Cut the Red Tape, Activate the City

After being thrown into bankruptcy, the city of Adelaide, Australia is cutting bureaucratic red tape, and making quick, bold moves to help its citizens initiate arts and culture ventures on a tight budget.

Aerial View of Adelaide, Australia (Photograph: DougBarber | CC BY-SA)
Aerial View of Adelaide, Australia (Photograph: DougBarber | CC BY-SA)

We ran into Lord Mayor, Stephen Yarwood at a conference on Eco Mobility in South Korea of all places, and have since been keeping an eye on the forward-thinking developments in Adelaide, Australia.

A master-planned city of 1836 vintage, Adelaide is the capital of South Australia and a blooming center for culture. But it hasn’t always been this way; after the collapse of the state bank in the early 1990s, the city was thrown into bankrupcy. The last 2 decades have seen a slow recovery in bringing Adelaide back to being one of Australia’s cultural capitals.

Today however, the government is acting with surprisingly quick and bold moves – words that are rarely associated with government actions — thanks in part to the young and spry Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood at the helm. As Mayor Yarwood tells us, the city (and state) governments have some interesting tricks up their sleeves in terms of spurring development of arts, culture, and strong community, even on a tight budget.

Activating the City: Adelaide is currently piloting a “City Activation” program, whereby it funds small citizen-driven projects with micro grants. Yarwood wants to remove the complex bureaucracy and permitting process for people who have ideas on how to create a stronger sense of community. Although the program entails a small financial risk for the city, it allows citizens to test ideas that would otherwise sit as unrealized thoughts on paper. The first of these City Activation pilot projects were funded just this month.


Sociecity: The central portion of Adelaide was Master Planned nearly two centuries ago, which would lead some to think of this area as static, unchanging. What is the reality to that, and what are the unique challenges you face having that pre-set city plan which is now around 170 years old.

Mayor Yarwood: First and foremost, yes, that is the valid perception, but not the valid reality. Cities are living, breathing organisms, transport is changing, society and the values are changing. The baby boomers here in Australia have really defined our society. There’s going to be an increased need for higher density housing. Eighty-five percent of housing in Adelaide is low density, our densities are massively lower than most any city anywhere else in the world.

There’s also a sense of tradition, and we’re one of the only cities completely surrounded by parkland. To preserve that parkland without being tempted to being drawn into the short term opportunistic process… I mean, even expanding the high school by 50-60 meters is a hot debate. We’re having a brand new 50,000-seat stadium built, and we’re encroaching on the parkland; some people would rather oppose a ½ billion dollar stadium project rather than see thirty trees removed.

So it’s an interesting challenge.

What we do have is a great grid system, so we have wide streets, a permeable city, fantastic heritage assets, a great railway network, like Melbourne. We have a fantastic canvas that we can use and enjoy.

How is your centrally planned business district “protected” from development due to it’s historical status.

I wouldnt’ say that the CBD is protected, North Adelaide is protected, as are other pockets. It’s more protection of the buildings rather than the urban structure itself. We’re still going through the process. We still have the challenges… we’re about to go through a big economic boom here, we’re just about ranked the world’s biggest open cut mine and world’s biggest mineral resource. As you can appreciate, that’s the history of Australian cities, gold mines, copper mines; but, we are still having that challenge where we need to define heritage as a strategic asset, protecting historical precincts, and not just historical buildings.

In comparison to other cities in Australia, Melbourne, Adelaide and Hobart are the three cities that absolutely have the heritage fabric where people come and say “wow, this is beautiful.” Much more like European cities.

Sydney is kind of like a shiny new American city, whereas Melbourne and Adelaide are more like European cities.

What is your City Activation plan looking like so far?

We’re really only maybe 3 weeks into it, and now we are in that ‘summer summer summer’ period. Frankly, my daughter finished school this week, so now the project is all about summer. There’s this really kind of personal dedication to getting out there and activating it, especially now. We have this whole pile of young entrepreneurs who are really inspired to do these things, we also have a new Permier (similar to a state Governor in the U.S.) who I met with last week who was actually saying “yes, you need to do this…” It’s really exciting for the Permier and the lord mayor (to be) completely on the same page, and it’s not official yet, but he’s pledge to match our funding for the project with $100,000. It’s not big money, but it is about quicker, lighter, bigger, cheaper, and in year one of the project, it is really just about proving it.

It’s the cab drivers, the car focused people, the small businesses who think that cars mean money, It’s these people we have to challenge in this first phase and do these small projects.

I think it’s going quite well so far and people are excited. We’re also getting a lot of community involved small businesses.

We’re not afraid to get out there and see what other cities are doing, either (Mayor Yarwood is visiting New York City later this year). In North America in the summer, everyone competes for attention, but when it comes to summer in the southern hemisphere, there’s really only a dozen or so interesting cities in the southern hemisphere. So you know, we get all the rock stars coming here, and we also get a lot of experts trying to escape the cold winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Charles Landry has been a thinker in residence here in Adelaide, Fred Hansen from Portland has come down here, and some staff designers from New York are coming here to show us what they have done and help train our staff. We are particularly open to new ideas, we have a history of multiculturalism, we’re not like some Americans who are say, a very proud San Franciscan, or a proud New Yorker, we are a proud part of the global culture.

You are taking certain risks in order to make this project successful, what are the limits as to how much risk, financial or otherwise, you are willing to take to make these projects happen?

The whole idea is doing is as cheaply as possible. We’re trying to get the local businesses to you know, water the plants on the street, and bring the tables and chairs in. One thing I’ve learned in the last 12 months is that cities are about people, not necessarily councils and bureaucracies, and so what we are trying to do is to start a real community movement, not an ‘Occupy Wall Street’ community, we’re actually trying to go to the broader community, to get businesses involved, get precincts involved, because it’s actually really up to the people. I’m saying: cities are for people and that means you. My favorite quote is “it’s not what your city can do for you, but what you can do for your city,” and it’s working, people are excited.

Burger Theory Mobile Food Truck in Adelaide, Australia (photograph: Timothy Tuppence)
Burger Theory Mobile Food Truck in Adelaide, Australia (photograph: Timothy Tuppence)

It’s all about getting out there and engaging people. Even getting the media on board with these issues is important. Usually they are critical, but they are actually being incredibly supportive, and part of my job is about communication and telling story and exciting people.

We also have a project called Renew Adelaide where we get young people to work with the council to find empty buildings, to work with the property owners to get free or very cheap rent to activate these buildings. We have a huge arts festival (Adelaide Arts Festival), and over that period especially we get people to activate these buildings and turn them into event spaces. I know San Francisco is really good at this stuff, and New York is as well, and it’s all got that ‘artist’ link to it, and I would say that Adelaide is more like San Francisco than any other city in Australia.

We’re trying to cut the red tape, to help change the culture. It’s all about helping people find solutions and we’ve had to re-write some of the rules so that we can allow temporary activity. So here is company-X having to spend 5 million to create something absolutely perfectly, like a Tiffany’s or Christian Dior or whatever, you know, but if you’ve got $50,000 and you want to put out some groovy materials or sell beer from an ice bucket, you have to pay the same fee and do the same paperwork as the the retailers at the high-end of town.

So what we need to do is have two sets of rules, if you’re trying to do this on the cheap, or trying to do some sort of temporary thing, we’ll let you do that. So it’s that birth, death, rebirth of cities.

Do you have a favorite project that’s being implemented?

Australia we have the biggest houses and biggest yards in the world, so we have this backyard BBQ culture where the real challenge for us is to draw people out into these public spaces because they are so used to say, activating their own backyard. A favorite I’ve had is the mobile catering and food trucks like Burger Theory because they have the ability to wheel something into a space, put out cardboard chairs and tables, use social media, you know, twitter it or something else, and have people show up. They provide a temporary activation of that space.

We’re really in the early stages of ‘reclaiming’ our spaces, and by doing that we can prove what is right. I think the critical thing is that, by doing this, the city council will know where to invest in the long term. This is about pilot projects that help us determine how to invest in the future, so instead of doing a huge white elephant, you are actually shoring this thing up with incredibly cheap activation, and if it actually starts to work then we can come in and start planning, spending you know, 10, 20, 30 million to improve the public realm and by then it will begin to attract private investment as well.

So what you really want to be doing is investing in the public realm at the time when it is so happening that the private sector is also going to come in an contribute, in terms of appropriate shops, land uses, housing, all those sorts of redevelopment things to help activate the space.

It’s like anything, you have to draw up a great plan, you first use pencil and/or charcoal, then you get our your paints afterward and you start painting in the picture. So we’re sketching a 21st century city at the moment in the hopes that in 5-10 years we can start to paint in the details.

It’s an exciting time, we’ve got that arts culture, we’ve got the history of being innovative and forward — we’re the first place in the world where women were able to vote — but we’re also outward looking, part of the global culture, and we’re open to accepting what other people are doing all over the world, we’re connected to the U.S. To Europe, to Asia, we have those networks out there, and not just with global corporations but with grassroots organizations.

Links and Further Reading…

Adelaide City Activation Program – City Website
Adelaide Arts Festival – Festival Website
Fringe Festival – Festival Website
Burger Theory – Food Truck