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renewing newcastle (from the Creative Industries Innovation Centre)

28 March 2010 | Posted in: Media

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The post-industrial city of Newcastle is reinventing itself as a centre for culture, art, music and crafts thanks to initiatives like Renew Newcastle.

First-time visitors to Newcastle are often shocked to discover that more than one third of shop fronts in the city’s Central Business District lie eerily abandoned.

According to property developers GPT Group, the decline of Newcastle’s CBD is consistent with many regional cities and towns, which have seen retailers, theatres and cinemas exit the city centre since the late 1960s as a result of suburbanisation.

Claire Williams, deputy chair of the Newcastle City Centre Committee, believes there are two challenges at play in Newcastle: it has not only lost its identity as a coal and steel producer since the closure of industrial plants in the late 1990s, but its CBD has lost its status as the region’s retail hub.

“Urban decay is a major problem in Newcastle. It is a city in transition, and a number of people are beginning to ask how we can move away from our industrial past to embrace a fresh identity,” says Williams.

Located 160 kilometres north of Sydney, Newcastle has a population of 141,752 people, according to the 2006 Census, with around 500,000 people living in the greater Lower Hunter region, for which Newcastle remains the regional hub.

Despite being the second most populated area in New South Wales, in 2007 more than 260 premises in Newcastle’s city centre lay vacant, and a number of local organisations realised something must be done to halt the decline.

One initiative that’s garnering global attention is Renew Newcastle, a pragmatic solution to the problem of unoccupied shop fronts that offers cheap, temporary tenancies to artists and aspiring young businesses.

“A few years ago you could have shot a cannon down the two main streets of the Newcastle CBD without hitting anyone. Today, property developers have publicly acknowledged Renew Newcastle for raising demand for commercial premises and bringing audiences back to the city,” says Marcus Westbury, a cultural project manager who initiated Renew Newcastle in early 2008.

Renew Newcastle negotiates rolling 30-day agreements with owners of neglected properties. For an administration fee of $20 per week, artists, designers, photographers and craftspeople are invited to set up temporary galleries, studios and offices in empty buildings. In exchange, they make small modifications to the appearance of rundown premises, while enticing people into the city to view their exhibitions and wares.

Since its inception, Renew Newcastle has placed 36 projects in 24 formerly empty buildings.

“Renew Newcastle incubates creative initiatives that may go on to become viable businesses. By bringing audiences back to the city, there are positive economic repercussions for existing CBD retailers and landlords. The project is also creating a new identity for the city of Newcastle because it’s receiving a lot of interest from elsewhere in the world,” says Westbury.

Renew Newcastle takes a bottom-up approach to influencing change. The project was initiated with little funding, and requires next to no overheads to run, which is why it has been praised as an idea that could be easily replicated in cities around the world.

Read the full story here.