I am breaking ever so briefly from writing Changescaping. In general, this entire project is focused on change and the need for new thinking about our cities and settlements. According to renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs, what distinguishes thriving cities from those that stagnate and decline is a group Jacobs describes as “squelchers.” These are political, business, and civic leaders that divert human creative energy by posing roadblocks and saying “no” to new ideas. This type of behaviour not only quashes ideas, it can also marginalise conversation, making some conversations impossible. Just thinking through some of the issues I’ve heard the ’empty space’ projects experience in relation to setting up new kinds of venues and social spaces – much needed third spaces that work for the ambient social and creative hum of groups of people who aren’t inclined to heavy boozing or expensive bars. Many of the problems reported seem to hinge on the enforcement of regulations, particularly in relation to liquor licensing and building codes. These are structural roadblocks that are often upheld by officious administrators and managers. Judging from reports from colleagues and friends who have established artist-run spaces and small venues since the 1980s in Brisbane, these problems are not new. In Brisbane, in the 1980s and earlier, however, venues tended to be raided by police and that cast a particular shadow across alternative, independent or creative cultures and sub-cultures.
The ’empty space’ projects – as they are increasingly rolling out and popularised now across Australian cities – are facing a complex array of compliance issues that don’t work with the intent to set up temporary or interim uses that support creative endeavours or establish cultural ecologies. Squelching comes into play in this situation because of the naysaying and inflexibility of both the regulators or the regulations, in some cases the risk aversion of property owners and potentially any group that rejects proposals for change. While many of the empty space projects can offer transilience – an abrupt passing or leap from one thing, condition, etc. to another – the squelching of regulators et al offers the kind of obstacles that ordinarily result in further decline without significant investment. Additionally, many of the ’empty space’ projects offer the kind of fine grain and streetlife that Jacobs so lauded as foundational in successful neighbourhoods. Many of the creative enterprises and non-profit organisations setting up shop in these declining neighbourhoods as part of ’empty space’ projects also sew the seeds of community and cultural development. The evidence that positive change can happen quickly in an urban environment, through the kind of urban acupuncture that empty space projects can offer, offers a welcome change from the drawn out and expensive incrementalism that can result from revitalisation programs.