As you walk through the centres of many Australian regional towns you notice a common and depressing phenomenon. In many parts of Australia, including suburban main streets, large parts of old shopping strips are empty and boarded up — victims of changing transport patterns, the rise of suburban shopping centres and an inability to keep up with changing times and expectations. It is a problem that will only get worse as retail activity slows through the recession.
In Newcastle, where the problem has been particularly acute for over a decade, a project that I’ve been involved with has demonstrated that something positive can actually be done about it.
Visitors to Newcastle’s Hunter Street Mall in recent weeks have noticed a sudden abundance of new activity. Since February the not-for-profit company Renew Newcastle has been taking over some of the 150-odd empty shops in the Newcastle CBD and making them available to artists, cultural projects and creative enterprises.
We’ve convinced private property owners — from the large and publicly-listed GPT Group down to local small business people with only one empty shop — to lend us their vacant spaces. We take them on a rolling temporary basis, keep them clean, spruce them up and fill them with creative initiatives. In Newcastle we’ve placed 15 projects by artists, craftspeople, artisans, jewellers, architects, designers, and publishers. What were until recently empty shops and eyesores are now full of original, local, creative activity. We have about 10 more projects in progress that will open later this month or early next.
The project is only beginning but it is already showing that life can be brought back to ailing cities and streets if the right conditions are in place. The long term effects remain to be measured but Newcastle is starting to see a real change from the drab, emptying CBD that we started with. People who have not ventured into the CBD in years are curious enough to visit the city again.
Newcastle and Australia are not alone in having a problem with empty shops. In the last week, the UK Government has announced that it will be rolling out a similar scheme as part of their strategy to save dying main streets and regional centres across the UK.
Their government is offering grants up to £1,000 ($2000) to people who find creative uses for vacant local shops. In addition it is relaxing planning rules to allow changes of use outside local guidelines and encouraging temporary lease agreements to encourage community or creative use during the recession.
Like Renew Newcastle, the British scheme is a simple lateral response that turns the problem of surplus unused space into the opportunity of cheap space for projects and initiatives that might otherwise never get off the ground. By fostering the creative and the local, empty main streets don’t just compete with the rise of suburban shopping centres but become hubs for a creative, local diversity that generic shopping centres can never compete with.
While the UK Government is taking the lead on fostering such schemes, Australian governments are a long way behind in embracing this kind of approach. Such schemes remain incredibly difficult to get off the ground here. It’s taken almost 10 years, from when the idea of Renew Newcastle was first proposed to government, to create the reality that is now reinvigorating the city. One key lesson from the experience is that it was an alliance of local communities, artists, activists and private enterprise that has been able to take the initiative in an area where a decade or more of government schemes, strategies and master-plans have manifestly failed.
The most significant factor in the British announcement is not the grants for activating shopfronts but rather the recognition that other aspects of government policy actually stifle this kind of local, small-scale, low-capital initiative. Regulatory frameworks, designed for high-capital, large-scale development, block inexpensive temporary uses in ways their authors never intended. Tax incentives encourage property owners to leave buildings to rot.
Meanwhile, poorly designed funding programs are neither timely nor responsive to the opportunities and initiative that are actually available. Lack of policy imagination means that revitalisation plans focus on infrastructure rather than activity. The abstract fantasies of planners ignore the real-life creative realities of people willing to take risks and revive their cities.
In Australia, government is yet to step up and take responsibility. Council regulations and processes, state government rules and the federal tax system are all part of the problem, yet each simply uses the other as the reason not to act.
Renew Newcastle has already achieved a lot of what we hoped for. We could do a lot more if the policy settings actually encouraged what we do. It’s time Australia looked to Newcastle and we all looked to the UK to see what can be done to revive struggling streets, cities and towns.
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