As demand for quality environments in our cities continues to increase, more attention is being paid to the opportunity presented by urban revitalisation as a sustainable alternative to broad scale urban renewal. Around the world urban revitalisation is being catalysed by housing, cultural, retail, infrastructure and city centre projects that spur on infill development, adaptive re-use and other local investment.
Place making as a tool for urban revitalisation utilises the community to lead the process through their enthusiasm, loyalty and commitment to the places that they value but which may have declined due to factors outside of their control.
The decline of our urban environments is often a gradual process occurring over an extended period of time. Its often months, years or even decades before anyone thinks to do something and another period of time before words are turned into action.
The process of reversing a downward trend is of course best placed at the beginning rather than the end of a decline. At whatever point though, revitalisation strategies cannot be delivered in isolation, and will take considerable commitment and effort on the part of all stakeholders. At a local level, the stakeholders involved are usually Councils, private investors and the affected community; residents, business owners and employees. The challenge, as with most projects, is aligning these groups to work together to achieve a common goal. This requires a clear and achievable strategy, the right investment and positive action from all of the stakeholders involved.
The place making process helps to deliver a sustainable revitalisation process by involving the community from the start. We call this community-led revitalisation. By getting the story right; identifying what makes a place unique and working with the people who know this first hand, the framework for a sustainable revitalisation process can be established. The community has to be involved in a transparent consultation and participation process from the beginning to ensure their understanding, their buy-in and ownership of both the process and the outcomes.
Apart from their local knowledge, the community also offers time and energy. People are often more than willing to become involved in community projects that benefit all. Volunteer associations Australia wide exist to provide support to their local communities in a variety of capacities. The partnership between local Councils and their communities is most often seen in the form of funding for these small groups. It is these opportunities that allow for the creation of place, through the fine grained delivery of place by the community. Examples include; tree planting days, neighbourhood cleanups, BBQ’s in the park or markets selling local produce.
These small projects have a greater potential than simply improving the amenity of an area. Particularly in urban centres, even in regional environments, community led revitalisation has the potential to attract new businesses, new investors and new residents. The rural towns that attracted families to keep their schools open with free and cheap housing, also attracted new community members with their own skills to invest in the revitalisation of the town as a whole, not just the school.
One of the most successful urban revitalisation process led by the community is the well know Melbourne Laneways. Like-minded business people coming together to create an environment that suited their unique products has catalysed the regeneration of the city centre and become a model for similar projects around the world. But a lesser known project, gaining international attention around the world, has been the revitalization of Newcastle’s downtown.
In Newcastle we recently worked collaboratively with local government and community to develop and launch the Community Place Makers Small Grants Program. The program represents a shift between the governance and management of the public realm and over the past 2 years continues to catalyse change. Abandoned shop fronts, deserted streets and a struggling arts scene that once called Newcastle home are no longer visible. The rise of Newcastle has even caught the eye of influential travel diary Lonely Planet, where in 2010 they voted it one of the top destinations to see in 2011. In doing so, the city is experiencing more tourists and a renewed sense of pride not seen for decades, and who to thank for this economic stimulus, the community themselves who have fully embraced partnerships with creativity, responsibility and innovation.
As seen in Newcastle and Melbourne, community led revitalisation generally works in partnership with government agencies, relying on this financial assistance to launch a process. However, it is the enthusiasm and action of the community that defines this form of revitalisation.