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Hacking the City

A new model for urban renewal.

On a sunny morning in March, Marcus Westbury brandished his iPad as if it were a window into another world. The screen depicted the street we were standing on in downtown Newcastle, Australia, circa 2008. Decades of suburban flight, a devastating 1989 earthquake, and the implosion of the city’s steel mills had left the center a ghost town. More than a hundred empty storefronts lined the commercial strip. The neoclassical post office and the Victoria—Australia’s second-oldest theater—both sat vacant. The street could have doubled as a set for The Walking Dead.

Now the sidewalks were bustling. The windows of the David Jones department store, another recent casualty, were filled with sculptors, milliners, jewelers, and stonemasons publicly plying their trades. Families sipped flat whites and leisurely ate breakfast at outdoor cafés. Compared to the desolate scenes of just a few years ago, the transformation was startling, especially considering it all stemmed from a bit of legal sleight-of-hand.

To demonstrate, Westbury ducked inside the store, whose yawning interior had been subdivided by plywood. A false wall rested on dusty display cases and was supported by sandbags. “This is not architecture,” he said, because the building’s historic status prevented any changes to the interior. And besides, according to the rules of the arrangement, Newcastle’s artisans could use vacant properties like this for free as long as they promised not to alter their interiors (and thus their tax statuses). Newcastle wasn’t saved by an influx of hipsters or developers, but through exploiting the right loopholes.

“What we’ve done is change the software of the city,” Westbury told me. “We’ve changed how it behaves. We’ve changed how it responds to people who want to try things, do things, and run their own experiments.”

In many ways, Newcastle’s decline and resurgence superficially resembles the cycles of blight and renewal seen in cities around the world over the past decade. From Brooklyn to Pittsburgh to Detroit, entire neighborhoods have been colonized by throngs of artisanal butchers, brewers, and designers. This mix has proven successful as a recipe for hyper-gentrification, at least in the handful of cities with a critical mass of affluence.

What it hasn’t done is provide a road map for the hundreds of struggling smaller cities across America that have neither the new arrivals nor the cash to re-create Portlandia. Which is where the combination of legal hacks, theatrical props, and kitchen tabletop start-ups comes in.

Westbury is the one most responsible for bringing his hometown back to life through the nonprofit he founded, Renew Newcastle. His vision for urban renewal is radically different from what American billionaires and their pet urban theorists have proposed. He’s the opposite of Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert or Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, each of whom has bought dozens of properties in downtown Detroit and Las Vegas, respectively, to build company towns in their images. In Westbury’s words, “We don’t build anything, we don’t buy anything, we don’t own anything.” Renew’s annual budget barely cracks six figures.

Because of this, however, his approach has proven remarkably adaptable. And this has helped the approach expand to 20 communities across Australia—ranging from Melbourne’s waterfront to bush towns of only a few thousand people—along with offshoots in Toronto and Copenhagen. “It’s every Main Street,” Westbury said as we toured Newcastle. Indeed, the images of shuttered storefronts could just as easily have been taken in my own hometown of Kankakee, Illinois. “It’s most small or midsize cities in Australia or the States. And I think that’s kind of the point.”

In Newcastle, Westbury has grappled with the questions that have consumed struggling cities for decades: How do you turn a place around without money or resources, and by empowering residents rather than displacing them? Renew’s success has made Westbury a minor celebrity on these issues at home. In August, he published a book, Creating Cities, recounting the lessons from Newcastle’s transformation, and the following month he hosted a national television series, Bespoke, asking whether Australia’s maker movement contains the seeds of a new economy. But his vision for pairing people with places isn’t just applicable in Australia. It has the potential to transform how we think about conventional urban development, how cities are used, and who they are for. 

Failure is one of Westbury’s favorite subjects, one on which he holds forth in a torrent of nasally inflected idioms while squinting hard behind his horn-rimmed glasses: market failures; the price of failure; failing fast; giving yourself permission to fail. He credits his obsession with having grown up in Newcastle, which lies several hours up the coast from Sydney and is roughly the size of Clevelandwith which it shares a Rust Belt victim’s mentality.

Marcus Westbury, the founder of Renew Newcastle.

His parents also failed. His father first lost his car dealership, then his marriage, and finally his mind. Westbury stayed with his mother, whose job at a health-food store disappeared after the 1989 earthquake. He enrolled in college several years later, dropped out, and then was kicked out before helping to start Newcastle’s first Fringe Festival in 1996. In a matter of weeks, he organized hundreds of artists and scores of acts while using empty shops as exhibition spaces. One festival led to the next until he moved to Melbourne in 2002 to direct the city’s Next Wave Festival.

It was there he came into his own as an impresario. Over the next few years, he hosted radio and television shows, launched a web site advising 150,000 Australians how to vote in the 2007 federal elections, consulted for various think tanks and blue-ribbon panels on the arts, and visited 15 Australian Football League teams before choosing one to root for. (He picked the Richmond Tigers.) Westbury’s omnivorous tastes, wonky gregariousness, and infectious enthusiasm made him the perfect person to attempt a turnaround in Newcastle. Drawing upon his experience as a festival director, his contacts in government and the arts community, and local roots, he could bridge groups and transplant ideas.

Five years after moving to Melbourne, he returned to the city of his birth with the much simpler idea of opening a bar. The sorry state of downtown shocked him. What he remembered as blocks of busy shops sat gutted and abandoned; he counted at least 130 vacant properties. “I think if you live somewhere and it falls apart in front of you, you don’t really notice it,” Westbury said. “But if you go away and come back, entire places that you remember being vibrant and vivid and activethat you remember from childhoodare suddenly gone.”

Still, he was undaunted. He began contacting landlords and leasing agents, expecting to be overwhelmed with offers, but no one returned his calls. Some buildings had been purchased on the cheap by speculators, who expected to cash in when government redevelopment funds finally arrived and who were happy to leave them vacant while they waited. Others were owned by family trusts that couldn’t agree on anything except doing nothing. More than one landlord demanded rents the market couldn’t possibly bear. Westbury learned that lowering the asking price often meant writing down the value of the building, which risked triggering foreclosure. Landlords were incentivized to stand pat, while downtown fell into ruin. “No one was even trying,” Westbury said.

Westbury soon abandoned his plans for the bar and became obsessed with how to unlock the potential of Newcastle’s empty buildings. “It’s not about the land, but how you can use it,” he told me. “Ownership is one tool with which you can solve that problem, but it’s not the only solution.”

Cities, he knew, tend to move slowly. Changing the urban fabric through traditional meansplanning, development, constructionwould be a contentious and expensive process. Westbury wanted to move more quickly, at the speed of one of his festivals. Instead of trying to upend the existing structures, he felt it would be easier to simply hack the system and work around the perverse incentives keeping the storefronts vacant.

In late 2008, Westbury launched Renew to test a new approach: Instead of signing leases on empty spaces, it would simply ask the landlords for permission to access their buildings for free. In exchange, Renew’s artists and artisans would clean and maintain the properties, pay for utilities and security, and man them regularly. If the landlords found paying tenants, they could have their storefronts back with 30-days’ notice. And because they technically hadn’t signed a lease, their financial arrangements were protected. It was the fringe festival approach to urban revitalization, trading ownership and permanence for energy and attention.

One of Westbury’s earliest and more unlikely allies was the GPT Group, an Australian developer that had quietly acquired much of downtown as part of a proposed half-billion-dollar redevelopment. The company loved his idea, since it would take years to bring their own plans to fruition. In the meantime, Westbury would be doing them a favor by helping to generate buzz.

The experiment began with a dozen storefronts and studios, including some tucked inside a former ophthalmology clinic and a vacant church. They soon housed photographers and animators, toy makers and web designers. Not every idea was viablean art gallery in a menswear store didn’t last longbut since they were using these spaces rent-free, start-up costs were low and the risk of failure negligible. The point was to lure passion projects into the open and use their energy to catalyze the street. “There’s a gap between a creative idea and action. What do you need to do to take a creative idea and turn it into something you actually do?” Westbury asked me.

The changes to downtown Newcastle were immediate and dramatic. First, vacancy began to fall. The number of vacant properties has fallen by 60 percent across downtown Newcastle and by as much as 90 percent in the blocks where Renew has been active the longest. Neighborhood crime plummeted in turn, as the downward spiral of blight reversed. Commercial-property damage in Newcastle has declined 25.7 percent per year since the program launched seven years ago. Next, incomes began to rise. Early participants received an average annual increase of $20,941 (AUD) in their new digs.

An audit commissioned in 2011 by the state of South Australia attributed to Renew a rise in property values, an outpouring of volunteer work, and even an increase in tourism. In 2010 Lonely Planet highlighted Newcastle as a global destination. All in all, the auditors found, Renew had generated a nearly elevenfold return in benefits on an annual budget of just $117,000 (AUD). The program has grown to encompass 74 properties and has hosted more than than 200 projects in Newcastle since its inception, of which 27 have graduated into full-fledged businesses with leases. Renew is what happened while developers and city officials were busy making other plans.

Instead of Starbucks, there’s Graham Wilson, “the second stonemason in the world to have a web page,” he told me with a mixture of pride and self-mockery. He keeps a shop in the former department store selling T-shirts and bric-a-brac alongside his smaller pieces (“bearded hipster shit,” someone called it) when he isn’t accepting larger commissions through his web site or flying to Norway for stone-carving competitions.

Down the hall, Alison Sobel-Read, a ceramicist, sat in her one-woman kiosk polishing tiles. She’d moved to Newcastle the previous July from Raleigh, North Carolina, where she had run her own studio for a decade. “Renew was a godsend,” she saida one-stop shop for restarting her business. “My friends in the States are amazed,” she said. “Why isn’t this happening elsewhere?”

Directions to shops operated by artists and craftspeople in the Renew Newcastle program.
Hannah Rose

Their presence has caused city officials to reconsider downtown’s future. Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes credits Renew “with changing the mindset of what a city can look like and how it works.” In 2014, the city council approved a $90,000 (AUD) grant that will cover a quarter of the project’s budget for the next three years. But old visions of luxury condos and high-end chain stores die hard. Nelmes insisted there was no conflict between Renew’s bottom-up approach and top-down urban renewal. “It’s not an either-or option,” she said. “While it’s taking time for billion-dollar developments to get off the ground, you have to make sure you’re creating interesting, vibrant spaces young entrepreneurs feel they have ownership of.”

What happens when a billion dollars eventually lands on those places? Westbury and I had a glimpse of that future on my first night in Newcastle. On the same street as the former zombie apocalypse, a raucous party spilled out of the Newcastle New Projects real estate office that was selling apartments sight unseen. “Is that you, Marcus?” asked a sales agent, tottering toward us in a cocktail dress and heels. “Don’t quote me on this,” she told us conspiratorially, “but the GPT Groupthe whole town, reallyowes Marcus a huge honor. Newcastle wouldn’t be where it is today without these projects: Renew and ours.”

When he started, Westbury struggled to explain Renew in terms people understood. Today, however, “pop-ups,” “placemaking,” and “tactical urbanism,” are common terms in city planning circles. In cities around the world, flea markets and beer gardens suddenly occupy vacant lots, and pocket parks filled with brightly colored chairs and tables replace windswept plazas.

Westbury draws a clear, bright line between pop-ups and Renew. For one thing, pop-ups are often isolated interventions, whereas Renew is a platform for launching pop-ups by the dozen. As the result of its support, many projects have enjoyed a shelf life that far exceeds the typical stand-alone. For another, Westbury was always more interested in hacking the legal fine print than any particular outcome. Renew Newcastle’s real legacy isn’t a cool café or even a dozen of them, but learning how to transform the street with a tweak to the lease agreements.

This also means that Renew travels well. Less than a year after Newcastle’s launch, one of Westbury’s peers on the festival circuit borrowed the idea for Adelaide. In 2010, Westbury stepped back from Newcastle to start Renew Australia, an umbrella organization for the dozens of cities and suburbs that started contacting him for advice on their own projects.

Finally, Renew was never about curating his own personal Newcastle. As a festival director, Westbury’s job is to provide the scaffolding for someone else’s vision. This is what sets his program apart from the projects that have become mascots for billionaires openly remaking cities to fit their idea of cool. In Detroit, Dan Gilbert has spent five years and more than $1.5 billion acquiring the rights to 78 downtown properties, which he protects with a private security force. The epicenter of “Gilbertville” is the all-new Campus Martius Park across the street from the Quicken Loans headquarters. Redesigned in 1999 by the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, it has since added an urban beach where Gilbert’s millennial workforce can take a break from selling mortgages for him and wriggle their toes in the sand before they return home to apartments he has helped finance.

Under the umbrella of Eric Ho’s Made in the Lower East Side, designers and engineers work at the Do Tank to make their dreams a reality.
Courtesy of miLES

Likewise, in Las Vegas, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh has embraced the pop-up lifestyle in an effort to re-create San Francisco’s tech bubble. He pumped $350 million of his fortune into the Downtown Project. At its heart is the Container Park, a village of shipping containers—the architectural symbol of transient chic—filled with craft cocktail bars and other handpicked businesses.

Westbury’s approach, by contrast, isn’t about creating something new to attract the creative class—that amorphous group first defined by the sociologist Richard Florida in 2002. Florida’s Darwinian theory is that the only prosperous places will be those that make themselves attractive to itinerant creatives and amenable to the capital required to remake neighborhoods to their satisfaction, as Gilbert and Hsieh have done with mixed results. This formula may have predicted the trajectories of Williamsburg in New York City and the Mission in San Francisco, but Florida’s prescriptions for struggling cities like Toledo or Detroit have been criticized as placebos at best.

Westbury has spent the past few years formulating an alternative. “The lessons from Renew Newcastle are not about how to transform your community into a global centre of the creative industries,” he warns in his book. “They are about what to do when you can’t.” In this way, even small communities might tap into the latent talents of their residents.

Digging into census figures, Westbury was shocked to find the number of Australians working in craft-related fields had more than doubled in the six years immediately preceding Renew. They had found customers for their wares through web sites like Etsy. And it wasn’t a circular economy, either70 percent of Australia’s Etsy sales were to buyers overseas. This, he argued, was the germ of Newcastle’s recoveryan artisanal manufacturing base breathing new life into downtown while exporting the city back to health one tchotchke at a time.

There are limits to this vision, of course. Renew can do many things, but repairing, rezoning, or even owning the spaces it occupies isn’t among them. That requires capital, and Westbury knows it. In Sydney, I listened to him beseech a roomful of corporate developers “to think about how you create a physical infrastructure for these phenomena, how you create cities to allow people to grow out of that space and into being the catalysts, the businesses, the community activities,” as if this was in their shareholders’ interests.

The alternative is gentrification. This has been the central criticism of Renew since the beginning—that it could vanish on 30 days’ notice to be replaced by chain stores. To an extent, these fears have been lessened by the success of Renew’s graduates, which demonstrates that the model can be viable at market rates. A better solution would be for the city or a philanthropy to step in and acquire properties to be held in perpetuity by a trust, a model that’s been successful in the U.S. and U.K. But convincing institutions to bury money in the ground is easier said than done.

Ironically, two of the more successful American pop-up platforms were designed to ameliorate the effects of gentrification, not jump-start it. In New York, an architect named Eric Ho turned to pop-up activism in 2012 after counting more than 200 empty storefronts dotting Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side. By his calculations, this amounted to roughly 120,000 square feet of space off-limits to the cash-strapped creative types still trying to make a go of it there. He deduced that the storefronts sat empty for the same reason they did in Newcastlebecause it was better for landlords to wait for a large retailer like American Apparel to make an inflated offer than to sign a small business at market rates on a short lease. (And with American Apparel filing for bankruptcy and closing its Lower East Side store in October, just look at how that turned out.)

That year, Ho started Made in the Lower East Side, now a network of more than ten retail, studio, and event spaces lent to him by like-minded landlords and tenants. In turn, he packs them and the calendar with art exhibitions, gelato shops, and artisanal pet stores. “Gentrification is nothing we can stop,” he said. “We’re all here, we’re all in this neighborhood, and what can we do about it? We’re trying to create the mini-infrastructure allowing us to co-exist.”

The city of San Francisco has been dealing with similar pressures. In 2013, a consultant and self-styled “culture hacker” named Mike Zuckerman launched a “freespace” in a vacant property on Mission Street. It lasted for three months and hosted more than 200 community events drawing 5,000 participants. Given the success of that experiment, Zuckerman hopes to replicate the project on a larger scale in other properties around the city. “We need informal gathering spaces where people can share ideas,” Zuckerman told me. “Especially here, where it’s too expensive to do anything. We need to make the most of these underutilized assets.”

Near the end of our time in Newcastle together, Westbury took me to meet Renew’s current general manager, Christopher Saunders. In his cramped office, Saunders pointed to a series of maps illustrating the program’s evolution. What started as a means to fill storefronts has all but run out of them. As we pondered the endgamewould they gentrify themselves out of a job?Westbury was pragmatic. “Did we leave it better than we found it? If the answer is yes, I’m not particularly bothered,” he’d told me earlier. “I would be concerned if we were an elaborate way of the city ending up like a shopping mall.” Saunders wondered aloud when that would happen. “I’m making a calculated bet it never arrives,” Westbury reassured him. For 30 years, every major plan by developers had faltered. Renew would outrun the next one, too, Westbury predicted. “While we’re creating a reality,” he said, “other people are making plans.”

On the flight home, I wondered: Why not us? Why should Renew stay Australia’s secret when America’s need for something like it is just as great? In Detroit, for instance, around 421,000 square feet of retail space—nearly a fifth of the city’s current total—is sitting vacant, just waiting for someone to flip a light switch. What could Renew do with these assets, to say nothing of those in Rust Belt cities across America that lost their Main Streets to the mall a generation ago?

In May, I had a chance to ask Westbury this question, as he joined me for a visit to my hometown an hour south of Chicago. Much like Newcastle, Kankakee had once been a factory town making tractors, furniture, and dog food, with street cars carrying residents downtown to shop. I am just old enough to remember the factories burning, the stores closing, and the Kankakee Hotel being demolished for a parking lot. Westbury, however, saw a small, historic city with good bones a short distance from one of the planet’s wealthiest metropoliseshe knew how to work with this. There was an old theater with a warren of tiny basement spaces, a cavernous former furniture store, and a vacant building on the corner of the most trafficked intersection in town. All seemed ripe for a Renew-like intervention.

Inside the city’s cultural center, 20 civic leaders, landlords, and business leaders had gathered to hear Westbury speak. He started from the beginning, before the zombie plague or the mills imploding, and when he flashed images of Newcastle’s mid-century heyday“My grandmother would dress up to go shopping there,” he said, pointing the David Jones department store in all its commercial glorythe audience began nodding and murmuring in recognition.

He soon settled into a refrain: “Activity creates activity, and decay creates decay.” Both were feedback loops, one virtuous, one vicious. Renew might not be a perfect program, I thought, but perhaps it was the lightest, quickest, and cheapest way to start cities like Kankakee on a path back to prosperity.

Following Westbury’s talk, the audience members peppered him with questions about building codes and insurance. Others were unclear on the concept. “You get the owners to lend them to you?” asked a banker in the front row. Westbury smiled. “This is starting to sound weird, isn’t it?” he said. Gradually, however, Kankakee’s civic leaders appeared to recognize that there might be an opportunity here. The president of the county’s Community Arts Council listed for me 34 artists off the top of her head searching for studio space. The owner of a landmarked building down the block wondered if this could fill the offices he’d never finished retrofitting.

Later, Bill Yohnka, the executive director of the Kankakee Development Corporation, the nonprofit charged with revitalizing downtown, buzzed about starting his own version of Renew Kankakee. “I just want to generate more activity and try to get something going,” Yohnka said in June. (The high didn’t last, unfortunatelythe landlords got cold feet.)

“I don’t pretend this fixes all the problems,” Westbury had said in Kankakee. “But instead of waiting for that big company, that big development … this is about going building by building, block by block, and rolling up your sleeves. I talk about initiative. There are a lot of people who want to do things, but it becomes: How do you get that ‘want’ into motion? No one wants to be the first.” Now’s your chance.