Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Creative Suburban Geographies

The Creative Suburban Geographies event was hosted by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation last Thursday (12 November, 2009), and I am pleased to say that the Powerpoint presentations from Alan Davies, Christy Collis and Emma Felton, and Simon Freebody are now available on Slideshare. We will have podcasts available shortly. Thanks to Rebekah Denning, Eli Koger, Courtney O'Connor and Colleen Cook for egetting this together.

I've provided my introductory talk to the session below. Again, a podcast will be available shortly.

Creative Suburban Geographies


Professor Terry Flew, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia

Introductory presentation to Creative Suburban Geographies: Rethinking the Cultural Geography of Creativity and Creative Cities, ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation workshop, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia, 12 November 2009.

Today’s event brings together papers and presentations that draw upon the themes of creative cities and creative suburbs, and whether the creative industries develop primarily in one type of urban zone over another. In particular, we are seeking to open up a discussion on whether thinking about creative industries in Australia needs to give more attention to Australia’s outer suburban regions, and what might be the implications of doing so.

Creative industries emerged on the horizon in the late 1990s and early 2000s with an implicitly urban cultural and economic geography. Creative industries were seen as something that were most strongly developed in cities, and particularly in the densely populated inner city areas. In the language of the time, creative industries developed in the parts of creative cities that were attractive to the creative class, who in turn would form creative clusters that would incubate new forms of creative enterprise.

As creative industries were presented as a people-driven, bottom-up alternative to top-down cultural policies driven by nation-states and government arts agencies, this raised the question of how did people form communities, and act collectively to achieve certain types of outcomes? There was a rapid growth of interest in how networks were formed, as a category between that of bureaucratic hierarchies and impersonal markets, and with this was a surge of interest in notions of community, situated knowledge and what Ash Amin and Joanne Roberts have referred to as “organizing for creativity”. 1

The most visible representative of all of this has been the writer Richard Florida, who has given us the term “creative class” and linked growth in the 21st century global economy fundamentally to the attributes of this group and the forms of cultural amenity that they seek from cities. Florida’s work is widely critiqued around the statistics used to measure a creative class and its rise and rise, which can easily sound like most people with a tertiary qualification, but there is no doubt that he has given us a highly influential image of what the 21st century creative worker looks like. Possibly tattooed and lycra-clad, she/he cycles off to new projects, incubating and generating ideas by day and trying out new cultural scenes, small bars or designer drugs by night, keeping a dense network of loose ties, but never becoming too fixed to any one job, place, scene, relationship or set of ideas.

Caricatures aside, Florida’s work draws upon a recognisable and longstanding history of thinking about the modern city. Sometimes termed the “new urbanism”, it draws upon the highly influential visions of cities and their social and cultural role developed by authors such as Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. Recalling how central debates about whether the move from the countryside to cities was so central to modern sociology (e.g. Ferdinant Tonnies on gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, Georg Simmel), authors such as Jacobs and Mumford stressed the social and cultural value of cities in the outcomes that arise from proximity, diversity and sociality. The more that people are forced to mix with others who are in some way different to themselves, and the more that the city provides “third spaces” for social interaction outside of work and home, the more dynamic cities will be, and the more conducive they will be to creativity.

Jacobs and Mumford wrote about cities when the issues were not only migration from the countryside, or migration from other parts of the world, but the movement to suburbs. Suburbanisation was a trend of the early 20th century, and accelerated in the period after the Second World War. In his book Suburban Century, which traces 20th century suburbanization and debates about its impact in the United States and England, Clapson identifies Mumford as an exemplary anti-suburbanite:

In the mass movement into suburban areas a new kind of community was produced, [a] multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mould, manufactured in the central metropolis. Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.2

So anti-suburbanism has a long lineage, and when columnists such as The Age’s Catherine Deveny attack the Chadstone Shopping Centre as ‘soul-destroying cathedral to emptiness’, and those who go there as ‘dead-eyed wage slaves attracted to this cynical, hermetically sealed weatherless biosphere by the promise a new phone will fix their punctured soul’, it follows a longer and more intellectually respectable tradition.

But we are reminded in Australia that so much that is seen as our contributions to global culture has suburban roots. Australia’s most famous bands, such as AC/DC, INXS and Midnight Oil, came out of a pub-rock culture that was deeply suburban. Our major television exports, Neighbours and Home and Away present images of suburban life that have had international appeal. Kylie Minogue’s trajectory from a mechanic on Neighbours to a global pop princess is a suburban one. From Barry Humphries and the character of Dame Edna Everage, the housewife superstar from Moonee Ponds, to Kath and Kim, the foxy morns of Fountain Gate, Australian humour has drawn from what Humphries termed “the vast suburban tundra”.3 Even Australian cultural studies has a suburban inflection. To take three early landmark works, Meaghan Morris’s “Things to Do With Shopping Cetnres”, Myths of Oz by John Fiske, Bob Hodge and Graeme Turner, and John Hartley’s Tele-ology: Studies in Television, are all dealing at some level with Australian suburban culture.

So suburbanism and anti-suburbanism have sat cheek by jowl in Australia. The historical Graeme Davison suggests that it may have ever been thus. He notes that when Governor Arthur Philip was preparing the first town plan for Sydney in 1789, he instructed that streets be laid out:

… in such a manner as to afford free circulation of air, and when the houses are built … the land will be granted with a clause that will prevent more than one house being built on the allotment, which will be sixty feet in front and one hundred and fifty feet in depth. 4
While Governor Philip never used the words “quarter acre suburban block”, he was nonetheless planning for an urban environment where, as Dame Edna would taunt Michael Parkinson on British television 210 years later, ‘In Australia, our houses aren't all joined together like yours to stop them from falling over’. Davison argues that suburbanization has always found a rich response in early Australian history as ‘Australia may be thought of as the farthest suburb of Britain and ambitions for land, space and independence, frustrated in the crowded cities of the homeland, were often realized on the suburban frontiers of Australia’.5 In contemporary multicultural Australia, the aspiration to a detached suburban dwelling across ethnic groups and class divides remains. To take one example, Terence Lee from Murdoch University has discussed the appeal of Perth to Singaporeans, to the point where the term ‘Singaperth” is used in the Straits Times, in terms of the desire to have the sorts of housing that is simply not available on a small and densely populated island, and where ‘Perth might be seen as a “new frontier” for these Singaporeans to strut their creative stuff’.

The Australian Research Council project that inspires today’s symposium has the title Creative Suburbia: A Critical Evaluation of the Opportunities and Scope for Creative Cultural Development in Australia’s Emergent Suburban Communities. The aims of the project have been to:

  1. Map and analyse the experience of the creative industries workforce in outer suburban areas, through grounded case studies in the Australian cities of Brisbane and Melbourne;
  2. Better understand creative enterprise work practices in Australia’s emergent suburban communities, and the role played by networks and dynamic clusters, through a mix of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies;
  3. Identify qualitative cultural factors affecting the employment and productivity of these workers, and the effectiveness of existing mechanisms of government and other forms of support;
  4. Address a potential gap in creative industries research and policy literature arising from a primary focus upon inner-urban areas as sites of creativity, drawing upon the techniques and methodologies of cultural studies and cultural geography.

In developing the project, we were very cognizant of the extensive creative industries mapping project that has been conducted through the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, in the project involving Stuart Cunningham, Peter Higgs and Simon Freebody. There has also been a significant amount of research being undertaken in the field of urban infomatics, looking at how the increasing ubiquity of digital technology, internet services and location-aware applications in our everyday lives are changing both the visible and invisible infrastructure of cities, led by Marcus Foth, Greg Hearn and a large range of researchers across disciplines and Faculties. We are also pleased to have Alan Davies and Richard Brecknock with us today, who bring extensive understanding and experience of how such trends are developing in Australian cities and internationally, and who have been engaged with policy-makers at local and state government levels in shaping responses to these trends.

Before introducing the first speaker, I’ll conclude with two potential pitfalls that can arise in this area. The first is what I would call suburban realism. Suburban realism had something of a high water mark in Australia between the arrival of the MV Tampa in Australian waters in 2001 and the arrival of Work Choices legislation in Australian workplaces in 2006. It became very popular among conservative politicians in Australia, and was responded to by Labor in electing a leader in Mark Latham who was a self-described “suburban warrior”, and who will be the only Australian political leader to ever identify Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell as his all time favourite musical work.

It championed the folk wisdom of suburban Australia, a world of tradies, ute-men and hairdressers, over the “out of touch elites” of the inner city, the “latte set” who thought that republicanism, refugees and Australia’s cultural standing in the world were more important than Bunnings, Officeworks and plasma TVs from Harvey Norman. The Liberal former member for Lindsay, Jackie Kelly, captured suburban realism in her infamous statement that the people of her electorate in Western Sydney were not much interested in what happened at the university located in the region, as her electorate was “pram city”, where people were too busy having babies to worry much about higher education. If the stereotype of suburban Australia as brain dead bogans is not accurate, as the work in this project and elsewhere is finding, there is little point in inverting the stereotype and presenting a hitherto perceived lack as some form of vernacular cultural advantage.

The other potential pitfall is what can be termed suburban romanticism. The trope of ‘romancing the suburbs’ arguably goes back to colonial times in Australia and elsewhere, but it can acquire a new tenacity in the age of creative industries. Chris Gibson, Chris Brennan-Horley, Susan Luckman and Julie Willoughby-Smith found elements of this in their study of creative workforce in Darwin, where the ‘serenity’ of parts of the city could equate with having ‘spaces to think’ that were not possible in more concentrated urban zones.7 It is useful to challenge what is often the relentless urbanism of creative industries and creative cities discourse, not least because it frequently conflates attributes of place with consequences of positioning in global circuits of capital and culture, so that the “global city” status of places such as New York, Los Angeles and London is presented as a result of their people and communities rather than their place in the global economy.

But simply romanticizing the suburbs, no less than demonizing them, has the effect of constructing as homogeneous entities places that are highly diverse. This is one reason why the Creative Suburbia project has chosen a qualitative research methodology, as it allows for responses from those actively engaged in developing networks as creative workers in different Australian suburbs to present experiences, and to codify these in ways that don’t force the outcomes back into pre-existing categories. How to better balance positive and negative perceptions of Australian suburbia, and to challenge one-dimensional stereotypes without presenting a patchwork of ineffable and irreducible difference – these are challenges facing those engaged with researching the cultural economic geography of creative workers in Australian suburbs today.

1 Ash Amin and Joanne Roberts, ‘The Resurgence of Community in Economic Thought and Practice’, in A. Amin and J. Roberts (eds.), Community, Economic Creativity and Organization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
2 Lewis Mumford, The City in History, quoted in Mark Clapson, Suburban Century: Social Change and Urban Growth in England and the United States, Oxford: Berg, 2003, p. 5.
3 Sue Turnbull, “Mapping the Vast Suburban Tundra: From Dame Edna to Kath and Kim”, International Journal of Cultural Studies 11(1), 2008, pp. 15-32.
4 Governor Arthur Philip, Letter to Lord Sydney 1788, quoted in Graeme Davison, ‘The Past and Future of the Australian Suburb’, in L. C. Johnson (ed.), Suburban Dreaming: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Australian Cities, Geelong: Deakin University Press, 1985, p. 100.
5 Davison, ‘The Past and Future of the Australian Suburb’, p. 102.
7 Chris Brennan-Horley, Susan Luckman, Chris Gibson and Julie Willoughby-Smith, ‘GIS, Ethnography and Cultural Research: Putting Maps Back Into Ethnographic Mapping', The Information Society 26(2), 2010 (forthcoming).

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