Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

DIY Urban Development: Step One is to Start a Facebook Group

BY Nick Judd | Monday, February 7 2011

Newcastle, Australia, sounds a bit like Detroit.

An industrial city with historic ties to shipbuilding, Newcastle suffered greatly during the decline of first-world manufacturing and the rise of the suburbs; as flight from city centers became a characteristic of American cities in the post-World War II era, so it seems, something akin to the same migration happened there, too. Just last year, a local paper, the Newcastle Herald, documented record vacancies in office space. An area blogger, Jim Belshaw, likened Newcastle to Detroit, Mich., in direct terms.

"Today, the old Newcastle CBD has become something of a wasteland in part because of construction of suburban shopping malls," he wrote, also in early 2010. "How to reclaim and revitalise the CBD has become a major issue."

Hoping to organize business leaders against this problem by tackling the business district block by block, a festival organizer named Marcus Westbury started a Facebook group in early 2009. Two years later, after an approach to urban redevelopment that found ways to bring Internet businesses to real-world space in a way that met the needs of both landlords and flexibility-loving online-business-having tenants, Newcastle residents are noticing major changes.

Westbury will talk about the initiative, Renew Newcastle on Tuesday, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m. at the New York-based Project for Public Spaces' offices in Manhattan. The event is free; find out about the event and read PPS' Q&A here.

"Within a day we had 100 people," he told the website Cooltown Studios that April, "within a week or two we had a thousand, and now we have over 2000 people in the group. Newcastle, the city where the project is based is only a few hundred thousand people—so that is a very signicant proportion of the community."

Marcus Westbury. Photo: PPS

Now, Westbury says, in an interview with PPS published Feb. 3, Newcastle's central business district is starting to thrive again thanks in no small part to his nonprofit:

The area where we have been mainly working – which is a 3 or 4 block stretch of the city centre around the Hunter Street mall has changed dramatically. When we began at the beginning of 2009 the strip had more than 20 empty shops in that area – a number that had been growing every year since the 1980s. Today there are only a handful still empty. In the last two years we have used those spaces and the spaces around them to incubate 60 new creative projects and enterprises of various kinds – many of which are still in the area.Newcastle has galleries, fashion designers, studios, small publishers, and dozens of other arts projects and creative enterprises that would not have otherwise been there as a result of Renew Newcastle. That is building a vibrant creative community that is in turn building new creative and economic life in the city.

Today if you visit the Hunter Street Mall area it is full of new commercial tenants that have moved back in following the foot traffic that has been generated by Renew Newcastle. One estimate was that the foot traffic had tripled.

By making space available on a short-term basis to a variety of artists, cultural projects and community groups, Renew Newcastle brought foot traffic into an otherwise decimated area where businesses that need long-term stability couldn't be expected to settle in. The local paper, the Herald, declared Renew Newcastle's triumph in an article late last month. The temporary installments brought in by Renew Newcastle led to more pedestrian traffic, which led to long-term leases for more permanent businesses, which led to more businesses moving in, and kickstarted the retail economy of the city's downtown.

This story is about a commingling of a public policy approach you might call artificial gentrification; a business approach, pop-up spaces, that might be familiar to New Yorkers and that the Big Apple's government is actively seeking to support; and about how the Internet makes it easier for people to self-organize around difficult issues like urban renewal.

For example, Westbury tells Project for Public Spaces that the people who filled temporary, real-world spaces were what he called "'digital cottage industries' — People who were making clothes and selling them at markets, people who were running online enterprises from a spare room, some were online communities — such as local photographers who had been connected on Flickr previously — that came together around a physical space when offered."

Buyers find sellers more quickly in the Internet age, and online creatures (like us at techPresident) are no stranger to temporary real estate arrangements: Coworking, a practice of using shared office space, is widely favored by Internet companies, creative types and freelancers. If you can scale your server space up and down at will to meet the needs of a web application, after all, why not be able to do the same for real estate? Why sign a one-year lease just to have access to a conference room once or twice a year when you can rent one with a few clicks of a mouse?

It looks to me like the way the Internet accelerates social and professional life — tweet this if you've ever written an email before actually getting out of bed in the morning — is already changing how people work, and now it's changing how people approach complex problems like urban redevelopment.

Using a group organized in no small part over the Internet, Renew Newcastle got around what Westbury called "badly designed incentives" with "clever but legal contracts and risk management processes."

They hacked the retail real estate industry, in other words, by creating a non-profit that could assuage the concerns of traditional landlords about the risk inherent in taking on small tenants while simultaneously providing the kind of flexibility that a, let's call it a microbusiness, like an Etsy seller or a loose collective of Internet creatives might expect.

"The Renew Newcastle model is to constantly provide new spaces for experimentation and incubation- as we have done more than 60 times already," Westbury told PPS. "Some of those projects will succeed some will fail, but the point is to unleash experimentation. Our role will expand and contract with the number of empty spaces available — some of our project will be there in 10 years time but many probably won’t be."

Be flexible, be lightweight, and fail and iterate — that sounds less like urban planning and more like commisserating entrepreneurs at a tech MeetUp.

The whole interview with PPS is worth a read.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Civic Hackers Call on de Blasio to Fill Technology Vacancies

New York City technology advocates on Wednesday called on the de Blasio administration to fill vacancies in top technology policy positions, expressing some frustration at the lack of a leadership team to implement a cohesive technology strategy for the city. GO

China's Porn Purge Has Only Just Begun, And Already Sina Is Stripped of Publication License

It seems that China is taking spring cleaning pretty seriously. On April 13 they launched their most recent online purge, “Cleaning the Web 2014,” which will run until November. The goal is to rid China's Internet of pornographic text, pictures, video, and ads in order to “create a healthy cyberspace.” More than 100 websites and thousands of social media accounts have already been closed, after less than a month. Today the official Xinhua news agency reported that the authorities have stripped the Internet giant Sina (of Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging site) of its online publication license. This crackdown on porn comes on the heels of a crackdown on “rumors.” Clearly, this spring cleaning isn't about pornography, it's about censorship and control.

GO

wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.

GO

tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

More