Keeping it vital

By Linda Carroli
Arts Hub,

It was to turn into a day of strange serendipities evoking my distant connections with Brisbane’s southside. I spilled into a gritty and grungy West End as a student in 1983, just prior to the reclamation of underused and predominantly industrial land in neighbouring South Brisbane for Expo 88. There I lived for many years working across creative fields like independent media, local history, the arts and community development. West End was much loved by locals – by most accounts it still is - with its street life, its ‘sense of community’ and its diversity – a mix of Indigenous, Vietnamese, Greek and Anglo cultures. Alternative lifestyles also took hold, offering experiments in commerce, consciousness and communitarianism. Students and artists nested in like-minded share households while cultural organisations, facilities and venues moved into disused warehouses peppered through the industrial area along the riverbank. They staked out streets for festivals or markets. The inner south offered choices, experiences, proximity and inclusion.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Expo, a notable turning point in the city’s urban development and international reputation. In the lead up to that momentous event, community groups were nervous about and rallying against possible unbridled development and gentrification in the inner southside. Over this time, South Bank has undergone several facelifts and the streets around the original parklands have been redeveloped. More recently, urban design has enhanced streetscaping and introduced public art to recast the connecting road between South Brisbane and West End into a boulevard. In South Bank, Little Stanley Street bears all the hallmarks of a ‘true’ street. Here, at street level biding time in a cafe, there is life, conversation, intimacy and watching. Now established trees shade passers-by and the diners seated at the diverse eateries. The mix feels right, especially given limited vehicular access, so traffic noise doesn’t overwhelm conversation. It’s one street in a city that could easily accommodate many more like it.

Masterplanner Dr John Montgomery tells me this is one of his favourite places in Brisbane, providing options and comfort unafforded in the city centre. He recently completed a consultancy with Brisbane’s South Bank to “look at ways of further growing, consolidating, managing and developing South Bank and its environs as a dynamic, creative place – a quarter in the city”. While waiting to order, someone elbows me hard. I swivel ready to declare my affront and standing there is an old housemate, grinning while giving me a rapid-fire update on everything going on. She needs my table so that her large lunch party can be comfortably accommodated. Montgomery and I are happy to oblige and we move to another where she joins us for a moment’s reminiscing about our changing relationship with South Bank.

From my $85-a-week rented share house, I would amble passed the sex workers, drug dealing and decaying buildings towards my city based university, or through the streets lined with closely packed worker’s cottages, or into the eateries and delis with their exotic and delectable offerings. Long established mango trees dropped their stringy fruit every summer – baubles for the picking by bats and humans alike until their overripe pungency overtook the languid fragrance of seasonal jasmine. Over that decade, things changed. Blocks of flats and elegant historic residences were transformed into offices for political organisations and professionals. Housing disappeared while warehouses were reclaimed for office block development and retail. Rents increased markedly. As the area started to flaunt its bohemian appeal and inner city lifestyle set against a background of traditional architecture, it became more attractive to higher income earners. They could not only afford the higher rents and housing prices but also a variety of cultural goods and services. Much anxiety rippled through the area about the impact on housing, cultural diversity and amenity. Regular public meetings were woven into community life.

However, as Montgomery, my former housemate and I talk outside the cosy café enjoying the ambience of the street and squinting into the surrounding parklands, it seems misguided, even sentimental, to speak of our once vehement opposition. Montgomery seemed bemused by the exchange. In the preface of his recently published book, The New Wealth of Cities: City Dynamics and the Fifth Wave (Ashgate, 2007), he poses the challenge, “if someone made you the Mayor of some declining city or a new growth centre tomorrow, what would you do?” Embedded within this question are countless others. Cities are complex structures and matters of cities are seldom, if ever, singular. Montgomery advocates that a deep felt understanding of cities will drive us to successfully making them better. Together with contemporaries Richard Florida, Charles Landry, Ken Worpole and many others, he has developed, challenged and progressed practice and theory around the related processes of economic development and cultural development in cities. Now residing in Australia, Montgomery has worked extensively in the UK and Europe. He is an internationally recognised strategic city planner, specialising in improving the design, economy and cultural life of cities. The New Wealth of Cities documents an impressive and compelling body of work spanning two decades. Among his many notable projects are the Temple Bar in Dublin and the Sheffield Quarter.

The changes taking place in Brisbane two decades ago inspired creatively political acts, not only through community and contemporary arts but also through pressure on government. The issues that arose in the lead up to and during Expo took a different turn once the event had ended. The local community sought to ensure that Brisbane’s South Bank was retained as a ‘people space’ with appropriate amenity, cultural life and mixed development. The arts plays a duplicitous role in the dynamics of urban communities - while endeavouring to provide creative articulations of local identities and place or weeding out affordable spaces for studios, the arts can also drive or attract gentrification. Since the late 1980s, culturally led urban development has been used in urban regeneration strategies and city economic development.

Montgomery’s key message for South Bank and surrounds, including the parklands, Grey Street and the cluster of large cultural institutions, such as the recently opened and acclaimed Gallery of Modern Art, is to “grow more complexity”. By this, he means businesses, independent companies, small and large elements and activities that front onto the streets and spaces. While cultural institutions have a contribution to make to creative quarters, they do not create the dynamic of production and consumption that Mongomery identifies as necessary for a successful creative quarter.

“More life, more work and more businesses. The more you can have medium and small elements together with large elements, the stronger and more networked it all becomes,” he said.

“The minute you put everything in a centre, it adds up to less than the sum of its parts, whereas if you put more elements into a place it adds up to more than the sum of its parts.”

Another issue is permeability and urban design in the pedestrian environment particularly around the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Victoria Bridge, South Brisbane Bus Station and Queensland Cultural Centre. Describing that environment as ‘over-engineered’, Montgomery questions the quality of the public realm especially where pedestrian movement is obstructed.

“Once you start making spaces better, you’ll find that businesses will take a small toehold and the fact they move in helps to improve the space. So it starts to feed on itself. At the moment, what’s wrong is that it is too institutionalised and there’s not enough private enterprise in there. That’s what activates space – it tends to be private enterprise.”

Montgomery was especially interested in what was happening around the West End peninsula, particularly Montague Road and Riverside Drive. The area includes several artist studios, recording studios, the Queensland Theatre Company, the offices of arts organisation, and the ABC studios.

“We found that there are a lot of arts producers and creative businesses around there,” he said.

“The idea was that as well as being a place where you go to view or consume art, it should be a place where new art is made, where people set up businesses in the creative industries and the whole thing gels a lot more in terms of relationships between consuming and making, and in terms of there being an economy of arts businesses.”

Shifting demographics and anticipated population growth will drive the demand for those art objects and products, creating the consumer environment for arts businesses mixed within the residential environment. While linkage between South Bank and West End, particularly into the area where the arts activities are happening, was outside the scope of his consultancy, Montgomery identifies the area as being potentially rich in opportunities.

He places significant emphasis on the availability of buildings and spaces for studios or incubators and the need for arts spaces to be deliberately woven into the regeneration strategy for the area. He identifies three ways that the council and state government can leverage opportunities. They might work together to lever a building out that might already be in their ownership. Building stock that is located slightly further away from the development locus could be bought. A third way is to ensure developers replace work spaces and galleries.

The difficulty is that demand for such spaces may not necessarily be backed by an ability to pay an office rent. It’s no surprise that rents and property prices rise. As well as considering options for acquiring and managing building stock, there is a need to introduce mechanisms to ensure a lower range of rents for studio type activities as well as ensuring that, in designated areas, some properties are earmarked for highest and best use. Montgomery is obviously a proponent of the ‘fine grain’.

“Really, there needs to be a plan, not a rigid plan but a plan for how that should be redeveloped – because it will – including redevelopment that put back all the things that will be displaced. If you lose them, it will just be a residential suburb.”

Montgomery’s warning resonates with those issued in the late 1980s – work with, cultivate and retain the mix, or lose the vitality. While commuting home from my meeting with him, I bumped into an old workmate, a housing worker who had called for a more flexible and responsive planning environment. Arguably, it was these calls for dialogue (coupled with the demise of a particularly regressive state government) that contributed to a more consultative and inclusive planning method that demonstrated more concern for the social and cultural aspirations of local people. The type of plan that Montgomery proposes for South Brisbane and surrounds was unthinkable two decades ago, even though there isn’t significant difference between what the community wanted and what current planning practice espouses. It demonstrates the value of listening to communities and locals as potential innovators of place and urban life.

Make a Free Website with Yola.