Conversation with Marcus Westbury (Renew Newcastle, Renew Australia etc.)

Renew Newcastle as diagram

Marcus Westbury started Renew Newcastle, which was one of the (many) starting points for Brickstarter – you can read more about it here, and here, and here, and here, and here.

We won’t go into it in detail here, save to say that it is an inspiring example of light-touch social infrastructure and governance, with purpose. It has the same kind of zero-cost, social-media-enabled organisation familiar to Ravintolapäivä and a thousand other community-led initiatives. Yet this smartly enables community-led regeneration of urban space, initially transforming Newcastle city centre, essentially via manipulating ‘dark matter’ rather than expensive, time-consuming and awkward urban planning-led capital projects. In this case the dark matter was not institutional, but commercial: a set of temporary licenses, rather than leases, that enabled occupation of long-empty spaces. Renew works as a form of broker of trust, collecting together previously disparate proposals and giving a sole contact point for land- and building-owners. As a replicable model, it has spread to other cities in Australia, and now enabled the ‘Renew Australia’ project.

“Renew Australia is a new national social enterprise designed to catalyse community renewal, economic development, the arts and creative industries across Australia. It works with communities and property owners to take otherwise empty shops, offices, commercial and public buildings and make them available to incubate short term use by artists, creative projects and community initiatives.”

I’ve known Marcus a few years now, and worked closely with him on The Edge in Brisbane, an extensive retrofit of an Arts Queensland building on the riverbank, creating a new “digital culture centre” for the state. There, we developed some of his ideas around ‘operating systems’ for buildings and spaces, working with metaphors of a space’s hardware (its built fabric), its software (what you can do with it), and the applications that can run on it (in Renew’s case, switching from an uninstalled department_store.app to installed photographers_studio.app, for example, on the same ‘hardware’.)

I took the opportunity of being in Melbourne recently to catch up with Marcus and talk about Renew, Brickstarter and more besides, at a coffee shop in Brunswick, Melbourne, where Renew Australia is based. Here are some of the key points from our conversation, trying to capture aspects of why Renew has been so successful:

  • Hold off the “yes/no” decision about a project and a space as long as possible. Leave it open, to enable it to be shaped. This is also a way of avoiding the easy polarisation of the argument; enabling it to be shaped, rather than rejected. Sometimes a project proposal isn’t right for one space, but a different one; or at a different time. Renew does reject projects but most of what isn’t done is defined by the practicalities. It tries to remain open ended about what it’s possible to do as opportunities evolve and spaces become available.
  • Work at the smallest scale. Try to avoid the complexity involved in either a) scale, or b) permanence.
  • Do things that can be undone. The easier to undo the better, in a way, as this – perhaps ironically – enables things to be done. Something permanent – and our example of wind turbines is permanent enough – is going to be difficult to get up because it’s not easy to undo. This will be considerably trickier at larger scale, or more permanence – a wind turbine for instance – though not impossible to frame those things in this light.
  • Avoid the ‘dark matter (not his phrase, but he recognises the idea). He noted that they’ve generated 80-ish projects but only managed one development application (DA). Projects that can avoid a DA can happen more easily, in other words. They’ve tried to engage formal planning processes and institutions a few times – once taking advantage of someone leaving state government, in order to find some better ways to shape proposals! Renew’s role is to help lobby for change, in terms of making processes and positions more user-centred, but it would direct too much energy away from enabling projects to focus on reshaping dark matter directly.
  • “The hack versus the rewrite” is how Marcus succinctly described this approach.
  • Work as ‘process shepherds’. They often work with project proponents to help them understand what processes they might be triggering. Then they can choose to re-shape and avoid them, or engage with the processes directly, helping the project phrase things appropriately. This will be particularly valuable, given how opaque and ‘un-user-centred’ institutional processes tend to be. They describe ‘what you need to know’. They look to “template and standardise” some of the core processes here.
  • Renew looks for things they don’t have to ask permission for. This means peering into the dark matter and looking for gaps; projects that don’t trigger formal processes. Not loopholes as such; just the spaces left by the institution. In this respect, the ‘shape’ of Renew is the inverse of the institutional space. It is both an informal interface (civic API) onto institutional processes and a form of shadow space working around it. (I hastily scribbled the diagram above, as we were talking.)
  • They sometimes use pro bono lawyers, engineers and other consultants to help with the process shepherding.
  • So this is both identifying the gaps but also managing them.
  • Recognise the particular ‘organic dynamics’ of projects, in comparison to the formal processes/positions of institutions. They work in the gap between the latter, but understand how projects happen.
  • In working with the low cost and low complexity, Renew helps to reduce the city to a scale you can do something about. Finding this optimum scale is key (thought: does that scale vary in different cities?). In Australia, the small scale is more capable of being transformed. Planning is seen to be about ‘big things’ (also, slow, cumbersome) and ‘big’ is about a form/scale of capital that shifts it beyond a community, in most cases.
  • Sees no reason why it wouldn’t work in rural/exurban environments as well as urban. Dynamics are different, but core issues are similar.

Many thanks to Marcus for his time! More to follow here, no doubt.

Why do I blog this?

Renew is one of the more inspiring precursors to Brickstarter, indicating how to use light-touch social media (and a smattering of free wi-fi) allied to an understanding of projects and communities, processes and institutions, in order to transform space, culture and commerce through community-led initiatives. Their work as ‘process shepherds’ indicates the needs of project proponents to navigate ‘dark matter’, including using pro bono expertise where necessary. It also indicates the value of a replicable model, based around a soft infrastructure of processes, approaches, culture and positions, predicated on understanding how projects happen – and how institutions can often inadvertently mitigate against this (and so actually working as a trusted broker in-between these positions). They also indicate the value in matching scale and complexity to opportunity, and how you can get things done through “the hack” rather than “the rewrite”.

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2 comments on ‘Conversation with Marcus Westbury (Renew Newcastle, Renew Australia etc.)’

  1. Dan- thanks for this article. Although it’s quite breif it’s rich with information and insight. Marcus has done (and continues to do) a fabulous job with Renew Neacastle – which has changed the way both residents and visitors see the city.
    I found the language of the article particularly interesting – and although some of the descriptions used are not those normally associated with urban design & planning, they are remarkably rounded and apt here.

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