We put the rules up in the windows, thinking, We’re going to be arrested, but that at least it will force a conversation. Instead, everybody came out, including city council members and leaders, saying, ‘We should change.’ That was a big realisation: We share this area and we have a shared vision of how to make it better. Why did we create all these barriers?
Better Block has gone international now. There’s one that just wrapped up in Tehran. The problems being faced in Coburg Australia are similar to the problems in Tehran Iran, they’re similar to the problems that exist in Brownsville Texas… We’re always asked, ‘How do we fix these things?’ People assume it’s a physical problem, but I think the physical issue of the landscape is a manifestation of the problem socially, where people are not connecting. If you had a well-connected community, the physical environment would reflect that. It would naturally be more inviting and beautiful; people would be more engaged.
It’s a bit “chicken and egg” though, isn’t it? The industrial areas, the roads without footpaths, the ugly shopping centres–is that our fault?
It’s funny you bring that up, because Better Block is very much a bottom-up process. Now that it’s become a little more accepted by cities, you’re involving a top-down mindset. Every city that brings us out says, ‘We know this needs to be something from the community, but we’re not opposed–what can we do?’ We say, ‘Well, why don’t you just act as the agent that removes the hurdles?’ Some chaos and spontaneity needs to occur on the ground and government wants to have organisation and order. But you need to open it up to the community; you need to set the stage. If they want to be involved, the government can say, ‘It’s cost prohibitive to do these permits, it takes too much time, so we’re going to allow this block to be innovative for a weekend and basically curb our normal rules of order.’ It takes a lot of trust on the part of the government to do that. It takes a lot of trust from the community too. You have to get the private property owners in the area to say, ‘You have freedom to play.’ They have fears of liability too…
So I don’t know if that answers your question… Why did we create this ugly stuff? I think a lot of it was driven by this idea of the “new”. Everybody lived in an inner-city area, then a new ring of roads was built, and then a new development outside of that. In that new development you had slightly bigger houses, slightly bigger yards, more amenities, newer schools and newer what have you… Then after a while that got dated and aged, so another ring was built around that, and another… By then, we’d created a donut. The hole on the inside decayed as everybody kept leaving for the newer thing. How far can we go? When you spread yourself and all your resources apart you naturally get disconnected.
Where does that belief come from? That bigger, newer–it equals better?
There’s this notion that cities were dirty, industrial, loud, noisy. That, ‘I want more of this pastoral, country kind of environment.’ So we created suburbs replicating a rural experience, but in the end, people wanted the amenities they found in the cities, so they dragged out the stores. These little coffee shops can exist in small blocks because there’s a lot of density, but they don’t survive when they’re brought out to a suburban area–they need more customers. Really, the thing that survives out there are the chains. That’s where you get that bland lack of character. There is a realisation though now that we’ve gone too far and we’re lacking authenticity. That’s what people crave.
That’s what you talk about realising when you are travelling in Europe. You see these beautiful water fountains, and parks, and grandparents spending time with their grandchildren in public spaces, and you wonder, What is the legacy of Dallas going to be?
Why have we killed off our living spaces?
I don’t know if it’s the same in Australia, but in the States we had a lot of racism. We promoted segregation and oppressed a whole community, especially in the South. In the 50s and 60s, Anglos moved away from the city centre in a “white flight”, because that’s where minorities lived. Now, that doesn’t describe what’s happening in Australia. Again, the tendency to create these spaces further out was because of the desire for the new–it really was this idea of “bigger is better”. Dallas had this motto, “think big”. It was proud of this idea. Like, ‘Everything’s big in Texas.’ We said, ‘Well, maybe it should really be “think small”‘ because nobody says, ‘Let’s go to this giant Italian restaurant.’ Nobody says, ‘Let’s go to this massive coffee shop.’ It’s, ‘This little out of the way café…’
Yeah, let’s go to the massive Starbucks on the highway! [Laughs].
Yeah! Nobody really thinks that way.