Conference Summary – Day 3


Keynote Session: Dan Thompson, Empty Shops, Riots & Renewal 

Thompson literally bounces to the fore, jumping straight into his childhood home of Worthing in the UK. Scarred by a post-war housing scheme that left half of England looking the same, Worthing is a post-industrial town where a massive austerity program is starting to bite.

“Newcastle’s industrial building stock is an asset”, says Thompson. “But what happens when you completely wipe away the traces of the industry that built a city?” Worthing, Thompson explains, has experienced just that. Once renowned for its glassworks and good fruit & vegetables, the town in which the Empty Shops Network started has not acknowledged why there are no local jobs and 16% of shopfronts are vacant.

Teaming up with his wife, Thompson started “Revolutionary Arts” and worked on the premise “don’t write about it if you aren’t gonna do it”. After going on to create the Empty Shops Network, which is really “a loose network of people activating space” in his words, Thompson found himself subverting hierarchy through hyperlinks after the 2011 England riots. “Sometimes we need to turn the world upside down to change how it works”, says Thompson, referring to the Tweet he published that galvanised over 11,000 to turn up with brooms in Clapham Junction after the riots. “That day I had 46 media interviews and the Riot Clean Up movement spread to Birmingham and other affected cities. I had expected fifty people to respond”. Since then, Riot Clean Up has gained enough media traction and momentum to start fifty ancillary programs and Thompson has gone on to use the Empty Shops Network to promote the fourth of May as “Empty Shops Day”. On this day, instructs Thompson, participants are encouraged to upload photographs of vacant shops in their community so local authorities and organisations can become fully aware of how much space is not being used within their communities.

“Riot Clean Up was about place shaking, not place making”, explains Thompson. “Like Empty Shops, it was an act of reclaiming space for public use. The individual is the trim tower on the rudder. If you put your foot you can move the ship of state”. Perhaps reflecting on his success to date and the authority without authorities he has achieved Thompson declares: “we don’t need any more fucking organisations”.


Workshop 4A: Moving towards better regulation 

“I think we’re entering unfamiliar territory”, begins architect Tim Horton on the topic of making the Building Code of Australia work in the interests of the Renew Newcastle model. “[Renew] has moved away from what regulations generally expected in the transition from derelict to activated by extending that transition period”, says Horton. “But nobody wants the experience from Brazil where nightclubs burn down and people die. Regulations exist for a reason”.

Dr. Ianto Ware reminds his audience that regulations that may appear, or in fact do, get in the way of creative solutions have complicated histories. “Because they’re historical, [regulations] are also ideological”, says Ware.  But coming from what he describes as an “art and music space”, Ware says he’s seen too many people lose too much money and it is easy to get lost in the regulatory framework.

Sweeping through the history of liquor licensing from Black Death to the Six O’clock Swill, Ware identifies the industrial age as a new point of departure for building regulations. More recently, however, “the opening of new land and a building code that made it cheaper to build out, rather than up, has been occurring for the last fifty years”, says Ware. “This approach places a lot of pressure on resources. Now that we’re moving to a creative and knowledge-based economy, you see a conversation about high streets and vibrancy again”. Building codes become unclear when you start adapting existing building stock, says Ware. Citing examples in older built-up areas such as Surry Hills and Newcastle’s waterfront, Ware says it is often cheaper to replace buildings than refit them to meet current regulations.

Horton brings the conversation back to the here and now to discuss the body of work needed to make regulations work in a knowledge-based economy. The capacity to develop a swift fleet of processes of engaging with Human Rights Australia could be the first step in tailoring the existing framework, he says. But just how to make the Building Code of Australia a progressive framework, and in doing so make the space between derelict and activated clearer, remains a question that requires a major body of work.



Workshop 4B: Strategic Partnerships

Marcus Westbury knows that Renew Newcastle has become a space where the business chamber, artists, and small business owners can see great value in working together. By aligning their interests and determining what everyone was trying to get out of the initiative, Westbury was able to attract the necessary support to activate empty shopfronts in and around the Hunter Street Mall.  “A lot of Renew’s partners don’t always work well together, but Renew Newcastle is a framework that all partners can see value in”, says the founder of Renew Australia. “But that also means you need to understand the boundaries of who you are speaking for”.

Although strategic partnerships often provide opportunities for funding, admits Westbury, it can often distort the purpose of an initiative and should not be accepted whenever it is offered. “If you’re not careful, funding can move you away from your core objectives”. Reflecting on the traditional process of applying for grants, Westbury says that the Australia Council initially sent back two pages of recommendations when he first approached them with the idea of Renew Newcastle. In light of this, Westbury believes applicants will have greater success if they go for grants to fund initiatives or smaller, ancillary projects. “Only ask for one thing, tailor the application, and keep the core function out of it”, he says. “Don’t sacrifice the integrity of the idea, don’t let it become why you didn’t do it just for funding”.

That said, strategic partnerships are often an afterthought and Gap Filler is testament to this. “We started out with own networks and they weren’t necessarily strategic”, admits Ryan Reynolds. Established as a means of “buying time to think”, Gap Filler has grown from ad hoc foundations that could only be reinforced when operations met funding guidelines or attracted commissions. Since then, organisations and councils have recognised value in the post-earthquake initiative and Reynolds believes there are opportunities to make Gap Filler more sustainable as it grows.

Kate Murray, a councillor at the City of Sydney, also believes in strong relationships with local government. Citing Future City UK, Murray explains that councils are in a position to leverage developer’s responsibilities when it comes to providing public spaces and engaging with the community. Instead of waiting until the end of the project to throw in a basement library or a swing set, Murray explains how in the UK innovative artists have approached developers with their own ideas and have been able to find that earlier support from developers makes for significantly better projects.


Workshop 5A: Leading from local government 

The arts play an important role in council’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 vision, says Kate Murray from the City of Sydney. “We recognise the need to provide space to achieve cultural objectives”, says Murray. “This includes providing space to meet cultural objectives”. At present, the City of Sydney is investigating the conversion of council-owned properties in and around William Street to complement existing amenities and hopes to provide spaces for nil or peppercorn rent. Continuing efforts to revitalise Oxford Street, Darlinghurst also figure in the plans, says Murray. “[To address] anti-social behaviour and vacancy problems, council have activated their properties on Lower Oxford Street. We do, however, need better mechanisms to influence property owners”

In addition to curating council-owned properties to achieve a business mix with positive externalities, the City of Sydney has also:

  • Measured the impact of activations
  • Produced DA guides
  • Launched the Empty Spaces website
  • Tailored tenancies in favour of short-term creative retail

“Council has also connected the Queen Street Studio with Fraser properties to help realise cultural objectives on Broadway”, says Murray.

Also working for local government in Sydney is Merryn Spencer from Parramatta City Council. Spencer’s role in the Pop-Up Parramatta project has been to “create positive experiences in Parramatta”, helping artists and entrepreneurs reach some of the 107,000 people who work in the city centre on weekdays. “Council requests a business plan and encourages diverse income streams”, says Spencer in response to a question about applications. “We also offer a mentoring program with the chamber of commerce [in our attempt at] fostering relationships between the business and arts sectors”. Although slightly different to pop-up projects on Oxford Street and the Renew model, Pop-Up Parramatta also complements existing businesses and amenities in Parramatta, a city where 92% of commerce is undertaken through small to medium sized businesses.

Bringing it all together is Chloe Beevers from Local Government NSW, who opens by saying that the NSW Creative Industries Industry Action Plan attributes “local governments leadership in the creative reuse of empty space” within their communities.

“The fourth cultural accord encourages councils to explore initiatives and gain a better understanding [of the arts sector]”, says Beevers. “ The accord ‘encourages councils to explore local initiatives to provide artists  studios and residency programs, develop creative enterprise hubs and support local creative industries’. Recommendation 35 [in the NSW Creative Industries Action Plan] states that local governments should promote the use of vacant buildings and street art”. By taking a more holistic approach to the arts, Beevers recognises that the use of vacant space benefits all departments within Local Government and can help realise multiple goals at once. To develop this opportunity, Beevers points to The National Local Government Cultural Forum being established as a result of the National Cultural Policy. It gives local government “a voice on arts and an opportunity to work with the Federal Government”.

Merryn Spencer, Creative Broker for Parramatta City Council


Panel: Where To From Here?

Reflecting on his own experiences, Dan Thompson has one final piece of advice for community leaders: take responsibility and take risks. “It might not work but you can always go do something else instead”, assures Thompson – the founder of Empty Shops Network in the UK. From humble pursuits in Worthing, Sussex to mobilising over 11,000 Londoners in the wake of the 2011 riots, Thompson represents a new generation of community leaders that don’t wait for governments to solve local problems. “On the Queen Mary’s rudder there was a small thing called the trim tower … move that and you move the whole ship”, says Thompson. “We can all be trim towers in our own way … just put your foot out and you can move the ship of state”.

Over the course of three days, Renew Newcastle’s inaugural Creating Spaces Conference has brought together likeminded leaders to flesh out a new approach for community renewal. Covering everything from the Building Code of Australia to pigeon poo, the conference seminars have inspired and instructed participants to challenge top-down solutions in their own backyards. “We need to change the structures so they support where we’re going” says Tim Horton formerly of the Integrated Design Commission SA. “But let’s not stop going where we’re going”.

On the continuing success of Renew Newcastle, Marcus Westbury reminds his audience that they need only rely on themselves to get things done. “If you can engage council, that’s fantastic”, says Westbury. “But to go back to where Renew Newcastle started, we didn’t need council”. Westbury believes creating an example of what Renew wanted to achieve spoke louder than any explanation. “Other things fell into place as we showed council what was possible”, says Westbury. “If you have the capacity to talk to people who own property, if you have the possibility of finding people with great ideas then nothing is more powerful than example”.

Ryan Reynolds from Gap Filler in Christchurch agrees. “Nothing speaks better than example. Start with something that you and your close team can do one-hundred-percent of the work and not have to rely on anyone”, says Reynolds. Citing Gap Filler’s earlier activation projects, Reynolds tells his audience to “start small and to start with something that is achievable”. Referring to a public park created by Gap Filler on private land, Reynolds drives home Westbury’s point by reiterating the importance of examples: “Make sure your first project represents exactly what you want to do”.

By this logic, the Creating Spaces conference speaks volumes for Renew Australia. Championing the cause of community renewal, Westbury’s new national social enterprise is not only connecting communities with property owners but also creating markets for the legal apparatus that will support new and ancillary projects. Echoing comments made by Roderick Smith from Evescourt Legal, the panel agree that the next logical step in community renewal is the development of structures that can support and nurture creativity and adaptive reuse within communities. By reducing the barriers to entry, Renew Australia is inspiring people to experiment in pursuit of new examples. It goes without saying that the collective economic and social benefits of community renewal will speak, and pay, for themselves.