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The authority of the street

March 29, 2016

The Australia I inhabit has become a place where order and conformity are admired while deviation from the norm is generally unwelcome.

Quite how we became so cautious, particularly given the devil-may-care image we like to both hold of ourselves and promote is beyond the scope of this piece. What is within its domain and what may not be my most popular viewpoint is: “we need some disruptive thinking in our cultural and political mix”. I’m not talking revolution here; I am talking about a loosening of restrictions and constraints that shifts power from authorities to the street.

Here’s an example by way of illustration. Last year, Cultural Capital moved our studio to the highly urbanised Sydney suburb of Newtown.  We’re fortunate to look out through big sash windows onto the lovely Camperdown Memorial Rest Park. Along the long axis of that park are several hundred metres of unrestricted parking spots, competitively sought by local workers and residents alike.

During the summer a swarm of backpacker vans joined the competition for the much-desired unrestricted parking spaces with direct frontage to the park. With WA, NT, Vic and Qld plates, the drivers of these dusty vans wait for an all day/night parking spot to become free, pull in and set up camp. Young, brown and minimally attired, they speak a host of languages.  On warm days they loll around in the shade, lie on the park’s abundant grass, and sit at little collapsible tables and chairs pulled from their camping gear. At night after occasional home-made solar-powered showers from water carried in plumbing tubes atop their vans, they retreat to sleep, ready to roll out onto the sunny grass the next morning. They’ve become temporary residents.

To date both local police and Marrickville Council have left the situation unchecked. This despite the fact that the presence of the well-travelled vans does limit the available number of free parking spots, and their occupant’s practices within the park don’t all comply with its intended uses.

Nevertheless this spontaneous eruption of European traveller lifestyle has brought a new cultural element to our residential and creative worker district. Clearly enjoying themselves, and the local environment, the young travellers are responsible and well-behaved. They don’t litter or make a lot of noise. In the most human of ways they’re creating a new cultural life that enriches the rest of us who use this place.  They’ve been able to do that because so far no-one told them they can’t or submitted them to an onerous application process with a set of forms to complete and lodge.

It’s a quiet piece of disruptive action. And until one of any number of authorities brings it to an end, it’s disruption making the travellers happy, building a positive identity for Sydney and enriching the lives of local residents and workers.

Why does this matter in any broader context than the immediate local environment around this park on the boundary of Newtown and Camperdown? Well, it matters to us because it connects directly into the work of Cultural Capital. As people deeply interested in the way public domain influences the cultural lives of people, we’re fascinated by this example of the evolving use of our local environment.

As we see it at Cultural Capital, this grass-roots local example connects into a much bigger picture. Recently we hosted a group of development industry professionals to wrangle with precisely these questions. In a day of professionally facilitated discussion with architects, landscape architects, urban designers, artists and thinkers we examined ways in which we can make contemporary urban development produce better cultural outcomes. Which just means making a positive contribution to the lives of people affected by contemporary developments; those who inhabit them and the broader community in which they exist.

One of the clear points of agreement from our discussion with this group of high-level urban development professionals was that the current planning and development process doesn’t produce good cultural outcomes. Its obsession with formulaic box-ticking stymies the real interest and expertise that exists within professions like architecture and urban design to design for people. That being the case, what is required is flexibility in the process by which urban development happens, with some disruptive and radical thinking applied to the problem.

Currently planning crushes people. Yes, yes, I get that we need it. We’re a big complex world and without planning we’d have what, anarchy? But do we need to, can we in fact, plan for everything. I argue not. We need to loosen the parts of our planning process that influence the lives that people will actually live. Let’s manage safety and environmental health for example, while removing constraints to human interaction and cultural flourishing in a conscious process of designing them out. We need open-ended, non-prescriptive systems with feedback loops built in. We need willingness to take more risk, but also manage and mitigate that risk by prototyping and iterating with the involvement of stakeholders in the development.

To switch from the macro-view back to the micro, let’s return to our backpackers and their vans. A relaxation of constraints by the police and council has allowed them to move in, create a temporary home for themselves and stimulate local culture. It’s a tiny example of instant, unplanned urban development, in a temporary and mobile format. In that sense, it might be described as a prototype. At Cultural Capital we advocate for prototyping development wherever possible, not least as a deeply effective way of engaging local communities in developments coming their way.

In our Newtown example, this is how that might play out. It’s a pretty open community here, with a high level of usage of the park by locals. That creates lots of opportunities for locals to talk to the newcomers, just as I have. So, if local residents and workers start to find anything obtrusive about the traveller’s presence, they can have a conversation with them about it. The travellers are easy-going and approachable. And their self-interest lies in operating in a way that keeps the local happy so that the authorities are not called in to move them on.

We can work this out at street-level. We don’t need a heavy authoritarian hand determining who can and can’t be here and in what capacity.  And if we keep working it out on the street, we can experience the benefits of cultural flourishing right before our eyes.

Think of the skills and experiences the travellers bring. Imagine them teaching local kids soccer skills in the park. Informal language lessons; German, Swedish, Spanish and more.  A pop-up screen on the grass showing footage from their trips across Australia brought to life by their stories, bringing locals into a sense of Australia’s mystery seen through the fresh eyes of guests to our country.  The resourcefulness evident in the way they build out their vans as examples of how to do a lot with a little. Need I go on?

These spontaneous cultural interactions illustrate at a very real, street level, Cultural Capital’s interest in ways in which new connections can be made, new communities formed. Not forced by regulation, which often has the opposite effect, but given the space to flourish at street-level, without unnecessary constraints.

And when Cultural Capital operates on a larger plane; speaking to city and planning authorities, our interests are the same. We’re asking these questions: how will this development promote inclusiveness, how will it provide a mosaic of places to allow cultural flourishing, and how does the development impart a sense of ownership for its users? The mission of developers and regulators, like ours, should be producing cultural capital which contributes to the broader social grid.

– Mark McClelland