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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.