Gentrification or Urban Renewal? Brisbane’s Cultural Hubs at Risk of Homogenisation

Australia, Brisbane, Council, Society

Toby Rowen

Shortly after Premier Campbell Newman rolled out his ‘New World City’ plans for Brisbane in 2009, Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk commissioned his twenty year Economic Development Plan. The chief goal of the plan was to, rather optimistically, transform Brisbane into a ‘top-ten lifestyle city’ and bring over 300 000 jobs to the region by 2031. Additionally, the development plan predicted a population boom: over 800 000 new residents in the next 20 years, coupled with 150 000 new dwellings within the Brisbane metropolitan area, particularly in the inner city suburbs. The Brisbane City Council, in partnership with the State Government, appear to be committed to transforming Brisbane in accordance to its New World City ideal, tabling their 12.4 billion-dollar plans for seven mega-developments including the Queen’s Wharf Casino.

Such mega-developments are emblematic of the so-called ‘urban renewal’ already occurring throughout many of the historically working-class culture hubs of inner city Brisbane. Naturally, an increase in population begets an increase in housing infrastructure. However, given the demographic employment swing from labour-based jobs to professional and creative careers over the past few decades, higher demand for upper-market housing solutions in culturally significant locations close to the city centre have spiked property prices and created an opening for infrastructure developments by investors. What does this mean for the original residents in such areas, and for the fabric of the city as a whole?

West End, where the population is set to quadruple in the next 20 years as a result of government urban consolidation policies, is perhaps at the forefront of Brisbane’s urban renewal versus gentrification debate. Dr Peter Walters, an urban sociologist and researcher for the University of Queensland, says that West End is unique in that it’s experiencing what he deemed “the classic gentrification process”.

“Stage one is where students and artists and musicians – so renters, basically – move into an area,” he says. This demographic, given their lack of economic influence, don’t really affect an area too much in terms of “development and commodification of space”, however they do, according to Dr Walters, start to “affect the culture”. Once an area has been made “cool and hip” by this demographic, affluent professional couples start to move in and buy and renovate houses, triggering a sweeping demographical change and shift in retail. “This is the point where property values continue to increase to the point where the abstract capital starts to come in like property developers,” says Dr Walters. This process describes what Dr Walters refers to as “bottom-up gentrification – carried out by owner-occupiers, interested in preserving the heritage value of existing working-class properties”.

This differs from “top-down” gentrification, which has also begun to occur within West End. A 2014 case study of West End and its gentrification, authored by Dr Walters, found that “architecturally unsympathetic and opportunistic developer-led house demolitions and rebuilds” are, quite literally, on the rise in the area – which the study suggests “is simply  an exercise in the re-zoning of former industrial sites for market-led high-density residential development” with little commitment to social, cultural and recreational factors.

Dr Natalie Osbourne, whose primary work revolves around urban planning and critical human geography, says Brisbane is seeing more ‘top-down’ gentrification, such as West End’s West Village – marketed as “a picturesque residential and lifestyle village set against the historic backdrop of the old Peters Ice Cream Factory”. Deputy Premier Jackie Trad approved the West Village developers to build nine towers of up to 22 storeys when the site was originally zoned for a maximum of 15 storeys. “The West Village development is symbolic of a top-down gentrification process; a large development, considered out-of-scale and intrusive by many local residents, disrupting and destroying some beloved spaces and uses, and replacing them with apartments and retail out of the reach of many existing residents,” says Dr Osbourne.

The ‘out-of-reach’ nature of such developments don’t just mean original residents are unable to pursue property in the area or make full use of the public space; it also directly contributes to their marginalisation and in many cases, displacement. A joint study conducted by RMIT University and the University of Queensland found that West End’s ‘‘top-down’’ gentrification process “led by capital and the state planning policies” ultimately introduced policies that were in favour of urban consolidation to concentrate the population. The study found that the arrival of higher income households and the resulting spike in property prices and rental rates forced lower income households, particularly tenants, to relocate to more inexpensive pastures – usually the outer suburbs.

Greens Councillor for the Gabba Ward, Jonathan Sri, says the study is just “one of thousands of case studies around the world, all proving what we already know: gentrification and its associated negative effects is encouraged by the treatment of housing as a commodity for speculative profiteering”. Cr Sri, who has been vociferous in his condemnations of both the West Village and the Queen’s Wharf Casino developments, says gentrification “tends to exacerbate class stratification, with poorer people concentrated in low-status suburbs that are underserved by essential infrastructure, and wealthier residents concentrated in well-designed suburbs, usually closer to the city centre”.  According to Cr Sri, this means a “skewed” view of social realities is developed alongside a “loss of empathy” for people of different demographics and backgrounds. It also “undermines the cultural vibrancy of a city by reducing cross-pollination and collaboration between different social groups and sub-cultures,” he added.

Dr Erin Evans, GP by day and president of the West End Community Organisation by night, says the West End she knew and grew up in is “being torn apart right before my very eyes”.

“Increasing rent and property prices in both residential and commercial sectors has changed the accessibility for many West Ender’s: there is wholesale displacement of many types of people – musicians, artists, students, the homeless and working-class – who have lived here but can no longer afford to,” Dr Evans says. Single parent and low-income households have also failed to escape the grip of gentrification, which Dr Evans says has resulted in “a loss of diversity in the community, as most new occupants – residents or business owners – come from a similar situation and background”.

“The existing culture here is focused on diversity and tolerance,” says Dr Evans. She describes community members as “anxious,” increasingly living with less certainty that they will have affordable accommodation in the future. Residents worry West End will lose its vibrant alternative culture: “Street art becomes vandalism pretty quickly as an area gentrifies,” says Dr Evans.

Dr Osbourne says social stratification and the homogenisation of former culture hubs such as West End may “break down social networks” as people leave their neighbourhoods. According to Dr Osbourne, people may lose access to community spaces and infrastructure that have been important to their social life, sense of belonging, and wellbeing. They may lose track of people and hobbies, and may have to face longer and more expensive transports. She posits that gentrification may be an example of “collective trauma”, which describes a kind of damage inflicted on the social fabric of a community, which may include a “loss of shared identity, the fracturing of relationships, and a weakening of civil society”.

“Gentrification, particularly the displacement it is associated with, can contribute to the sense of alienation that many feel in modern cities – where people don’t know their neighbours, where they don’t feel connected to the place they live in, its history, its environment or people,” Dr Osbourne says. Gentrification, especially top-down driven expansion that emphasises large-scale redevelopment projects, can have a “homogenising effect on the urban landscape – in terms of people, in terms of design, and in terms of commercial activity.” In addition to “displacing people and destroying homes”, a gentrified area runs the risk of being “a little dull”.

“Cities allow diversity to happen,” says Dr Walters. “If you get rid of that in your city, you’re getting rid of a very important part of what makes a city a ‘city’. People who have different lifestyles, sexual preferences, cultural tastes and political views – they need space,” explains Dr Walters. He warns that if cultural hubs have their diversity extricated “you end up with a homogenous city – a boring, nothing, vanilla city”.

While the State Government and the Brisbane City Council continue marketing Brisbane as a ‘New World City’, one can’t help but think the approach may be slightly counter-intuitive. When the destruction of all that makes a city interesting – culture, diversity, art, heritage and the weird and wacky – ensues, questions are raised regarding how the city markets itself as special in the first place. Expensive buildings certainly aren’t anything ‘special’ – flagrant displays of vast capital accumulation are, after all, a pillar of neoliberal Western society. Realistically, it would seem the gentrification versus ‘urban renewal’ battle is an ideological one at its core: the intrinsic relationship between capital and political power buttressing the prioritisation of profits over people.

Reviving the Heartland

Agriculture, Australia, Culture

Stephanie Saal

“At eventime, the shadow,
Of one great giant lies,
Across a pleasant homestead,
That sits upon the rise.”

Australia has an agricultural problem. It’s not a problem that is based simply on economics or ethics or politics – it’s a cultural issue that encompasses all influences and elements of Australian society. It is an issue that has caused a formerly strong and stable industry to be exploited and mocked by leaders and workers alike, leaving farmers and regional workers exposed.

It’s a problem that has caused a variety of incidents to surface in the past year; the industry has been wracked by climate change, national food scares such as needles in strawberries, and the exploitation of crucial environmental systems such as the Murray-Darling Basin.

Unfortunately, and fortunately for Australia, our country is big. You can fit Britain into Australia 59 times and still have room left over. It’s a blessing to live in such a large nation with such beautiful natural resources, but it’s also a curse for our ever-growing population centres that sit at the edge of the Australian coastlines, far from the farmers who work miles inland in the heat and the rain and the dirt. Due to its size, farming is often overlooked in the typical ochre Aussie style of ‘she’ll be right mate’. We see news of 500,000 dead cattle in the Townsville droughts and send some thoughts and prayers. We hear about the news of needles in strawberries and begin to throw away perfectly good growth on the back of trucks. When the long lasting drought became newsworthy, only then did we think to financially support our farmers.

These issues are complex, and were caused by complex problems. And the solutions will be complex, with rigorous debate, research and trial before we even begin to reform the industry. But just as a farmer sows seeds of fruit, this article will attempt to sow seeds of change.

The Problem

“The monarch hills above it,
Are crowned by sombre trees,
That billow to the skyline,
Like dark, Titanic seas.”

The hurdles facing the agricultural industry are intrinsically cultural, but we can attempt to define them according to three separate categories: first, the exploitation of the natural environment and other species; the gap between settler culture and Indigenous cultures within farming communities; and lack of concern for native flora and fauna.

These problems are arising from multiple factors, including a lack of serious policy formulation and vision for the farming industry. As said before, there is no simple definition that could be condensed to 1000 words. But by highlighting these issues, we can begin to envision an industry that is supported by urban development and modernisation, instead of resisting them.

Cultivators, Not Conquerors

“Here came – to wage with Nature,
the old uncertain strife –
A stalwart, young selector –
and his newly-wedded wife.”

The natural evolutionary response to oppression is rebellion.

When settlers first arrived in this country, they gazed out at the forests and the fields like conquerors. They took what they wanted for themselves and carved up the land regardless of Indigenous ownership or knowledge. But this was not sustainable. The land fought back through drought and fire and regrowth, causing the farmers to work obstinately to produce food. There were many accounts of starvation during the first years of settlement – farms were not equipped with the knowledge or tools to handle the land. And yet, with a tenacious spirit, the settlers continued to farm the land only how they knew – instead of adopting the Indigenous farming techniques of the First People.

Because of this, the agricultural industry is largely built on Indo-European methods of cultivation. On a deep-rooted level the cultural ‘image’ of the Australian farmer is thus one that depicts the white male taking to the land, carving it in his likeness, taming the wild Australian outback. This image is accompanied by a depiction of the Australian farmer as a man possessing a fierce, unrigid work ethic, matched by a ‘larrikin’ disposition. This cultural image has been normalised and perpetuated through poem, song and book for centuries. It is why today when we see farmers on our television screens the images are of cracked, dry, middle aged men in overalls and dirty shirts, wiping their brows with sweat as they stare out across endless plains and fields. It is fundamentally a misconception of the Australian farmer.

If Australia wishes to reform the Australian agricultural industry, it must first reform the branding and image of the Australian farmer. To achieve this Australia must begin paving the path towards Indigenous agrodiversity and separate itself from its settler roots. Australia must separate itself from a past in which our ancestors rejected the wisdom of Indigenous men and women. We should be working with the First Nation people and relying on their knowledge and their talents to redevelop the land; and above all we should be willing to work with, not against, the raging nature of the Australian outback.

Europeans historically have constructed false narratives surrounding the Indigenous people, portraying them as nomadic hunter-gatherers that killed fauna when they needed to. But this is hardly the reality, and merely served European colonial propaganda efforts.

Tribes such as the Kuku-Yalanji performed their own process of farming now known as polyculture. The tribesmen would sow species of yam, ngardu, bush tomatoes and kangaroo grass with broadcast seeding [freely planting seeds without patterns to allow plants to grow together]. The natural plants grew together and complemented one another in a flourishing, cultivated ecosystem, and withstood the dry and wet seasons appropriately. In the 21stcentury, polyculture would be a welcoming sight for farmers. No longer would they need to fight the land for resources – the food would grow naturally because it has evolved to flourish in these climates. Further, polyculture does not rely on human intervention, therefore harmful pesticides and fertilizers would not be needed. Other negative impacts of agriculture, such as tillage [soil displacement] and biodiversity control would provide essential microbes and bacteria in the soil to strengthen nutrient intake. Additionally, polyculture systems embrace biodiversity of food. Only 70 plant species are estimated to be responsible for the majority of the world’s food intake (Altieri, 1999). In the face of biosecurity scares a polycultural system would introduce hundreds of potential new foods to the market, allowing us to have greater, safer choices for food consumerism. Indigenous tribes regularly cultivated native yams, riberrys, finger-limes, kutjera seeds, warregal greens, and quandongs, while intricately working to redirect riverways in order to trap eels and yabbies for catch. In the hot months of December to April, Indigenous tribes would sow fields of kangaroo grass to make their own form of wheat and feed, then burn the remaining reeds down so that it allowed new vegetation to grow through for kangaroo herding. They even knew how to dry lemon myrtle into a powder and rub it into the flesh of fish, giving it an acidic taste. They knew how to cultivate the land but respected it enough to not conquer it.

Where to from here?

And courage on his face is,
And love is in her eyes –
Some city folk might envy,
The dwellers on the rise.

Much like the settlers that stepped forward and cultivated the land with courage and pluck, we now must reform our farming industry with fearless and innovative imagination.

We must address the issues climate change will have on our farming ecosystems in this country. We must begin to re-develop our farming procedures from Indo-European practices to Indigenous agroindustry. We must begin to prioritise a subsistence economy that respects the environment rather than tramples it. And above all, we must begin to close the divide between urban populations and regional centres. It’s not going to happen overnight, and not everyone will be positive towards it. But a harvest doesn’t happen when the fields are full – a harvest occurs once the hard work is done and the crops have weathered the storms of the season. All we have to do is be diligent and be ready for change.