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Hacking the City: A New Model For Urban Renewal

(TNR) Greg Lindsay, December 8, 2021

On a sunny morning in March, Marcus Westbury brandished his iPad as if it were a window into another world. The screen depicted the street we were standing on in downtown Newcastle, Australia, circa 2008. Decades of suburban flight, a devastating 1989 earthquake, and the implosion of the city’s steel mills had left the center a ghost town. More than a hundred empty storefronts lined the commercial strip. The neoclassical post office and the Victoria—Australia’s second-oldest theater—both sat vacant. The street could have doubled as a set for The Walking Dead.

Now the sidewalks were bustling. The windows of the David Jones department store, another recent casualty, were filled with sculptors, milliners, jewelers, and stonemasons publicly plying their trades. Families sipped flat whites and leisurely ate breakfast at outdoor cafés. Compared to the desolate scenes of just a few years ago, the transformation was startling, especially considering it all stemmed from a bit of legal sleight-of-hand.

To demonstrate, Westbury ducked inside the store, whose yawning interior had been subdivided by plywood. A false wall rested on dusty display cases and was supported by sandbags. “This is not architecture,” he said, because the building’s historic status prevented any changes to the interior. And besides, according to the rules of the arrangement, Newcastle’s artisans could use vacant properties like this for free as long as they promised not to alter their interiors (and thus their tax statuses). Newcastle wasn’t saved by an influx of hipsters or developers, but through exploiting the right loopholes.

“What we’ve done is change the software of the city,” Westbury told me. “We’ve changed how it behaves. We’ve changed how it responds to people who want to try things, do things, and run their own experiments.” 

In many ways, Newcastle’s decline and resurgence superficially resembles the cycles of blight and renewal seen in cities around the world over the past decade. From Brooklyn to Pittsburgh to Detroit, entire neighborhoods have been colonized by throngs of artisanal butchers, brewers, and designers. This mix has proven successful as a recipe for hyper-gentrification, at least in the handful of cities with a critical mass of affluence.

Source: The New Republic