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Renewing urban inequality

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.

They are met on a smaller scale, and at a grassroots level, by projects such as Renew Newcastle, which has provided recent inspiration to Renew Adelaide and indeed Townsville.

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.


0 #4 cottonsocks 2010-11-09 13:52
Ooops, I somehow cut out the line about this project looking to me like an opportunity to influence the project and get it to address inequalities - better than the nothing which is the general state of affairs and there will be more chance of influencing them than the big developers. Got too long in any case ...
0 #3 cottonsocks 2010-11-09 13:39
This article makes me feel like a computer: binary, 0 and 1, right and wrong, got it and don't got it. Yet, also like a cheerleader shouting "do it!"

As a contribution to the kinds of things that a project like Renew Australia could be addressing - and addressing more strongly, with vigour, with a sense of purpose - this article makes sense to me. As an argument, it sounds like a series of zeros and ones.

'Urban renewal' projects didn't get us into the messes raised. For example, as is said, Tarndanyangga has been a dry-zone for a long time. Just yesterday I had a re-cry about my aunty who died in that very fucking square, alone and fucked up. This timing might be why your comments couldn't pass over me today, because today I can smell her and feel her skin that was soft and felt creamy, like butter. Because somehow I feel you've argued that using empty buildings in the west end of Adelaide for creative purposes will reinforce the backward, holier-than-tho u policies turned Tarndanyangga a dry-zone. I may have misread, but the binary does have a tendency to fracture subtly on the edge of the red pen that's keeping score.

Rather than finding something to fight about, I wonder if the author hasn't identified a meeting place. A place where things are not mutually exclusive, but connected. Somewhere where people with heads and hearts can be heady and hearty. A place where good intentions become good outcomes because people who know shit contribute good shit. Too much fighting. Too much death. We don't have to fight for the right to die outside of the "tertiary-educa ted, self-actualisin g, white" gaze, but rather create a place where we can live together. This is the cheerleader in me who thinks the author has found not a place to argue, but a place to build. Treasure it.
0 #2 James Arvanitakis 2010-05-17 21:46
Hey Ann

Great article... it is something that we forget so quickly - the people left over. From the new tourist space to the Olympic games, those who no longer fit are moved on. We saw this in Sydney and reports are coming in about the mass displacement of people in Dehli... and you used the 'c' word: class... it exists even in a 'classless society' like Australia!

Cheers, j
0 #1 Marla 2010-05-16 20:59
This is a great starting point for starting to have these sorts of discussions. I have also felt some unease with renew projects, which sometimes seem to favour certain kinds of renewal over others. In some instances I feel that culture is co-opted as a "scene". I have also read many comments that in Melbourne exists also new city laws regarding drinking in public places designed more to moving on local indigenous groups, but still turn a blind eye to the "hipsters" spilling from bars and art events. It would be good to see "renew adelaide" et al addressing the priviledge contained in the mere ability to be able to "renew" anything (after considering who gets to decide when an urban area is dead etc).


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