Monday, 14 December 2015

Who is Marcus Westbury?

A couple of months ago some people might have seen on the ABC a series of shows about artisan makers of goods called Bespoke. It was narrated by Marcus Westbury and it was about the new league of small-holding manufacturers who sell things globally online. I thought to myself "Who's Marcus Westbury and why should we be listening to him?" but it wasn't until today that I really learned the identity of this unusual man.

A story from New Republic appeared in my Facebook feed titled 'Hacking the City' and it was about urban renewal, a topic I am interested in. The story had been put there by someone who I know as something of a futurist, or at least someone who is plugged into new and novel events. And then there was this name again: Marcus Westbury. So I read the story.

It turns out that Westbury has been busy in the past ten years or so changing the face of run-down parts of Australian cities. If you want the whole story you can use the link above, but to be brief, Westbury parlayed experience in organising festivals into a new type of business involving urban renewal. He targeted his native city of Newcastle, which is located a couple of hours by car north of Sydney. How to turn unleased urban property into useful accommodation for people who otherwise would not be able to rent it because the market prices are too high?

Westbury did a simply thing: he omitted a lease. By doing this he was able to get property owners to agree to allowing someone to use their empty buildings without impacting on the buildings' market value.

The journalist from the New Republic - the magazine is based in Washington, D.C. - went to Newcastle with Westbury to see how the city centre had been transformed from a wasteland of empty shops into a thriving community. There is even tourism happening now. People are making things and selling them online and posting them all over the world from this regional city in New South Wales and they are paying no rent. And the property owners are happy because the increased activity helped to sustain property prices. “Activity creates activity, and decay creates decay,” is Westbury's mantra. I urge you to read the story in the link. It's a great success story and it can serve as a model for other communities around the world - and there are plenty of them - that are also faced with urban blight.

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