure it didn't hurt.
I think it helps that there was some fortuitous timing - Newcastle had low property prices for a place on the coast with good beaches and fairly developed infrastructure, when the rest of coastal NSW started booming in real estate prices.
posted by bystander at 6:34 PM on May 24, 2011


MarcusW (thanks for joining, stick around a while?):

You say: my dying home town , but Newcastle isn't really dying, now, is it. It's had steady population growth of about 1k people a year for the last decade (so, a little bit less than 1% growth a year, which is respectable, by Western standards). On top of that Newcastle is expected to be the second fastest growing area in NSW (behind the Sydney metro).

Compare it, to say, US metros, and it's stable, and somewhat healthy..
posted by The Giant Squid at 6:36 PM on May 24, 2011


@ Giant Squid, Dying in terms of population growth in the suburbs, no -- particularly the southern and Western suburbs. But the city centre itself has long been in a state of pretty severe decline. There were more than 150 empty buildings along the two main streets, many that are derelict and literally falling down - you'll see some in the pictures and videos linked to the Renew site. The area where we started working had more than 20 empty shops in a few blocks - it was far more empty than full.

I'm not really in a position to compare it to US metros and i haven't (i dont think? have I?). There are undoubtedly places in the US that are far worse, but i dont think that invalidates either the practical example or the approach though. I do think it has applications in other cities.

@bystander Newcastle's location is a blessing and a curse. It's actually part of the reason why so many buildings are sitting empty in the city - even though they are empty they have actually been rising in value for years. In many cases the owners eventually intend to knock them down and replace them with apartments one of these days, in the mean time the cost and complexity of renting them is more trouble than its worth - particularly if you a collecting nice tax deductions on the losses. Again, that was one of the key things that we designed the "software around" - reducing the cost and complexity of activating buildings that were dormant and likely to be so for some time.
posted by MarcusW at 6:51 PM on May 24, 2011


As a fellow Newcastle boy, I was going to get all fighty about the dismissive comments, particularly the 'scam' comment, but they did get Marcus to join Mefi, so, good job!

Between this and co-founding the this is not art festival (TINA), Marcus has done a lot for independent arts and culture in Newcastle, and helped make the city centre a bit less of a bleak wasteland as well. Now if we could only get the Lucky Country pub reopened....
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 3:03 AM on May 26, 2011


Thanks David, i appreciate it.
posted by MarcusW at 11:43 PM on May 26, 2011


« Older The Girls Next Door   |   Color films can simply be illuminated. Black and... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments