REPORT | Creative Suburban Geographies

Posted on 13/11/2009

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Yesterday I attended a workshop at QUT themed Creative Suburban Geographies which presented a range of speakers addressing the cultural geography of creativity and creative cities. Grounded in the premise that creative industries has been studied and reiterated as a relentlessly urban phenomenon, thriving on the virtues of inner urban or city life, these speakers explored ideas that presented other – suburban – loci for creative labour and initiative. Those of us who have lived in suburbs – outer or middle or edge – have known and lived this. It’s always interesting to observe how academia reflects on such questions and how, in turn, they reflect on academia’s own biases and constructs. I can only hope that this kind of research can inform policy, planning and resourcing in ways that shift the current regime of focusing in the inner city or centres. For example, given my fondness for quoting Richard Ingersoll, “instead of focusing touristic consumption in the center, the cultural planners of municipalities should consider inverse movements that shift the attention away from the center; it would be more interesting to put social housing and new productive spaces in historic buildings, as is currently being done in Barcelona’s 22@district, while moving new cultural institutions to the edge, as Barcelona has also done with its Forum 2004 district, a culture park located seven miles from the center.” Ingersoll also cites examples of cultural ‘attractions’ at the edge in Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. There are also more socially targeted or democratic initiatives, such as the network of libraries in Medillin’s slum areas, providing learning and literacy to the city’s poorest people. For Ingersoll, the consumer driven urban forms and designs of the late 20th century has rendered us all tourists – ‘citizen-tourists’. With competitiveness a pressing concern for cities, shifting cultural ‘attractions’ to suburban areas results in a redistribution of the gaze.

In his opening remarks QUT academic Terry Flew mused about the anti-suburbanism of many theorists and critics, including journalists, whose dismissive litanies about homogeneity and the mundane, overwrite the richer landscapes and deeper roots of culture. Not only has suburban life resulted in cultural exports such as Neighbours, Dame Edna and Kath and Kim, it has also been a focus for cultural studies and criticism. For Flew, there are two potential pitfalls rooted to stereotypical ideas/ideals: suburban realism (meaning an image of bogans, tradies, lack of pretention and a perceived lack of culture) and suburban romanticism (meaning a longing for an abundance of fresh air, space and connections with nature). Even more telling, according to Flew, is that Brisbane’s first Apple Store will open at Chermside Shopping Centre, in the suburban heartlands.

As Planner and Policy Maker Alan Davies uncovered in his study of employment profiles in Melbourne suburbs, 72% of jobs are situated more than 5km from the city, with 14% of jobs situated in the CBD. While the city centre employment profile is denser, most jobs are dispersed in the suburbs in areas that are probably not well served by public transport. Davies used ABS census figures from 1981 to 2006, specifically Journey to Work data, to establish that the suburbs have replaced the CBD as a locus of economic activity. While the suburbs outperform the CBD in most sectors (commercial sector is the main exception) obvious bulge areas in suburban employment profiles are in manufacturing and retail. He also found that there are more graduates in suburban employment profiles. His conclusions are that suburbs are the key job areas, location is less important for employment with the CBD being the ‘first among equals” and there is a need to rethink policy in relation to suburban centres and transport. Interestingly, during questions, he proposed that government infrastructure and other activity cannot really influence where jobs go or how employment profiles develop. Davies’ presentation raised other questions, which beg answering, such as the distribution of incomes across suburban and CBD jobs.

In their presentation on Creative Industries on the Urban Periphery, cultural geographer Christy Collis and Creative Suburbia Researcher Emma Felton discussed their research about creative industries and creative labour in Redcliffe. They are studying four outer suburban locales: two in greater Brisbane and two in greater Melbourne. The biases and assumptions in some of the literature about creative industries (e.g. Florida’s idea of the suburbs as ‘un-creative’) resulted in the exclusion of suburban creativity from policy and planning. Noting the ‘new suburbanism’ movement in the USA, Collis stated that suburban creativity had been overlooked in creative industries and their work has revealed that policy formulations tended to affirm the imagined geography of both the suburbs and creative industries. For Collis and Felton, the vision of the suburbs does not accord with the material or lived reality of the suburbs and their research has sought to identify how the creative industries are located in the subject communities. Elsewhere in the PlaceBlog, I’ve reported comments about reinvigorating the suburbs as a ‘productive landscape’, with emphasis on domestic agriculture and Ingersoll also proposes ‘agri-civism’ for suburbs. The presentations by Collis and Felton and Davies reveal that these landscapes are already economically and culturally productive. Having undertaken 40 in-depth interviews, the researchers found that Redcliffe was home to creative industries including both commercial activity (architecture, advertising, graphic design etc) and artisans (creative or fine artists) – this was also verified in Richard Brecknock’s presentation about cultural planning in which he pointed out that creative industries in the Moreton Bay Regional Council was growing at a faster rate than other sectors.

The researchers noted some tendencies that ran counter to inner urban trends – such as rejection of clustering or agglomeration – and found that the appeal of undertaking creative work in an outer suburban area included affordability and fewer distractions. They also conclude that there is a need for policy changes where policy reflects the material and lived reality of the cultural geography rather than perpetuate an outdated imagined geography. This observation is concerning because it makes me realise that the policy researchers and consultants simply aren’t mapping or reaching out to outer suburban or peri-rural areas. The outer suburban locale also presents issues for networking – without a ‘critical density’ of activity – peak artform or professional bodies are not equipped to provide networking opportunities outside the inner city. However, as has been noted in various studies of social capital, travel time and distance erodes participation rates and there’s a need to investigate the linkage of outer urban/regional practitioners networking needs and opportunities. Given that economic development, business networks, education institutions and chambers of commerce operate in these areas, then there is potential for some cross-sectoral linkages and networking.

In his discussion of benchmarking creative employment in Australian regions, Simon Freebody addressed the question of ranking creativity. He proposed that traditional methods of ranking and measuring creative industries were flawed. With specific reference to ‘location quotient’, he found that there was an inherent bias to urban regions and there was a need for a more accurate benchmarking for creative industries and cities. The location quotient revealed that urban areas (Statistical Local Areas) such as inner Sydney, inner Melbourne, inner Canberra and inner Brisbane are ranked highly on the basis of location quotient which is “an index for comparing an area’s share of a particular activity with the area’s share of some basic or aggregate phenomenon”. When assessed through other indices, such as the Density Sensitive Index, which applies regression analysis, the areas that emerge with high rankings are the Kimberley, Gold Coast hinterland and Northern Territory (excluding Darwin). This means that the location quotient is underrating many creative regions and that regression analysis can provide a measure of the agglomeration in creative industries and measure the significance of creative industries regions. Freebody also found that those underrated areas tended to be older and poorer with lower socio-economic status.

Brecknock’s presentation on cultural planning in ‘edge’ local government areas such as Maribyrnong and Moreton Bay Regional Council highlighted the ways in which local authorities are seeking to focus on creative economies and creative industries. With more local authorities seeking to become ‘creative centres’, there’s significant competition to develop local identity as well as attract and retain creative people. Through cultural planning initiatives involving community engagement, long term projects have been developed that will cultivate cultural capital and sector development. In the example of Footscray (Maribyrnong), he noted that urban design fixes don’t always work pointing out an empty and poorly appointment public square. This raises the need for ‘place management’, which Melbourne 2030 has conferred for Footscray, and whether such initiatives have actively involved the community and promoted local ownership. In this respect, there is a question about the relationship between cultural planning and place management, particularly given the need to shift  siloing tendencies. Design and planning intended to ‘cleanse away’ the undesirable doesn’t necessarily and automatically attract the desirable. Again, this presentation points to deficits in policy making and planning – and Brecknock cited the example of easy home based business licencing as just one potential reform need.

Also noting the deficits in community consultation policy requirements in urban planning, Marcus Foth introduced his research using online tools to enhance community consultation and engagement. Talking through the example of the Old Mill site at Cooroy on the Sunshine Coast, he stated that there was more to be gained from consultation. A group of year 8 students worked with Foth and his team in an environment similar to Second Life to collaboratively develop design ideas for the site. The process appeared to have qualities more like enquiry by design than planning consultations. Planning consultations are usually about providing an opportunity for communities to comment on proposals, identifying any impacts and proposing a way of managing that. Participatory design processes need to happen at an earlier stage. Claiming a tension between the slowness of planning and the quickness of technology, the project indicated lost opportunities in the planning process given the positioning of engagement. However, whether that slowness is attributable to planning or the governmentalised nature of planning decision making perhaps needs some unpacking. If such tendencies need to be reduced then the more likely conflict of speed may be between governmentality and ideas generation, whether through crowd sourcing (as community engagement can promise) or other means of empowerment. The simple point is that by investing time and effort into the consultation process, by working with community groups through design and planning challenges and providing innovative tools and processes for doing so, then communities can and will explore change, engage in open conversations and generate imaginative and relevant ideas. This necessitates the involvement of communities in planning and design much earlier in the development process – not just adding to an existing design, but being integral in the making of places from inception.

What emerged through this suite of presentation is that suburbs and ‘edges’ remain largely unexplored and misunderstood. The most resonant message from the sessions was that we continue to perpetuate an outdated view of our suburbs, deferring to stereotypes and slogans, refusing to accept the cultural and economic contribution these areas make to the prosperity of the city. As already stated in PlaceBlog, planning has a cultural foundation and this warrants further exploration, as does suburban life and planning itself. The presentations highlight the need for new approaches to policy and planning that foreground engaging suburban communities in shaping the landscape. The drive for globally competitive cities is placing significant pressures on localities to renew and regenerate – cultural planning and creative industries development is regarded as one pathway to this. Vitality and viability are usually the result of people and communities, enabled by responsible (and integrated) planning and design driven by innovative processes. While the suburbs might not have the ‘buzz’ that many attribute with knowledge, talent and creative centres, they are clearly thriving.

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