The De-rigging of Creative Suburbs

The Story of Creative Suburbs

One of our first adventures — in St. Kilda Festival

5 years ago, in late 2013 I had an idea that came from another idea — I wanted to organise a food truck festival close to where I lived. This made me think that if I had that idea, surely someone else would too, and together we could make them happen.

Jake, who would later become my business partner (on this and this) didn’t have the same idea, but he had lots of ideas on how his suburb and city could be improved. He had already started a concept called Hurbert (?!), which was incredibly similar to what I had come up with: a website where people and businesses could:

  • Post their ideas on how to make their areas better;
  • Receive support for them;
  • Organise a group to make them happen; and
  • Provide organisations with data they’d never had before

We thought this was revolutionary. At the time (and unfortunately still today), community consultation was run on a hypothesis basis — “we’re thinking about this, what do you think”? Or should we say, have your say.

Unfortunately when projects go to community consultation they VERY rarely mean they’re open for new ideas, they want to collaborate with you and heaven forbid, they want to empower you to take ownership of this process.

The model we had come up with was not only going to flip the model of how urban infrastructure got developed, starting with the citizen and user, but also we would be able to provide insight to councils, property developers and whoever else on what people were interested in; things they’ve never heard from people before, from people who they’ve could only dream of hearing from (in case you don’t know, community consultation is dominated by the same people all the time), and in a way that was easy, scalable and fun; data.

That was the dream.

And the dream didn’t work. This is not a sad post or a rant. We’re incredibly stocked to have gotten this far and feel awesome about this chapter in our lives that has let to so many great things, like this and this. We also had an incredible amount of fun:

  • Alvaro ran a projection festival in Preston by himself
  • We hijacked a soccer tournament in Narre Warren
  • We painting a mural on Stewart Street, funded by the local residents and businesses
  • We had a bicycle motorcade around the city
  • We pretended to know what we were doing
Stewart Street Wall in Richmond — it’s still there!

We also have a couple of lessons that might be applicable // useful // entertaining for anyone working in urban planning:

  • True community consultation work is VERY difficult to scale
  • Urban planning works in a very reactive approach
  • Procurement is atrocious

All of the above are things that you would probably expect anyone working in urban planning to say. The most important lesson however, is something a little more surprising, at least we think so — we think community consultation should not exist. There, we said it. Let us explain.

When projects reach a “community consultation stage” there’s already been budget allocated to do the thing the organisation is trying to consult on. And because budgets need to be allocated to outcomes… well, you get the point. If you think about any community engagement process, it usually goes like this:

  1. Organisation X is drafting the Masterplan for area Y
  2. For this to happen, the Masterplan team would have already presented a number of ideas of what could happen in the area, based on planning schemes, population trends and economic development opportunities
  3. Organisation X wants to hear your ideas about the area and “these ideas will be used to inform the Masterplan”
  4. Very little of 1A will actually change. If the area is in the inner city, we bet you it’ll have medium density, close to public transport, open space, etc.
  5. Those ideas are added to the plan like the icing in the cake — “people were really passionate about having more trees” so the plan gets extra trees, organisation X ticks the consultation box and off we go.

Community engagement costs a lot, not just in full-time positions, but in digital platforms and energy people being consulted on, and often disappointed with. All this for an outcome that we already knew from the beginning.

Park(ing) Day 2015

We know we’re exaggerating, but we really believe there is a better way. A process that is heavily used in building good software — prototyping, testing, refining, scaling.

What if instead of community consultation, every organisation responsible for the urban infrastructure of our cities had to prototype what they were thinking, test it, refine it, and if it has legs, scale it?

Testing urban infrastructure is difficult, but not impossible. We’ve seen how a few councils have created little parks in random areas temporarily.

Community driven projects are also possible. Last year Victorian Premier and Cabinet in Victoria ran a project called Pick my Project — it’s like Creative Suburbs, with funding. Kudos to the folk who created this and hope your journey is long, full of adventures. We also got this started from an idea that was shared on our very first website, we’re stoked to see it live and there is a future for it. Another idea that was shared on our website that gained momentum and made it into a Master Plan was the Prahran’s Cato car park being turned into a public space. Well done to everyone who was // has been part of that.

We were also incredibly fortunate to have handed the helm for a while to Luke Barbagallo and Tuong Tran who captained the organisation for the last 2 years. We thought it would be crazy for someone to jump onboard, learn what we had done and create a new path for the organisation. But they did. They also:

  • Had fun in Preston Market with Darebin Council
  • Helped Inspire9’s Footscray venture welcome the community
  • Did some awesome stuff with bike paths all over the city

Some things we still wonder about:

  • Is anyone ever going to live // visit Docklands?
  • How did Alvaro hired some of the worst web developers to build our first website?
  • How did we think our first logo was a logo — see below

This journey has been one of the best things we have ever done in our lives and we’re grateful for everyone that was part of it. We’re still hopeful and optimistic that we should continue, in the words of Che Guevara, to “be realistic, and demand the impossible.”

Hasta la victoria!