A shift in thinking is emerging changing the way we live in urban areas. The urban activation movement often known as 'tactical urbanism' or 'guerilla urbanism' is a grass roots reaction steadily regenerating our lifeless streetscapes. This movement is rebuilding the local communities which have dissolved in many cities over recent years. To achieve this goal this approach also needs to be supported by place-led local governance.

So what is this movement? Anything goes. Quick and dirty rules. Take risks, experiment and explore new ways of thinking about shared public space. Ephemeral by nature, it's low risk. If it doesn't work try something different. Temporary installations, pop-up events, hole in the wall businesses, food trucks, start-up co-sharing spaces, laneway activation projects, Parklets, communal edible gardens, yarn bombing, bike sharing schemes, light projections, community public art projects, local markets and anything else you can think up. Their shared characteristics are they originate collaboratively in local communities. It's also about knowing when to stop. If something gets too big or 'organised' it loses its authenticity. New ideas from the fringe take its place. This approach reflects Gen-Y's ephemeral attention span conditioned by social media.

Many of these small interventions such as Parklets embody wider significance. Community public space is in the 'grey' zone in terms of ownership and maintenance. It's not often associated with direct commercial gain and is therefore a low priority. Parklets originated in San Francisco but are now interspersed throughout many cities worldwide. Parklet programs reclaim parking bays along town centre streets for use as micro public spaces. They are often described as local community experiments in public space. Beyond their immediate function they explore transferring the responsibility for the maintenance of public space to local business owners in exchange for greater control over its use. This way of thinking  is transferable and scalable to the way we manage, maintain and use our wider public realm.

In the past local governments were often perceived to be dominated by businessmen, property developers and those in real estate cultivating their own interests. Progressive councils are currently being energised by people from a community group and events background. They bring with them a vastly different approach and outlook. A focus on community, social inclusion and sustainability. This approach also establishes sustainable economies of a different kind. Localities that embrace small independent business and the arts attract significant local, national and international tourism. These are creative economies based on local product and place differentiation. Products, services and experiences that can't be found elsewhere.

It's a grass roots bottom up, rather than top down approach. Councils embracing this shift find local community groups quickly assume responsibility for keeping the process rolling. Local councils are freed up to focus on initiating positive change in other areas. The collective energy generated by strong community groups also filters up through economic and governance systems. Rather than local councils initiating big picture moves to inform subtler changes in communities, community groups identify and prioritise the moves they want councils to make. This also reduces negative community reaction to local government action as the ideas have often percolated up from local communities.

Establishing bike path networks, rejecting large chain fast food stores in favour of local independent operators, reducing fees and red tape for sidewalk alfresco space are examples of policies and infrastructure projects informed by local knowledge. Encouraging walkability in local communities over cars is a key priority. Walking has a multitude of social, wellbeing, health, sustainability benefits and supports street based local business. A focus on placemaking identifies the unique characteristics and qualities of particular localities to differentiate them from other places. Forming the basis of place-led governance, placemaking attracts local, interstate as well as international visitors and should be a key priority for all local councils. This approach builds a sense of pride as well as ownership within communities encouraging interaction and participation.

The City of Vincent and to some extent the City of Perth have led the way in this area while the Town of Victoria Park and City of Joondalup are also increasingly proactive. Localities are effectively competing against each other to attract people, activity and ideas. It's true there is enough for everyone however localities that are not proactive slowly decline while others gain momentum. Fremantle was fiercely protective and adverse to change in the belief it would protect its unique sense of place. This occurred at a time when the City of Perth was particularly active in harnessing positive change, both in a larger infrastructure as well as local activation sense. As a result both business and local tourism abandoned Fremantle in favour of active localities such as the Perth CBD. Not actively harnessing positive change erodes local authenticity. Like anything this is a quality which needs to be continually cultivated. Fremantle responded slowly but is now making rapid progress in this area.

Successful places are also subject to a natural cycle. They can become victims of their own success. Popular strips and areas naturally attract social as well as economic activity, offering a sense of authenticity through locally designed and manufactured products. Over time property prices in these areas rise at an above average rate to an unsustainable level. At that point large national and international chains and high end brands infiltrate. As this occurs localities become generic losing the sense of authenticity that attracted people in the first place. The recent crash of Subiaco is a good example. Strong community groups supported by place-led governance play a role in smoothing out these cycles. This approach is acutely attuned to local conditions and fiercely protective of local content.

The urban activation movement is an exciting shift rebuilding local communities by regenerating our streetscapes. The ephemeral nature of this movement ensures its continued success. It adapts and re-invents itself to maintain its relevance to local communities as well as playing a role in protecting them. It explores many ideas through small scale interventions forming a type of experimental testing ground. Some are transferable and scalable therefore possessing wider significance. Over time these ideas may change the way we manage, maintain and ultimately use our wider public realm and built environment in a positive way.

April 2017

Image - Ghetto Blaster 'hole in the wall' coffee shop in Fremantle