This book chronicles the way cities and its inhabitants can change existing spaces, change a mindset and change a city.
It has been said it takes a village to raise a child. Perhaps then it only takes an individual to change a village. Marcus Westbury’s outstanding non-fiction debut Creating Cities is testament to a movement he developed in Newcastle in 2009.
Westbury writes, ‘It is the story of changing cities and changing opportunities; of an unlikely transformation in Newcastle that has in turn fed and fed off many others across Australia and around the world. It is the story of what that transformation was; the accumulation of accidents and opportunities that catalysed it and how it happened. More importantly it is the story of why.’
In so many ways this is the story of the little town that could. The book chronicles this history interspersed with essays about globalisation and the sad rise of administrators over doers.
The strength of Creating Cities is in the memoir, or the ‘story of Renew’ - a not for profit company whose goal remains the revitalisation of the city through creative use of empty space. It is gripping in all its stops and starts as a small conceived project over beers - which could so easily have been put on the back burner for another day. Westbury describes the inertia that permeated Newcastle at the time: ‘…there’s been a long term trend of just imagining in five or ten years or fifteen years from now that we’ll redevelop that site or something will happen when we’ll fix things up…(but) in between times…there are literally buildings that are being left to rot (at least) a hundred shops in Hunter St.’
Through countless meetings and an ever dwindling bank account Renew is launched and becomes not only a gap filler for impending development, but it starts to create all of the economic intangibles and unseens such as community participation and creativity, life returning the strip mall with artisans, tinkers, makers and entrepreneurs. ‘Renew has not been a catalyst for bringing back the kind of high street retailers that have fled to the suburbs or shopping centres. It has been an opportunity to discover something different. A collection of niches. Local products that have national and global audiences.’
But as we discover, it also put people together who have since built partnerships, businesses and friendships that never would occurred had they remained alone in their garages.
It is a pity the book didn’t include some before and after photos of Newcastle which would have been good for context, however these can be found on the website www.creatingcities.net. It would have also benefited from including more of the dramas around the project(s) subsequently, such as when Renew lost its funding in 2012. But these are minor quibbles to what is a good news story.
With over one hundred and seventy businesses, community projects and initiatives developed because of Renew, it is a gem of an idea that has punched well above its weight. Creating Cities does well to document its beginnings and success from its founder. We must remember it is still in its infancy, only six years old, but is now influencing cities and towns across the globe. As Westbury says ‘Renew Newcastle has proved to be universal story not just a local one.’
Though physically slight in size, the book concisely and richly chronicles the way cities and its inhabitants can change existing spaces, change a mindset and change a city in the process. Read it and be inspired.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
by Marcus Westbury
First published on