Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Cities as Software by Marcus Westbury

[ For those of you who haven’t heard the story or checked it out, I highly encourage you to check out Renew Newcastle, which is a great urban success story out of Newcastle, Australia. There are a lot of lessons here to be learned, particularly for places that struggle with a lack of financial resources. Hopefully this article can give you some ideas and some hope – Aaron. ]

This article was written for the latest edition of the Dutch architecture/ design journal Volume

Let me put a scenario to you. Say you live in an aging, fading industrial town. One that has been on receiving end of repeated shocks from earthquakes and natural disasters to the closure of its largest industries and mass unemployment. A city where an old urban core – a legacy of an era of trams and public transport long gone – has hollowed out and emptied. Retail has moved to the suburbs and a growing suburban sprawl. A city with dozens, if not hundreds of empty buildings in the old downtown. A place where the feedback loop has become so desperately negative that many of the shops and offices that remain are forced to leave by the growing vacancies around them.

How do you turn such a place around? How to bring life and people back to it? How to bring interest, curiosity and commerce? How to make it – or at least some of it – liveable and desirable again and to bring its decaying urban character back into flower?

Almost always, the answers to those questions are about physical things. They involve long planning process, research, workshops and facilitation followed by attempts to attract large amounts of capital to invest in new buildings, public amenities or to kickstart new industries.

But what if you can’t do that?

Suppose you have access to none of the above. Suppose that to varying degrees of quality and effectiveness all of the above has been tried and failed or at least stalled – lost in posturing and process.

Imagine that you have no money. That you cannot buy or build anything – that you are stuck with the building stock and the hard infrastructure. Imagine you are not the government and have little or no capacity to persuade them to make major investments or decisive changes.

If all that doesn’t make things difficult enough, let’s say the budget you have to work with is tiny – amounts you can put on a credit card. All you have is the city – beautiful, fading but endowed with many interesting small scales spaces, a talented enthusiastic creative community and a generous broader community willing to donate their skills and time and resources in kind.

What could you do?

Actually, this is not a thought experiment. It’s a real place. It’s my home town of Newcastle, Australia. As recently as 2008 the situation in Newcastle was pretty much as described above. Yet as of a few months ago more than sixty new creative projects, initiatives, galleries, studios, and creative businesses – all experiments of various kinds – had started up in the old downtown. The city – far from being a failed post industrial basket case – was being hailed by the world’s biggest travel publishers Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2011 on account, in large part, of a vibrant creative resurgence that had taken place in the long dead downtown.

So how did we get here from there? Two years is too short and the budget was too limited to address any of the city’s real hardware problems. Instead, Newcastle took a different tack. To do so we engaged the immediacy of enthusiasm and activity and stepped back from the contentious and divisive debates about what should and shouldn’t happen in the long term. To do that you need to start by rewriting – or hacking – the software to change not what the city is but how it behaves.


Perhaps this is an Australian thing but virtually every urbanist I know is a hardware person. They come from backgrounds in town planning, engineering, design, architecture or activism around the preservation or possibilities of the built environment. They like to draw things, design things, build things. They like tangible things. The futures that they desire, imagine and will into being are full of hard physical things from bike lanes to green buildings, transport links and physical amenities imagined and preserved.

The built environment and geography of a city is its hardware. It defines much of what a city can and cannot be. The hardware of the city – its topography, the scale of its spaces, its architecture, its patterned dense grid or its narrow laneways or its chaotic sprawl – places a hard limit on what is and isn’t possible. While the hardware of cities can and does change and evolve slowly over time, in the short term it remains relatively fixed – major changes are invariably expensive, can be paralysingly slow and often contentious.

The ability to design, imagine and build the hardware of a city are valuable skills and important catalysts but for better or for worse I am not a hardware person. I’ve spent much of my life as a festival director. Festivals – or at least the kind of un-institutional ones that I have been involved in – are places where artists, DIY media makers, installationists treat cities as places of opportunity and experimentation.

Unencumbered by the possibilities of permanence, they treat cities not as fixed places in which to build fixed things but as laboratories in which to try and experiment. The extent to which they can and can’t is defined only in part by what the city is – creative people are usually capable of hammering their own ideas around whatever starting position or location you give them. To a much larger extent their possibilities are defined by how a city behaves in response to their initiative. It is the software of the city – which is often intangible, bewildering and complex – that defines their possibilities.

Cities are also software – they actually have many layers of software. They have an operating system – a hard set of rules and constraints that are imposed and enforced by governments. Operating systems are hard boundaries too – they are laws that forbid and allow. They define what you can and can’t do as much as the hardware does. Far from open to opportunities, the operating systems of cities are often defensive, risk averse and closed to possibility.

In many respects the operating system needs to be defensive – it is vulnerable to exploitation and malicious intent. In Australia at least, many who seek to use the city are attempting to do little more than run a virus – a parasite of a program – called something along the line of Maximising_my_commercial_return.exe. They are attempting to do little more than build the cheapest building, with the greatest amount of saleable space, in the shortest time possible. Cities have quite rightly developed a series of strategies to mitigate the virus and its impact.

Yet processes that assume that this is all that people wish to do with a city misses the point. Artists, creative types and community minded collectives are often caught up in the same defensive systems. The fact that they have limited capital, their limited access to political processes and specialist expertise, their limited opportunity to recoup an expensive investment, and their precarious ability to survive complex and time consuming processes means that they are often more vulnerable to being stopped by process than malicious developers.

In my previous life as a festival director I was often asked by artists “can I do this?” Too often I had to tell them no, they could not – despite the obvious benefits it would bring. More often than not it was not for any particular reason but for the absence of a process – a software error. A failure to distinguish the nature of the activity. A category error around scale that could inadvertently treat a one night only event for 30 or 300 people in process terms in the same way that it treats the building of a new development or planning a subdivision. It’s a software error that fails to distinguish between creative and commercial intent. A process error that did not allow – or did not easily allow – the intended use despite the absence of objections or even wide community consent. A bug that introduces compliance, complexity and costs to people incapable of navigating it. Cities often fail to recognise the transformative powers of momentum and enthusiasm by blunting it with confusion, cost and complexity.

In many respects the software of the city is subtle – it is at least partially the cultural context, its history and its economic circumstances. Yet, in most respects the software of the city is codified and hard-coded – height and noise restrictions, planning processes, rules that enable certain possibilities and disable others. They can be embedded in common law rights and privileges. As an ephemeral user of cities I had inadvertently spent many years experimenting with the limits of what types of a behaviour a city will and will not tolerate. The more you do so the more it becomes apparent that cities can be arbitrary, irrational and incentivise entirely the wrong the things.


Renew Newcastle, the not-for-profit company that we established in late 2008 is a piece of software. It is a broker. It is an enabler. It is an interface between the aging, decaying, and at times boarded-up built environment and those who seek to use and activate it. It connects the many empty spaces in the city with the passion of people who want to experiment and try things in them. It has facilitated more than 60 projects in more than 30 once empty spaces in just over two years. It has done so without building, buying or owning anything other than some computers and some second-hand furnishings. It does not fund things – nor was it funded itself in its early stages – it just allows them to happen.

It has done so by changing the software of the city. Not in the slow and traditional way – the hard way – of seeking the political power to amend the rules, change the laws and rewrite the operating system. It has done so in an easier but less obvious way – it has followed the path of least resistance. Rather than rewrite the operating system it has hacked it and made it work in new ways.

Renew Newcastle started by hacking how much spaces cost and the terms they were available on. While there were over 150 empty buildings in Newcastle few if any of them were cheap or simple to access. They were bound up in complex rules – from bad tax incentives to complex, costly and long-term commercial leases that made it difficult to access them flexibly. Renew Newcastle traded cost for security. We created new rules, new contracts, and convinced owners to make spaces available for what was effectively barter – we would find people to clean them use them and activate them and they could have them back if and when they needed them. We stepped outside the default legal framework in which most property in Australia is managed and created a new one. We used licenses not leases, we asked for access not tenancy and exploited the loopholes those kinds of arrangements enabled. While such schemes are institutionalised in many European countries they have little precedent in Australia – in Newcastle, the entire scheme was devised, brokered and implemented directly from the community without the involvement of a government or formal development authorities still grasping at hardware based solutions. Only after the first dozen buildings had been activated did any funding appear. More than two years later any changes to rules and regulations – to the operating system – are yet to transpire.

Yet cheap space is not in itself enough. It is not enough to simply change how much space costs, it is also vitally important to change how it behaves in the face of initiative. Renew Newcastle created a whole system to lower barriers to initiative and experimentation. We created another layer – between the operating system and the users to make it simpler and easier to enable experimentation and risk.

Again we followed the path of least resistance. We decided to make things simple that could be made simple and not butt up against what would remain impenetrably hard. We managed to do what is easy rather than get caught up in waiting for the ideal – to find spaces that were usable and use them. Renew Newcastle designed systems – an API in programming terms – that made activation simple. We took spaces, brokered cheap access to them and gauged what could be done in them easily – what they were already approved for – and set out to find it and plant and water it.

In doing so we effectively made a whole system to make space behave as quickly and responsively. To allow people with enthusiasm and passion to direct it into the city. We made it quick for people to try and cheap for them to fail. We removed capital and complexity from the equation and in doing so we seeded more than 60 experiments – unleashing the energy of hundreds of people.

We made the city work for people for whom it had not worked in a long time. People without capital for whom low barriers to entry and not certainty of outcome were the defining issues. Those who were operating digital cottage industries and Etsy stores, artists and fashion designers, bedroom record labels and Flickr photographers. In effect we made the physical space behave as their virtual spaces did – easy to get into and out of, allowing of experimentation and failure and most importantly full of tools and structures and plugins designed to make it simple and cheap for them to do what they are passionate about.


As cities age, the challenge is not always to rebuild them physically but to re-imagine how they might function and adapt. In Newcastle in many respects nothing has changed since 2008. The buildings are mostly the same. The hardware is unchanged. Nothing has been built. No government has fallen. No revolution has taken place. Yet, on another level much has changed – dead parts of the city are active and vibrant, 60 projects have started, hundreds of new events have been created, and whole new communities are directly engaged in creating whatever it is that the city will become. The software – the legal templates, the contracts and the thinking – that has enabled has changed Newcastle is becomng a kind of shareware – downloaded, hacked and implemented in cities and towns across Australia from Townsville to Adelaide.

Cities are software. Yet as hard as the software of the city is to conceptualise the consequences of changing it are very real. It is only the results that give it away. They are as evident and visible as the process that led to them is invisible. There are new stories and narratives, new people and new possibilities, and a glimmer of renaissance where there was previously only ruin.

This article is reposted from MarcusWestbury.net with permission of the author.

Topics: Arts and Culture, Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Urban Culture
Cities: Newcastle (Australia)

10 Responses to “Cities as Software by Marcus Westbury”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    Very thought-provoking. We see this “hardware-software” issue in Indianapolis: Our great central urban space (Monument Circle) needs “software” (festivals and programming and events and activities), yet the powers-that-be are talking about more “hardware” (physical redesign).

    I wonder if the culture and practice of liability law is different enough in the US to effectively prevent the kinds of “access” and “license” arrangements Renew Newcastle promotes. Any urbanist lawyers able to comment?

  2. Danny says:

    Interesting and I agree with the premise, but I have a huge problem with the idea that commercial endeavors and creative endeavors are in binary opposition…even more so that the author presents one as an evil virus and the other as a benevolent virtue. Does Marcus Westbury not realize that he is promoting the commercialization of art?

  3. Ari Herzog says:

    “Renew Newcastle traded cost for security. We created new rules, new contracts, and convinced owners to make spaces available for what was effectively barter – we would find people to clean them use them and activate them and they could have them back if and when they needed them.”

    This speaks to me more than anything else because it is a simple concept. I’ve often wondered why empty storefront windows can’t be used to advertise other businesses or city announcements rather than sit unused and gloomy. I like the concept of barter.

  4. Wad says:

    Sorry, but I didn’t find this article helpful or inspiring. It was bloated and tedious, and I had to go through it several times to find the nut graph of Newcastle’s success, and I was underwhelmed.

    The writer got too carried away in the “city as software” metaphor. Westbury didn’t illustrate examples of what Newcastle did differently out of its old framework, and how the subjects contributed to its success. There’s very little takeaway value in the story.

    Then again, that might be Westbury’s intent: To show what one city did. And to prevent imitators from copying this formula, the process remains a secret. The software metaphor served as a smokescreen.

  5. I will try and address everything that’s come up as best as i can, although i’m on the road and a little time constrained at the moment.

    @Chris undoubtedly the practice of liability law is different – it is even across different state jurisdictions in Australia. A lot of the work we had to do was around unpacking and simplifying those issues – which was by no means easy but has paid off in the projects that we have been able to start as a result. Though the laws may be different, the principles are likely similar.

    @Danny, i am well aware that i am (amongst other things) promoting the commercialisation of art (although we support not for profit projects as well). However you “huge problem with the idea that commercial endeavours and creative endeavours are in binary opposition” is entirely with your own interpretation. We have worked very successfully with commercial property owners, we won Australia’s major award for Arts/Business partnerships last year. However, if you are suggesting that there are no property developers that are seeking to maximise their short term commercial returns (or what they perceive them to be) at the expense of community, good cities and creative diversity and that communities should not have concerns about that, then we will have to agree to disagree. Perhaps American cities are totally unlike Australian ones in that regard.

    @Ari thanks!

    @Wad This is one of more than a dozen articles i have written before during and after this project. It was originally written for a publication (Journal) that specifically asked me to explore this metaphor which i had used casually but never elaborated upon prior to writing this. I’d encourage you to visit my own website, the Renew Newcastle website and the Renew Australia web site where there is an immense amount of detail about the things that you are concerned that i have omitted – it includes extensive guides right down to open source versions of the contracts we have used. Everything on my own site is published under creative commons so you are welcome to reproduce any of it as Aaron has done here.

  6. Wad says:

    @Marcus, thanks for getting back to me. I saw the Renew Newcastle site and the FAQs cleared up some of the questions I have. I didn’t find the contracts and I’d like to see them.

  7. Hi Wad,

    You can find the contracts on the Renew Australia web site here: http://www.renewaustralia.org/diy-resources/ under “Sample legal agreements” on the menu. It’s still a bit messy in there (Renew Australia only launched a few weeks ago) but we are gradually cleaning it up. I am not sure how helpful they’ll be but hopefully some of it is useful.

  8. TMLutas says:

    Software is something that happens naturally, organically. To get rid of it, one has to beat it down continually. Failed cities excel in beating down software. The permit that is difficult to get, the bribe that must be paid, the unwritten policies that supersede the written ones and which nobody will tell you what they are, the code language that so often starts with a variation “that’s not the way we do things around here”, all these are ways to beat down the revitalizing energy of what the post is calling city software.

    In other words, the city fathers decided to not beat down the software that wanted to come into Newcastle and the dividends were relatively swift. Once you view the process of getting city software as the process of *reducing the beat downs* that are currently discouraging them, challenged cities do seem to look a lot less hopeless.

  9. Jess Steele says:

    Great article about a great project I’ve seen with my own eyes though my own life/work is all in the UK. The software metaphor is interesting though maybe a bit laboured (and Marcus explains why in the comments above). I really believe Renew Newcastle is one of the premier meanwhile projects in the world, but here are many others in the UK and Europe and next week I’m off to New York, Detroit and Chicago andwill be keeping my eyes peeled for similar.
    For UK versions of leases, guidance etc have a look in the ‘useful resources’ bit of http://www.meanwhile.org.uk and join the meanwhile Ning at http://www.meanwhile space.ning.com.

    But in the end meanwhile is not a project but a philosophy – one that insists that just because something is temporary doesn’t mean it’s not powerful. Think blossom, lightning, a festival or a riot… In times like these, there is no time to waste – use every resource. An owner who will not let an empty building be used for social and community gain is an irresponsible owner. We don’t let people drive without insurance – that would be irresponsible. Don’t let them get away with leaving abandoned buildings littering our town centres, damaging local economies, destroying community value…

  10. just_passing says:

    Stumbled across your website by accident and then nearly fell out of my chair laughing. I live in Newcastle and grew up in the area. What is keeping Newcastle going is not the mass of government funded art circlejerks. At best they involve the same 1% of Newcastle all getting tax payer funded grants and looking at each other’s art. The inner city is still an eyesore, and is slowly dying under the strangualtion of an incompetent council. The only reason Newcastle is not the Australian detroit is that the money flowing in from mining is keeping the entire city going. Its not much different than when BHP was here.

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