Activating city and soul
The location of Annabella Rossini’s coffee cart doesn’t exactly scream ‘boutique’.
She’s parked out the front of the Malone’s auto shop on East Maitland’s Melbourne Street, looking out onto O’Neill’s Tyres and the Quinn’s servo. A few doors down you can get your pool water tested, pick up some fireplace accessories as you amble along, and if you’d like a light fitting with your latte, you can walk a little up the street for one of those too.
That, Ms Rossini explained, is exactly the point.
“This is low-cost research,” she said.
“If I wasn’t activating an area it can just be a trial for me, and you haven’t invested all sorts of money on infrastructure that you can’t take with you.
“It’s a win-win.”
The second ‘win’ Ms Rossini referred to is the concept of place activation, an idea that can be difficult to explain but easy to understand.
The official-sounding explanation involves buzz terms like ‘social cohesion’, ‘community building’ and ‘collaboration’ but at it’s core it simply involves activities in public spaces that make people happy. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture – a busker on the street or a mural painted on a dreary wall can be all it takes.
One of its larger aims is to bring people into an under-utilised public space, whether it be because the space was a dead zone or it has been reimagined for a new purpose.
It’s also an idea that Maitland City Council has spent the better part of the last year exploring, trialling several projects that culminated in the formalisation of a place activation strategy at the end of 2016 and a continuation of the program that draws on a seven-year $1 million funding commitment that kicked off in the 2014/15 financial year.
“It’s a new thing to approach from a strategic point-of-view, because it’s usually done in an ad hoc favour,” Council’s Place Activiation Officer, Amber Herrmann said.
“It’s pretty exciting that the strategy has been endorsed, and this harks a new chapter in Place Activation around town.”
Maitland is not alone in formalising its approach, with the nation’s major cities implementing their own strategies, as well as smaller centres like Lennox Head in the state’s north, Eden in the south and even Western Australia’s Curtin University jumping on board.
In one form or another, the idea of place activation has existed longer than we’ve all been alive – 100 years ago some chalk and a footpath would bring kids into the street to play hopscotch, while a newspaper stand and big scandal could attract adults for discussion or gossip.
“It’s not a new idea,” Ms Herrmann said.
“It’s an idea centred on the public domain, the common, so people having ownership and creating lively spaces.
“That’s where place activation comes into it – looking at it through a ‘why?’ perspective – because it creates really well connected communities, and brings people together who normally may not mix.
“It’s creating those strong bonds in the community.”
As a formalised approach, place activation (sometimes called placemaking) gained traction through the writings and activism of Jane Jacobs, a vocal critic of the urban planning policies that swept through the United States of America in the 1950s.
Those policies placed a heavy focus on urban renewal (which often spelled the demolition of existing structures for new buildings or highways) and the separation of uses (splitting residential, industrial and commercial developments into their own precincts).
She strongly advocated for ‘bottom up’ community planning, saying that the best people to build a community were those who were already there, as opposed to outside experts.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” Ms Jacobs wrote in her 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Although it may seem ironic that community-developed activation projects will fall under a local government policy, Ms Herrmann said that the importance of community involvement was not lost on Council.
“It’s about people taking ownership of their neighbourhood, their streets, their town and saying ‘this is how we want to be involved’,” she said.
“I love working with community members and getting them to realise their aspirations, or their creative projects, or their little seeds that might have sat with them for a long time, teasing those out and building their capacity to deliver that.”
Community involvement was a large component of a project from last year that Ms Herrmann listed as one of her highlights – Warming the Streets.
Running in conjunction with the Aroma festival, Warming the Streets saw the installation of a 20 metre-long knitted sculpture by artist Michaela Swan, titled Into the Wind, in an alley between High Street and the Riverside Car Park and a free-form yarn bombing project, driven predominantly by the Maitland Knitter’s Guild and the Walka Grange Lifestyle Village.
Their creations ended up adorning bollards, lightposts and trees through the Levee, and brightened up tables and chairs during the festival.
“The amazing yarn bombers just took this project on and went crazy,” Ms Herrmann said.
“I love that because it has that community involvement and that passion and anyone can do it.”
While the yarn bombing was temporary, the Book Bin Project has seen the city’s libraries’ four book return bins permanently brightened up with public art, while the Riverlights festival took a site-specific approach to activate the Hunter River through the release of lanterns.
Kicking off Council’s plans for 2017 will be the Street Eats pilot food program, which will see mobile food vans move across the city between February and April.
Just like those food vans, Ms Rossini can pack up her coffee van at any time and move on, as she has done in the past, after spending time creating ready markets for businesses in Islington and the University of Newcastle.
At the uni, she set up where a cafe was due to be opened, steadily building a consumer base of people who would buy coffee from that location, and moved on when the time was right.
It’s the same thing she’s doing in her current location, activating the space adjacent to where Dion Ackland hopes to open a cafe (and eventual small bar) around Easter.
“What Bella has done has been fantastic because it brings people to the space already,” Mr Ackland said.
“When I open there’s already that flow of people looking for coffee so it’s been fantastic for me.”
But while there are economic benefits to be had from place activation projects, Ms Herrmann said their most important benefit cannot be valued.
“It’s about people stumbling across something and stopping and enjoying it for a moment, and that having an impact on someone’s day,” she said.
“It’s those incidental moments where you may not be going to an event, you may not be planning on seeing something great, but you’re walking along the street and something lifts you.
“That can have a huge impact on people’s well-being.”