Renewing urban inequality
- Published: 16 May 2010
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Will urban renewal programs embrace communities disenfranchised by a lack of public resources or just create more space for middle-class arts and leisure pursuits? Ann Deslandes takes a closer look at the concept and asks renewal for who?
Frasers Broadway, Sydney. The Docklands in Melbourne and Fremantle. Brisbane’s millenial ‘inner city renaissance’. These are all currently flourishing examples, apparently, of successful efforts to renew, regenerate, revitalise or otherwise zhoozh up Australian urban centres.
Obviously each project has its own uniquely local flavor and may occur in drastically different orders but allow me to generalise for the purposes of this discussion.
In general, these projects claim a host of benefits. In particular: artists, writers and other creative types have access to resources often denied them, such as studio and exhibition space. In fact, government funding may well come your way if your project engages with this very process of urban renewal (also known as gentrification); as in public sculpture for Perth’s Cultural Centre, or multi-pronged critique in Redfern’s There Goes the Neighbourhood.
Ecological considerations may be met with recycled building materials, superb greywater management and/or provision of green spaces (preferably incorporating indigenous plants).
Funky new dwellings will be available, some with subsidised rent aimed at low-income citizens. Streets will be widened and parks refreshed with a view to more spacious and salubrious outdoor gatherings.
Public performance and installation is encouraged. There will be more al fresco dining, maybe, and certainly more hole-in-the-wall wine bars slash coffee shops.
Factories, warehouses and similar repositories of derelict industry will be tastefully refashioned in the service of aforementioned funky dwellings and art spaces.
Weekend markets and ongoing co-operative ventures furnish locals with organic vegetables and one-off crafts.
Taken together, the urban promise here is one of increased conviviality and economic diversity: increased housing options for younger, low-income and single-dwelling households, greater ecological sustainability, innovations in town planning and architectural design and a general ‘vibe’ of community and creativity.
However, while this scene may boast carbon neutrality, it’s far from neutral about another urban imperative. I’m talking about class.
For there is an existing world of shelter, performance, gathering, commerce, creativity, and indeed, indigeneity at work in urban spaces, for whom ‘renewal’ and ‘regeneration’ all too often results in expulsion.
They’re the people who sleep on the steps, piss in the laneways (or at least, they used to be: these days their toilet may be usurped by drunk yuppies, as Erick Lyle observed during San Francisco’s Mission district upgrade), and beg for small change at the bus stop. They are the most unlikely beneficiaries of ‘improvement’ or ‘revitalisation’ in even the most indie or community-driven examples of these urban projects.
The beneficiaries instead tend to be folks who already possess a whole lot of social privilege: tertiary-educated, self-actualising, white. They may not possess a living wage but if they are, say, the kind of artist that gets grants from the Australia Council, then they have cultural capital; thus generating economic capital for the locale they’ve set up in.
The hard edges of socio-economic inequality are rarely addressed in the public rhetoric around urban revivification. However, it’s going to mark the fallout in any planning for city life in the increasingly dense and hotted-up future.
Whilst Frasers Broadway has opened up space for the making and display of art and an organic food co-operative, low-income tenants on the site were evicted. Whilst Renew Adelaide promises to make more space for art and assembly, Victoria Square-Tarndanyangga is still a dry zone, which “targets those forced to drink in the city squares, unlike those who drink in grand settings”, to quote Chilean-Australian artist Juan Davila.
The Melbourne Docklands precinct includes new means-tested community housing, but a restaurant or café meal in the neighbourhood is well beyond a low-income going-out budget. In Alice Springs, as we saw in Samson and Delilah, a bold trade in Aboriginal Art brings tourists closer to the red centre whilst people in exurban towns are left for dead.
As you may have gathered, I am suggesting that urban renewal may not be entirely made up of positive, progressive social content.
Renewal projects may undoubtedly generate welcome opportunities for artists, students, ‘singles’ and others who struggle for an economic break. But those who are not empowered to negotiate with private property developers and state authorities - who are unable to offer them any economic return in exchange for the right to stay - will still be ejected from public urban space in favour of a reinvigorated ‘community’.
This undermines the promise of regeneration or revitalisation, even as it makes some welcome space for diverse society, artistic creativity (and in this, some often pointed critique) and ecological sustainability.
Urban renewal projects of any kind will do little for the sustainability of cities and city life if inequality is all they renew in the long run.
Ann Deslandes is a researcher and writer in Sydney. She writes a blog from Flat 7.