Critical creativity and the future of mainstreets

Seeing a new city is always a good way of reflecting on your home town. You look at what’s done differently and wonder why nobody thought of that back home; your eyes are more open to the way people use space and interact with each other.

Meeting new people has the same effect. You look for points of contact and difference, seek understandings and bridges. The best thing about a conference is the conversation; a conference in a new place creates the chance to contextualise those conversations.

When you’re giving the opening keynote at an event, though, you do so without the context that you gather in the days of dialogue and exchange that follow. So on reaching the end of the Mainstreet Australia conference in Melbourne, I’ve been reflecting on what I might have said differently or with more emphasis on that first morning.

My talk focused on the idea of home and belonging, and on the idea of the shared value that exists in places – the ‘commons’ of local urban form and identity that is created by all and belongs exclusively to nobody. I talked about how local value is created and what kind of changes we need to see to preserve and enhance it.

In the context of Melbourne, we can see the value that has been created in what were once unvalued places, the ‘laneways’ or back alleys once used for servicing shops and offices, which are now full of eateries and coffee shops, some wedged into the tiniest of spaces, bringing bustle and business to turnings that were once avoided. We can see the value created by street artists who use the unlovely backsides of buildings as a canvas for creativity. You could measure that value in terms of footfall or tourism spend, but that would only tell you a fraction of the story of the benefits the laneways have brought to Melbourne.

Contrast that with the city’s Docklands, a generic name for a generic development that looks as if it could be any docklands development anywhere in the world – a developer-led vision of speculative gains and rates of return in a sterile and sanitised environment. Someone needs to let a posse of street artists loose on some of that steel and glass and brightly coloured anything-but-funky cladding.

So reflecting on my initial talk, I think to some extent I was speaking to the converted about what creates a sense of belonging. But only to some extent. In other respects, Australia has retained a boom mindset. There’s little sense that the good times will ever end.

Good times always do end, though, and the boom mentality is – as J K Galbraith noted in his dissection of the 1929 crash – often strongest just before the storm breaks. So what might I have said if I had been speaking at the end of the conference rather than at the beginning?

As I hinted in the final panel discussion, I’d have probably stressed even more the need to plan for hard times rather than simply solve the problems of the good ones. Small businesses and mainstreets in Australia think they face difficulties, but they haven’t experienced anything like the blight that has hit many UK high streets. When the good times end, they will feel the effects very quickly; and in any case online commerce will limit the need for physical retail space. Anticipating the future is as important as animating the present.

So planning for flexibility, adaptability and access (both access to market for cash-poor entrepreneurs and access to space for community uses) are crucial. They are vital for when times are difficult and space needs to be used differently, but also when times are prosperous and rising values squeeze out the more creative and marginal uses.

Given more time, I’d have done more to spell out the links between forging a strong local food culture (of growing and producing, not just eating) and successful mainstreets. Peak food may well hit us harder and sooner than peak oil, although the two are intimately connected and likely to create dangerous feedback loops. The ‘Arab spring’ was triggered at least partly by rising food prices, in countries where oil remains cheap.

Coffee stop, Melbourne laneways

Coffee stop, Melbourne laneways

Affordable, locally produced food needs to become readily available on our high streets again. In the UK, and in many other parts of the western world, we’ve all but destroyed those local food networks and they need to be rebuilt.

Finally, I’d have underlined the need for critical thinking as well as creativity. Collaborative, creative approaches to mainstreets are essential: but so too is the need to question received wisdom and to challenge the notion that success is a consequence of compliance and good management or following best practice. If circumstances are to become more challenging, we need local leaders, social entrepreneurs and helpful troublemakers who can see the mainstreet’s role in helping to build a better world. Critical friends are better than cosy partners.

The good news for Australia is that there’s a strong culture of challenge and creativity and a healthy disrespect for stuffiness and institutionalism. The test of that culture is its ability to prepare for possible futures that may be much less comfortable than the present.