Marcus Westbury

A big idea: around 150 vacant buildings and the sweat, equity and creativity of people can be the ingredients that transform a city, as Renew Newcastle has so dramatically demonstrated.

Marcus Westbury, founder of the organisation that has gone on to inspire up to 50 communities nationwide under the Renew Australia banner, said the movement was also resulting in the creation of viable, sustainable businesses leveraging the global market place created by the internet to bring money into their towns and cities.

He has just published a crowd-funded book, Creating Cities, that details the evolution of the Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia organisations and explores innovative approaches to planning and economic development that focus on the human resources of creativity, ingenuity and commitment rather than massive investments of financial capital.

It would be good reading for the new Minister for Cities, particularly for its honesty about the challenges faced by communities that want to drive change from the grass roots.

It also makes the strong point that vacant shops and offices are not only a wasted resource, they also have an effect on the wider urban fabric that is, frankly, depressing. Hand-in-hand with the malaise in the built environment there are also the obstacles people face in utilising their talents, skills and energy when they are not being employed to do so.

And that’s what Mr Westbury and the participants in Renew projects have shown they can turn around, a process that is narrated in a refreshingly frank, intelligent and upbeat style. It also goes on to show how the model became a national inspiration, and what the lessons are for those in urban planning, social policy, economic development, cultural organisations and local government.

Spreading across the country

Mr Westbury said the national organisation currently has towns and cities in every state except WA engaged in people-driven initiatives to utilise empty commercial space to incubate businesses, hold workshops and performances, undertake training and skill-sharing projects and showcase locally made arts, crafts and artisanal items.

In Newcastle, there are currently 60 individual projects underway, and a lot have “graduated” and gone on to take out commercial leases and operate as a profitable enterprise, Mr Westbury said.

Other places operating projects under the RA banner include Adelaide, Leichhardt, Devonport, Shepparton and Cooma.

“As a general rule the places that have the most ability to benefit are small to medium cities, and second cities like Geelong,” Mr Westbury said. “Also places like inner Sydney – anywhere there is a need to kick-start communities.”

The RA model

Under the RA model, those using spaces for projects pay a small rent from week to week for a space that has otherwise stood vacant, rather than signing a periodic lease at standard commercial rentals. In Newcastle these spaces included not only empty shopfronts but also spaces at the rear of properties and in upstairs areas.

The Newcastle initiatives received some support from both the local council and state government.

Over 140 separate communities have contacted the organisation looking for support to get underway. It provides a range of assistance including insurance coverage for projects, legal support and training, but with limited staff – one person full-time equivalent – there are more communities wanting help than can be provided with it, Mr Westbury said.

As a social enterprise, it operates under a fee-for-service model, but this is proving unsustainable. And the fees need to be kept low, as the communities that have financial wherewithal generally don’t have the same need for renewal nor will they gain the scale of benefits achieved in places like Newcastle.

RA is in a position where it has its own challenge around sustainability and financial viability, Mr Westbury said.

And while crowdfunding has been used to support individual projects, it is not something he thinks will work to fund and grow the organisation.

“The stuff we need to fund is really boring. It’s things like the admin costs of someone sitting in the office four to five days a week.”

He said RA is in conversations with some of the state governments, and that the federal government has so far proved a “loss” in terms of support or interest.

It is also looking to the philanthropy sector, but there are difficulties there due to the nature of its work.

“The big challenge for us is we fall between the boxes a bit. We’re not really just an arts organisation, or about economic development, or just for young people. It doesn’t fit any category easily. And we don’t want to be just an arts or economic development organisation,” Mr Westbury said.

“A lot of the best stuff we do will never make money.”

The best way to make money is to give it away

But then again, a lot of it does, and more broadly than for just projects that turn into businesses. RN was so successful at reviving the city’s social and commercial centre, that it became one of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Cities to visit. And that brought a further influx of money and energy into the city.

“It’s counterintuitive that the best way to make money and create value is to give it away,” Mr Westbury said.

“You are basically using something that is lying fallow” and adding “thousands of hours of effort”, he said.

He said Newcastle itself had been in “a crisis about where it’s going for decades”, where there was an awareness that simply exporting more and more coal was not a sensible long-term strategy. The question, he said, was one of identifying what the practical tools were to get from status quo to somewhere new.

“I think what Renew Newcastle is doing is demonstrating and opening up new paths to new industries and other models [of economic development],” Mr Westbury said.

“It told a new story [about the city], a different story that attracts tourism.”

Businesses that now operate in the CBD that have arisen from RA include furniture makers, digital publishers, designers, jewellers, craftspeople and co-working spaces for freelancers and contractors.

“A lot of these businesses are exporting nationally and internationally,” Mr Westbury said.

“A lot of this small stuff has been globalised, and they bring money into the community. There are about 40 projects that are now permanent sustainable businesses.”

He said many of these enterprises were operating through multiple channels, selling directly to people who walked into the premises, doing business-to-business sales and also marketing online.

“For regional communities, tapping into those possibilities is a whole different strategy of community development,” he said.

Regional communities could also look at how to attract those who have already built successful telework or internet-enabled businesses or careers to relocate to their area, he said.

Rethinking the “logic of capital”

“The big theme with Renew is to stop thinking of cities and places in terms of the logic of capital,” Mr Westbury said.

“Instead of attracting large capital to try to solve problems, there is a need to see that there are lots of people who have lots to invest [in their community] that is not capital.

“If [cities] are not using that, they are missing out.”

He said Newcastle had continually pondered the “how do we attract investment” question to no avail. In the end, it was people power that turned the tide.

“My argument isn’t that we shouldn’t do big things. Some of those big things are important.

“I am against the mentality of waiting for them, of disempowering yourself while waiting for some big thing to happen over which you have no control.”

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