Some time back I was talking to one of the members of the Country Women’s Association. For those not familiar with the organization, the CWA was founded in 1922 to support women in regional areas by providing common meeting spaces, cultural activity and emergency accommodation. Today they’re one of the largest advocacy bodies in the country, and one of the most successful community run not for profit groups in the country.
Core to their strength is that, back in the day, they set up halls and meeting spaces in every country town. They didn’t have a lot of money – the spaces were often built through the sale, quite literally, of tea and biscuits – so the buildings are often a bit ramshackle, made of weatherboard and brick. But those spaces have been serving their communities, independent of government funding, for 90 years.
I was interested in the CWA because I’d run an independent art space, Format, in Adelaide and I wanted to know about their business model and structure, how they’d remained sustainable so long and how they built such a powerful advocacy organization. But also in whether they’d encountered the same issues with regulatory bodies telling them their halls were non-compliant we see in running independent arts and community spaces.
And, oddly enough, they had. It turns out buildings built in the twenties and thirties on a tight budget don’t conform to building classifications designed for the construction of 21st century buildings.
When the CWA formed, Australia had a very different approach to building compliance. After the Second World War those systems started to tighten up. This was largely because there was a high volume of low quality building stock in the inner city, a huge problem with slums and tenement blocks, and massive overcrowding. In cities like Sydney, where fully plumbed houses didn’t become universal until the 1970s, that overcrowding combined with poor building conditions to produce very real sanitation problems and pretty regular fires.
So, after the war, and with car ownership on the rise, state and federal governments did two things. Firstly, they zoned a lot of outlying land for residential use, thus setting up the groundwork for contemporary suburbs.
Secondly, they altered their building and planning systems to make it harder to adapt an existing building than to simply knock it down and build a new one. This was designed to (a) encourage the demolition of subpar inner city building stock and (b) make it cheap and easy to build a lot of suburban housing very, very quickly.
This worked really, really well. People moved away from cities, drove their cars and lived in the suburbs.
Then we started running out of oil, the suburbs got so geographically broad the costs of maintaining key infrastructure started to get a bit pressing, and the economy shifted from manufacturing towards knowledge and creative industries. So the need was less for a whole bunch of people to go to one big factory and make cars all day, and more for lots of smaller enterprises to be operating in close proximity so they could interact and share ideas.
And all the planners started reading Richard Florida and Jane Jacobs, but that’s another story.
What does this mean for the Marrickville warehouse scene? Well, firstly Marrickville was an area formerly driven by a light manufacturing sector, which is why it has so many warehouses. The manufacturing sector has drifted off shore because the global economy is so reliant on 2nd world sweatshop labour, so they’ve been vacated. When Australia decided to follow the US abandonment of the Bretton Woods agreement in the Seventies, float the dollar in 1984 and undo the Menzies era trade tariffs protecting our primary and manufacturing industries, it hurled itself into that economy at full force. Like it or not, Australia now competes on an economic footing reliant on ideas. That, and mining. Obviously.
By and large Australia’s ascent from colonial outpost to global nation has been pretty successful. But the shift in resources, away from manufacturing centres and regional production, produced a corresponding population movement whereby people wanted to live in cities again.
This put a couple of major pressures on our building and planning regulation.
Firstly, people stopped moving to green fields development and building suburban houses – and they started moving back into cities that already had a lot of buildings. But the regulations remained designed to facilitate urban out-fill, not allow people to repurpose inner city buildings.
Secondly, areas that had previously been driven by manufacturing economies hollowed out by the shifts in the global economy.
The building code and planning systems made it too expensive to adapt all those existing buildings easily. If you wanted to move into the city itself, you either needed to have the money to renovate an old terrace house or to be a major developer. If you had that cash, you moved into places like Surry Hills after the Olympics and you probably did so because you had the capital and the motivation to want to be near a major centre of global economic activity.
Areas with a slightly lower level of demand, like Marrickville, worked slightly differently. The demand isn’t quite enough to attract major developers, and if you’re looking to renovate a terrace house you’re more likely to go somewhere with lots of terrace houses, not a former manufacturing district. But for what could be called the Educated Poor (aka university students and hipsters) or families headed people working in the knowledge and creative industries, it’s a pretty good location.
Hence, Marrickville is currently home to two major assets/liabilities:
(1) A growing population of people who can’t afford to or don’t want to live in higher priced inner city accommodation, but also don’t want to live in the suburbs.
And a (2) lot of excess, older building stock (aka warehouses) that aren’t currently of interest for major redevelopment, can’t attract new manufacturing tenants, but can’t be easily adapted for re-use as anything else because the building code and regulatory framework is still tightly geared to facilitate suburban sprawl.
The combination of those features means that you have a high concentration of a well educated population drawn back to the city by its increased creative and knowledge activity, who need spaces to meet, work, think, perform and do the things communities do. And you get organizations setting up to meet that need, following almost exactly the same basic model as the CWA: occupy a building, and use it to provide common meeting spaces, cultural activity and, on occasion, affordable housing.
Whilst the basic drive is similar to that of the CWA, there’s two differences. One is that the focus for community in Marrickville is on creative and cultural activity rather than a common experience of gender and rural isolation. And the other is that instead of building weatherboard houses out in the country in an era when regulatory activity was far less stringent, they’re trying to adapt the buildings that are affordable to lease, which tend to be old. Indeed, the tend to be the exact same old buildings the regulatory system is designed to destroy so as to encourage suburban out-fill.
There’s one other difference between the CWA halls of the 20s and the community run warehouse and independent spaces we’re seeing today. When the CWA set up, they were written off as silly little women and no one really paid much attention to them. Until they became one of the largest lobby groups in the country.
By contrast, the ‘warehouse’ spaces are now being portrayed as ‘illegal parties’ and ‘raves’. Their key role as sites for rehearsal, gallery, studio and cheap office space, as places for communities to meet – in short, their role as the modern, hipster version of the CWA – is routinely sidelined by portraying community activity as a bunch of stupid kids who want to have wild parties and don’t understand the incredible importance of building safety.
This is a stupid argument that serves to justify a regulatory system that simply doesn’t work in the 21st century, and which can protect itself by portraying creative communities as degenerate hipsters. But the core problem isn’t just about warehouse spaces, it’s about how we ensure our built environment is regulated to support, rather than destroy, the agency of citizens living within a particular area. The hipsters might be the more vocal group, but I spent most of my days watching small businesses beaten into the ground by regulatory systems.
For some reason, people some people think I care about regulation because I want to support new venues. My interest is drawn as much by working with existing businesses, like Suzie Wong’s Room owner Nina Jeribca in Adelaide. Nina ran a small restaurant and wanted to host music and art, partly because she loved music and art, and partly because just selling food wasn’t a big enough appeal to compete with people’s desire to stay at home staring at Facebook. As soon as she tried to get the necessary regulatory approvals, the City of Charles Sturt and the local licensing cops used an array of convuluted, nonsensical regulation to grind her and her business onto the cusp of bankruptcy.
And I think that’s wrong. I think it’s a stupid way to get individuals to invest in the geographical environments they live in, I think it prevents the necessary diversity of activity to help our high streets and city centres compete with online entertainment, I think it limits opportunity for performance and exhibition of locally made culture and I just think it’s morally wrong to make a regulatory system you need a small fortune to negotiate.
Other countries have dealt with this far better than Australia. The UK and much of the European Union have developed alternate building compliance guidelines for existing buildings. Without these systems, it would be nigh on impossible to adapt centuries old buildings for new uses, or do things like rejuvenate places like East Berlin from a former industrial slum to a thriving creative city.
The US, which is more comparable to Australia in that it tried to discourage city growth and encourage suburbanization during the Fifties, has had a similar problems, most evident in places like Detroit, whereas it has been basically unable to adapt the built environment to deal with either different economic drivers or the way people live in the 21st century. Except unlike Australia, it started fixing the problem in the late nineties.
That movement began in New Jersey, which needed to open up a lot of inner city housing to deal with a shortage of affordable housing and the costs of urban sprawl, but couldn’t do so because it had a lot of old terrace houses with stairwells that weren’t compliant by modern standards. They weren’t compliant because modern stairwells were meant to be about half a foot wider. The cost of knocking down all the internal walls to extend the stairwell outwards half a foot was more expensive than simply building another house out in the suburbs. So the government looked at the pros and cons, decided a half a foot of extra stairwell was less objectionable than a city full of vacant buildings, and built a new section of their building code – the New Jersey Rehabilitation Subcode – to handle existing buildings, developing a series of alternate methods of ensuring fire and safety methods.
Not having these systems in Australia doesn’t stop communities from trying to occupy space. It just means they can’t do so legally unless they’ve got the kind of start-up capital to undergo pretty major works. Which very few community groups do. This leads most to do it under the radar and, instead of engaging with expert regulators to find alternate methods of achieving safety, they muddle by as best they can. This isn’t because people running community spaces don’t value safety; it’s because they value their community.
I’ve been thrilled to see Marrickville, Leichhardt and the City of Sydney’s adoption of live music accords extend outwards to look at independent spaces and the regulatory issues that impact upon them. But I’ve been disappointed that those spaces are portrayed as trying to legalise ‘illegal parties’ as if that was all community run spaces do. My experience of these spaces, as both a punter and a former manager of one, is that events might make up part of their income, but they’re equally focused on providing studio, rehearsal and general work space. For the most part, they’re not a direct competitor for the local night club, so much as the place where that club’s bands are going to practice, where people might go see a gallery opening before going to dinner or where people spend the day working in an affordable studio space before wandering down to the pub after knocking off.
If they don’t exist, the bands don’t practice so they’re no good at the club, people don’t go to the gallery opening so they don’t go out to dinner afterwards, and people are working in their bedrooms and probably won’t wander down the pub after work. Those people who might otherwise engage with other businesses in the area stay at home with their cat memes and Facebook, and have the occasional house party. That isn’t a system that’s either economically or socially that great.
Altering regulatory systems to meet the needs of the citizens they ostensible serve isn’t about wacky illegal parties. These systems have been adopted elsewhere to facilitate affordable inner city housing and allow existing, older building stock to be adapted to suit modern needs at a cost that makes it economically viable for non-millionaires. Adapting regulatory systems to allow former warehouses to house creative activity isn’t about giving illegal house parties a leg-up; it’s about making it easier for all small and medium businesses to access lower rent, older buildings.
I can see two reasons why you’d object to regulatory reform. One is a simple failure to understand how mal-functional Australian regulations are.
The second draws from research conducted a few years back and probably explains why community spaces are portrayed as ‘raves’ and ‘illegal parties’. At last night’s Marrickville Council meeting, I cited a quote from a 2006 Allen Consulting report to the State Government of Victoria:
The Competition Authority has claimed that the high cost of entry hamper the viability of smaller operations. Licensees are effectively encouraged to maximize the value of their license by creating larger venues that focus exclusively on the sale of alcohol and not the sale of alcohol in conjunction with other activities, as is more common in countries with less restrictive licensing practices.
(Allen Consulting Group, ‘Assessment of the Impacts of Licensing Reforms: An Australian Experience”, 2006, p.14)
Their focus was on licensing, but the basic point is that if the regulatory barriers are high enough – if you have to basically build an entire building to host a band or provide a space for people to practice – the only people who make it through are those with fairly large volumes of start-up capital and fairly certain profits coming in the other side. Even then, you’re going to lose a lot of money better spent on running your business but for the likes of the local chapter of the CWA, or the Red Rattler or Dirty Shirlows that system is virtually insurmountable.