Creative placemaking and the arts of urban intervention

Creative Placemaking Book Chapter

This is a book chapter by Dr. Sarah Barns, which features in the collection Creative Placemaking: Research, Theory and Practice, edited by Cara Courage and Anita McKeown (Routledge, 2019).

The chapter reflects on the nature of creative placemaking in Australia today, in the context of a 2019 temporary public artwork led by Esem Projects, Arrivals and Departures, based in Barangaroo, Sydney.


The rise of placemaking as a vital area of practice and investment among property developers, architects, landscape and urban designers and local government has made available many opportunities for creative practitioners to work in the public domain in ways that build and enhance urban vitality and social connectivity at the local level. Frequently their work will be empowered through placemaking strategies and frameworks established through institutional partnerships between public and private agencies seeking to improve the quality of the public domain. These strategies create programming or commissioning opportunities for artists and other creative practitioners to work with communities to locate and playfully interpret or rework the narratives and affective relations that connect people to place. Exhibited or presented in the public domain as part of wider urban revitalisation efforts, these works take the form of permanent or temporary installations, collaborative community events, or one-off commissioned artworks.

In these contexts, artists and other creative practitioners will likely find themselves negotiating a range of community, developer, government and other funding interests, not all of them well-aligned. A welcome commission may well result in a set of difficult negotiations between contested notions of place, community expectations, artistic integrity, and curatorial programming. Informed by a celebratory ethos that champions the connections between people and place, placemaking programs may provide the space and resources for creative practitioners to work collaboratively with communities, yet the requirement to 'improve', 'celebrate' or 'enhance' urban vitality may not always accord with the either artistic or creative intent of a project, or indeed the interests of a local community.

The tensions and opportunities that arise when creating artistic work within an emotionally-charged, contested space, and doing so as part of a wider creative placemaking program, is the focus of this chapter. The discussion, which springs from a body of work created over several years within the Sydney waterfront precincts of Millers Point and Barangaroo, reflects on the place of creative practice in negotiating different frameworks of investment, attachment and value associated in support of one of Sydney's major urban renewal projects. This account seeks to hold in the balance both the personal experience of delivering a creative placemaking project that sought to negotiate multiple institutional agendas and emotional entanglements, and the wider strategic positioning of creative placemaking in Sydney in supporting the business of urban transformation and revitalisation.

1. Place matters

There are many particularities about the Sydney context that shape this contribution and are worth highlighting. Its specific history, the nature of its developer-driven economy, and the wider institutional drivers of placemaking are introduced here as the setting for a more detailed discussion about negotiations between place, community, interpretation and practice.

Now a city of some five million people, Sydney has grown up modern, first built into a harbour named Port Jackson in the late eighteenth century by enterprising colonialists from the British Empire. Immediately displacing the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, who had lived in and around the coves and bays of this harbour for tens of thousands of years, the colonialists systematically took over the important hunting, fishing and camping grounds of the Eora people and began the work of building a proud colony of the Empire. From these beginnings Sydney emerged as an important trading hub of the South Pacific. Its merchants and emancipists cleared the nearby forests, built up new export industries of wool, wheat, and red cedar, and traded exotic sandalwood from Fiji to China. Those enriched by their enterprise built large estates well removed from the noise and grime of the working harbour, while the working poor were crammed into congested streets that had grown up around the busy docks. Immigrants arriving from Ireland, England and Wales on assisted migration schemes would start their new lives in these harbourside precincts. The men worked as stevedores loading and unloading goods from the ships, and needed to live close to the waterfront to get to work in time to get a job for the day. When plague broke out in 1900, the slums that had emerged around the docks were cleared, new wharves built and new housing established for the waterside workers and their families.

The city would continue to modernise over the following decades through a series of successive building booms. Money for architecture first flooded in with the 1850s gold rush, which saw a collection of stately Georgian buildings built from the local standstone rise up. Decadent hotels emerged in the 1890s to service the needs of affluent international tourists arriving on modern passenger liners. The city demolished much of its existing heritage fabric in the 1960s with a speculative property boom that recast the city in concrete and glass. Sydney came to be known colloquially as ‘Sin City’, a city of corruption and excess, where government leaders and speculative property developers were hard to tell apart. Residents watched aghast as their city was razed to make way for new high rise buildings. Though many protested, it was unionised builders’ labourers who ultimately led a wave of successful protests to halt the demolition of a number of inner city precincts on the basis of their cultural and heritage value.

The continued reliance by the state’s economy on real estate speculation, the enduring, sparkling beauty of the city’s harbour, and its proximity to Asian investors means there is a constant pressure (and clear incentives) to remodel and revitalise. Waterside precincts redeveloped in the 1980s are now being redesigned and rebuilt, with the areas of Darling Harbour, Barangaroo, The Bays, and Circular Quay all currently undergoing major reconstruction as part of yet another wave of urban revitalisation.

Creative placemaking for urban revitalisation

While there are many consistencies here with the ethos and expectations of placemaking practice particularly across the developed world, among nations such as the United States, UK, Canada and Australia, the institutional structures of support are distinct, and this in turn can shape different cultures of practice. In the United States, for example, much creative placemaking practice has been supported through the expansion of arts funding and cultural policy programs (Nicodemus, 2013; Markusen and Gadwa, 2010). Growing support for creative placemaking from organisations such as National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) reflects conditions of austerity, structural change and associated residential uprooting (Markusen and Gadwa, 2010: 3). Where the NEA and other private philanthropy organisations primarily support non-profit arts organisations, creative placemaking funding from these sources has been described as reinforcing the existing divides between commercial, community, non-profit and public arts sectors (Nicodemus, 2013: 214).

Australia has experienced relatively stable economic conditions over the past decade, having been relatively unscathed by the 2008 financial crash. Particularly in places like the inner city precincts of Sydney, creative placemaking practice has emerged in relatively affluent areas experiencing considering increases in property investment and financing. Major local government organisations such as the City of Sydney and the City of Melbourne invest significantly in creative placemaking practice through a mix of public art programs, local events and festivals. In Sydney, the revitalisation of the inner harbour and installation of a major new inner city light rail network has created opportunities for local and international artists and practitioners to showcase work through permanent and temporary installations spanning the Art and About annual festival, a dedicated public art funding program, and site-specific project commissions. Support from New South Wales agencies such as Destination NSW for major events such as Vivid Sydney, attracting over two million visitors each year, has created a platform for a range of media artists and designers to exhibit and showcase works using the built environment of Circular Quay as their canvas.

These public investment programs, combined with the placemaking investments of private developers, mean creative placemaking encompasses a diverse range of practitioners spanning commercial designers, advertising agencies, landscape, lighting and interaction designers and more traditional public artists and sculptors. In this context, the funding landscape for creative placemaking extends well beyond the domain of traditional cultural policy and arts funding. And yet, where many of these programs will tend to award commissions primarily on the quality of creative response to the public domain (as well as background and experience), there is relatively limited funding available for extensive and long term community engagement.

The Australia Council for the Arts, the national arts funding body, has a well-established program of support for community cultural development, however these programs tend to be more focused in regional areas of the country and working with disadvantaged communities. As a consequence, commissions for creative placemaking projects tend to shy away from supporting highly politicised, grassroots community campaigns and are instead more closely aligned with the objectives of developers, retailers, councils and tourism bodies in seeking to attract people into the city and to new urban precincts. While participation by audiences is encouraged, this tends to be confined to the presentation stage of an artwork and not its origination or development.

These settings provide important context for the creative placemaking work I describe in this chapter. In particular, working in Sydney generates a heightened set of challenges around negotiating different community and developer-led interests, and operated within a marketplace for creative placemaking practice that tends to reward heady spectacle over deep and long term engagement. Surely, if creative placemaking could be accused of 'place-faking' (Cohen 2007, quoted in Courage 2017), it would be here in Sydney.

The context of Sydney's historical origins and transformations is important too. Working in a place that is ‘born modern’ as a place of convict exile, and a place of indigenous dispossession, means tensions over the meaning of place, memory and heritage continually simmer, often unresolved. Just as Sydney's establishment as a colonial city disrupted the ties of the Eora people to their place, so too its own historical development has, to a large extent, been displaced by a constant thirst for progress. In Sydney, many of the landmarks that one might expect to be preserved in recognition of their built or cultural heritage value have been lost. Indeed, it was this sense of loss and erasure that prompted the expatriate Australian art critic Robert Hughes to deliver a National Trust Heritage Lecture in 1998 titled ‘A History Forgotten’ (Hughes, 1998). Returning to his native Sydney, Hughes lamented the city’s demonstrably poor record of valuing its built heritage, and saw this as evidence of a deeper cultural amnesia that expressed something fundamental about Australia’s origins:

In order to support the idea of Australia as utopia, there had to be one curse among the blessings: the curse of amnesia. Quite early in our history we became good at forgetting in the interests of what we interpreted as progress (1998).

In their writing of Australia’s modern origins as a colony, historians are confined to working with the accounts of just a handful of informants who kept diaries of their experiences of Sydney in the first years of the settlement. As historian Inga Clendinnen has written: “The sacred world of the Australians in 1788 – the world of mind and spirit, none of it written but stored in landscape, artefact, dance and story – is closed to us outsiders” (2003: 5). This sense not only of Sydney, but of Australia’s ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ past pervades much contemporary writing about Australian places, places where, as the poet Judith Wright (1955) has written in Bora Ring, “the song is gone; the dance is secret with the dancers in the earth”.

2. Creative placemaking as interpretive practice

In my creative placemaking practice, I deliberately work with different narrative threads of memory and erasure, development and obliteration, personal displacement and attachment, as informed by the specificities of the history and place I'm working in. This practice uses the malleability and impermanence of distributed spatial media platforms - digital projection, soundscape, moving image and site-specific artefacts - to create emotional, multi-sensory and affective experiences of memory within spaces of loss and erasure. I use the resources of memory, as represented through mediums like oral history, sound archives, film and photography archives, in a deliberate way, as a means of disrupting the narrative of linear time and progress. This practice tends to rub against the grain of more professional historical interpretations of place and history, which offers a more dispassionate account of history and often focuses interpretation on the limited remaining forms of material heritage etched into our contemporary cityscape. Working with the terrain created by available media archaeologies of a place traverses what Guiliana Bruno (2002: 8) has called an "intimate geography" of spaces, recognising that "in our own time, in which memories are (moving) images, the cultural function of recollection has been absorbed by motion pictures".

This work is delivered with multi-disciplinary teams established through media arts group Esem Projects. Site-specific recordings and narratives of place are reinterpreted and remixed to facilitate different engagements and interactions between built and recorded spaces, through what I like to think of as the recorded archaeologies of place and memory. The design process involves close collaboration with visual designers, animators, editors, sound artists and technical producers. The work we produce is intended specifically for the public domain, rather than traditional exhibition or museum contexts, and can take the form of permanent or temporary installations, commissioned as part of events, festivals, curatorial programs, placemaking strategies and interpretation initiatives.

Working in a city such as Sydney, this practice seeks to create a more dialogical relationship with the dissonant chords of space and place. The possibilities of everyday encounter in the public domain are critical. Projection design, site-specific installation and editing tools are used to deliberately displace static modes of spatial representation, and to make possible a more porous, permeable sense of time and our own agency within it (Barns, 2013: 195) . Informed by a desire to make experiential the ideas of cultural geographers like Doreen Massey, this work seeks to create a sense of space that is not denuded of its past but, in Massey's words, has “time/times within it. This is not the static simultaneity of a closed system but a simultaneity of movements" (Massey, 2003: 108). The city's personal and institutional archives are given space through the medium of digital projection and illumination – now pervasive urban technologies that tend to be used to symbolically assert the potent vibrancy of a space. Positioning these platforms as occupying multiple times and spaces is designed to enact, in practice, more relational fields of action and embodiment (Liggett, 1995; Cresswell, 2002).

Initially developed as an archival research practice, my steps towards exhibiting and presenting works in public domain were supported by the City of Sydney's annual Art and About program, an annual public art and placemaking festival. Working in collaboration with designer Michael Killalea under the practice name Esem Projects, our first project comprised a series of street scale projections and soundscapes around Millers Point and Walsh Bay. The projections featured a series of 'unguarded moments' with people from the area's past engaging directly with the camera. We wanted to create direct lines of sight between past and present residents and workers in the city, and we wanted to expand the possibilities of experiential encounter with a more intimate sense of the city's past. Originally intended as a highly research- and editorially-driven project, the project commission was provided to us on the basis that we work collaboratively with the residents of a precinct called Millers Point in the development of the project. For the creative director of the Art and About program, it was crucial that the public art supported by the program didn't just present creative work in the public domain, but also involve the participation of local residents and communities. We were supported through a city-sponsored media campaign to establish a number of community workshops inviting anyone who had previously lived or worked in the area to come forward and share any photos of recordings they had of the area, or of themselves. We were eventually inundated with queues of people happy to participate and share their family photo albums.

In this way we found ourselves among a tight-knit group of residents many of whom could trace their connection to the area back five generations. Many grew up in homes dedicated to the families waterfront workers, working on the docks of Millers Point and East Darling Harbour. Managed by the Maritime Services Board (MSB) for many decades, the houses around Millers Point were later transferred to the Department of Housing as public housing. With the closure of the nearby container port in the 1998, and revitalisation of Walsh Bay as a newly gentrified residential and cultural destination, pressure was mounting from the State Government to sell off the valuable historic properties it had retained through the legacy public housing scheme. Our installation project, titled Unguarded Moments (2011), was based at multiple sites around Walsh Bay and Millers Point, and provided the space for local residents to situate their own personal archives and long standing connections to the area within the rapidly gentrifying public domain.

This initial 2011 commission through the Art and About Program was instrumental in a number of ways. It expanded what was previously a research-oriented creative practice to include a much deeper engagement not only with the possibilities for interactive media design in the public domain, but also of working directly with community members to create an expanded and indeed more personal sense of a 'public archive' than that experienced through more conventional institutional collections. We found the experience rewarding and enriching. As a result, over subsequent years Esem Projects have continued to work directly with communities in the creation and presentation of our work. We enjoy working with the sense of the intimate and the personal, often in depersonalising public spaces, as it refracts and gives intensity to different encounters with the past, whether through personal narrative or large scale filmic portraits (Esem Projects, n.d.). The Art and About program also proved crucial in situating the creative practice within a city marketplace awash with urban revitalisation projects, resulting in an upswing in funding for placemaking events and installations. In this way, what began as critical spatial practice - an attempt to disrupt or question the steady march of urban progress and the displacement of the past - became, in a sense, a normalised element of its enactment. We discovered that the combined elements of digital projection, community engagement, and site specific storytelling had produced a readymade placemaking package: Share your memory, be a part of the change.

In 2015 Esem Projects were invited to produce a major installation to mark the opening of Barangaroo Reserve. Building on our 2011 work in Millers Point, we were invited to deliver a public art project as part of a three-month program of 'Welcome Celebrations' focused on the significant maritime history of the area. The complex social, industrial and environmental history of this precinct provided an incredibly rich set of resources to work with. A cavernous cultural space within which to situate the work provided the opportunity to work at larger scales than we'd known previously. And yet, the tensions inherent in the creation of the project brought to the fore the complexity of working in place, and addressing the multiple meanings and values ascribed to it by different interests. As I will be discussing, these tensions lie at the heart of creative placemaking, which tends to orient itself towards a celebratory ethos of place and its possibilities in the public domain that can, at times, displace alternate meanings.

  1. Welcome to Barangaroo

The Welcome Celebrations at Barangaroo Reserve are representative of many creative placemaking programs supported in Sydney. Running over a period of three months between August and October 2015, they included a series of performances, installations, curated food events, and public talks to mark the opening of a new harbourside reserve. The Reserve, established at what was once a container terminal in the former East Darling Harbour, was created as part of a controversial six billion dollar redevelopment of the waterfront precinct. The largest urban renewal project in Sydney since the 2000 Olympics, the project covers some 22 hectares (220,000m2) of former industrial land along the harbour and adjacent to the CBD, and includes a new financial district comprising three commercial office towers designed by Richard Rogers, a 275m tall, $1.5b casino, high end residential apartments, as well as shopping, dining, hotel, hospitality, a public promenade and the public headland reserve.

The many controversies provoked by the redevelopment are familiar to many Sydney-siders. The winning urban design for the development, selected in 2005 through an international urban design competition, was ultimately set aside by planning authorities through a series of modifications to the masterplan, which included a doubling of the allowable density (gross floor area) and significant increases in proposed height of buildings. Influential former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who sat on the design review panel for the development, negotiated the inclusion of a naturalistic headland (the Reserve), intended to remove references to the precinct's maritime history, returning the foreshore to its precolonial condition. These modifications raised the ire of the architectural profession, aghast at the process whereby a competition-winning masterplan had been scuttled through a series of unaccountable interventions. Not only the poor adherence to transparent decision making, many also believed there was a complete lack of sensitivity to the site's significant industrial heritage (Weller, 2010; Reinmuth, 2012; Drew, 2015)

The governance of the development has likewise attracted criticism. The project was listed as a 'State Significant Site' and subsequently exempt from many conventional planning processes. The creation of a new state government-owned agency, the Barangaroo Delivery Authority, provided a governance mechanism to reduce the influence of the City of Sydney in the planning and development process. The placename has also provoked criticism: Barangaroo, the partner of Australia's first Aboriginal 'ambassador' Bennelong, opposed the theft of native land and belonged to the Gamaragal people of Manly. She was not of the Eora people who occupied the area when colonialists first arrived, and whose own placenames were first documented by English linguist marine Lieutenant William Dawes. The Aboriginal land council has refused to endorse the name.

The continuing and fractious public debates sparked at many stages of the development of Barangaroo have returned the city to familiar battles over the fate of its heritage and lack of trust in its city authorities, whose capacity to rule in favour of developer-led interests continues to shock and dismay. The contributions to the development made by noteworthy international architects, no less than Lord Richard Rogers, have heightened cynicism towards the values of urban elites. Rogers own words seem to underscore this cynicism (in Drew, 2015: para 15):

The city has been viewed as an arena for consumerism. Political and commercial expediency has shifted the emphasis of urban development from meeting the broad social needs of the community to meeting the circumscribed needs of individuals. The pursuit of this narrow objective has sapped the city of its vitality.

To Reinmuth (2012: para 24), the experience of Barangaroo makes plain that just as city leaders continue to persist in prioritising "the business of consuming the city rather than making the city (with the involvement of its citizens) we will only continue to distrust our leaders and the places they impose on it". Phillip Drew writes that "[l]ike a giant finger given to Sydney, everything about it is selfish and narcissistic: its excessive height, public exclusion, and monopolisation of harbour views for a wealthy few" (Drew, 2015: para 8).

And yet, despite the very public controversies sparked during the development of Barangaroo, there is also much to praise as the project nears completion. Australian environmentalist and writer Tim Flannery, writing for the New York Review of Books (2017), has celebrated the opening of the Barangaroo Reserve as an "act of restitution". Flannery compares the opening of Sydney's Barangaroo Reserve in August 2015, what he calls "an expansive, charming public space at the heart of a great commercial city" with New York’s High Line and London’s East End Olympic redevelopment, each landmark public parks that "help define a major metropolis’s sense of place" (para 1).

Beyond the Reserve itself, the Barangaroo redevelopment been a champion of the C40 Climate Positive Development Program, selected as one of 19 places worldwide to demonstrate how large scale urban communities can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and serve as models for sustainable and climate-sensitive growth (BDA, n.d.). For Flannery, trained as an environmental scientist, the qualities of biodiversity and ecology now embraced at the site pay respect the area's precolonial environmental history. Barangaroo has provided the opportunity to restore the late eighteenth century shoreline of the habour, which was alterered - or what Keating believe was 'vandalism' (Legge, 2015) - during the industrialisation of the harbour. The removal of its containerised port infrastructure and replacement by a public parkland that sensitively incorporates many of the plant species native to the area has also opened to the public a view of the harbour lost for a century. Referring to the parkland's extensive use of natural sandstone, Flannery praises the development for "restoring standstone to the prominence it deserves" (2015: para 5). The development, he argues, "marks a turning point in the relation of Sydney's people with its past" (para 14).

Nevertheless those who have opposed the development, and specifically the public parkland, have questioned the recreation of a long-lost headland as kitsch, an "explicitly phoney naturalism" that has sent Australian landscape architecture "reeling back to the eighteenth century" (Weller, 2010: para 8). Critics of the natural headland believe the industrial harbour has significance to Australia's historical development as a nation and aspects of its character should have been preserved. It is from the docks and wharves that once dotted this area of the harbour that Australia's exports were first shipped; it was also the embarkation point for the millions of migrants who first arrived in Australia; it was the disembarkation point for many soldiers departing during the wars of the early twentieth century; and it was a place where one of the world's great maritime unions learned fight for its workers' rights.

Just as Barangaroo has removed the traces of its industrial heritage, so too the residential community of Millers Point is being emptied of its public housing, and those remaining residents who can trace their family history in the area back to the days of the Maritime Service Board (MSB) are being forcibly relocated to other public housing estates. The City of Sydney's long serving mayor, Clover Moore, has described the process as 'social cleansing' (Hasham and McKenny, 2014). Many years of campaigning by residents, resident action groups and community supporters have failed to deter the State Government from selling 293 public housing dwellings and evicting their residents, some of whom are over 70 years of age and have lived in their properties their whole lives. For many who support the residents of Millers Point, Barangaroo has helped to reinforce the spatial divides of the city that separate rich from poor. The removal of the industrial heritage of the precinct is seen to justify the removal of its working class residents as well. If Barangaroo helps us to connect with representations of its ecological history, it does so at the expense of the area's post-colonial social history.

There are, then, many different and competing accounts of Barangaroo, raising many provocations about nature of its contributions to the life of Sydney. For some, Barangaroo exemplifies why Sydneysiders have so little trust in their government and its persistently pro-development stance that continues to dislocate the lives of so many. For others, the place points to a new development model capable of reducing the carbon intensity of cities and raising new benchmarks for environmental performance. And for many, it is a beautiful new parkland, a place to exercise, a new vista on a glistening harbour.

4. Placemaking at Barangaroo?

The contested narratives of place at Barangaroo throw into sharp relief some of the tensions that beset the practice of creative placemakers who work within wider placemaking frameworks operating as part of urban regeneration projects. As both practice and philosophy, placemaking embeds within it a set of assumptions about the relationships between people and place. As American placemaking agency states: "Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community" (PPS n.d. para 1). Recognising the many diverse affective, emotional, social and material contexts and relations that contribute to the making of good places loved by many, placemaking attaches itself to the doing and the making, the evolving activities that, day by day, encourage people experience their own sense of contribution to the making of a good place worth belonging to. As Courage (2017) outlines, "placemaking holds an assumption of a strong, mutually constitutive and positive affect between the built environment and behaviour".

Placemaking embraces the need to look beyond the formal principles of urban design, governance and planning to address the everyday conditions and uses that go into making a good quality public space. Drawing on the ideas of American urbanists Jane Jacobs (1965) and William H. Whyte (1980) American placemaking agency Project for Public Spaces (PPS) have, since 1975, advocated the need for investments in places that reflect the importance of "cities for people, not cars or shopping centres, and the social and cultural importance of lively neighbours and vibrant spaces" (PPS n.d. para 5). Just as an urbanist like Jane Jacobs railed against the lack of transparency and misuse of power exercised by city leaders like Robert Moses in the redevelopment of central Manhattan, defending the qualities of dense, inner city neighbourhoods where diverse social interactions could take place, so today's placemakers advocate the need for lively places as expressions of more fundamental qualities of community and cohesion.

This work of creating or reinventing a public space as 'the heart of a community' is, in part, the work of undoing decades of planning policy and investment, particularly in places like the United States but also Australia, where planning policies have privileged the requirements of private automobile use and private home ownership in the design and management of cities (Newman and Kenworthy, 1999; Boyer, 1987). As a consequence, the attachment to lively and loved public spaces has stood in for a wider set of values about the 'place of place' in fostering community cohesion. As urbanists, placemakers assert the physical and social dynamics of public space as being central to the formation of publics and public culture (Amin, 2006). So, the 'spaces in between' matter, as do the contexts and experiences that encourage their development and use. And though many of the activities supported through the lens of placemaking - including events and festival management, arts programming and curation, and community engagement activities - may not themselves be particularly new, what is more novel is the proliferation of institutional structures and public-private partnerships that now actively facilitate and invest in their contribution to the quality and liveliness of the public domain.

Situated within the wider ethos and practices of placemaking, the work of creative placemakers is designed to support and facilitate a range of affective and emotive responses to place. In doing so, creative placemakers affirm the expression of place as "a powerful expression of culture". As Place Leaders Asia Pacific has suggested: "Engendering a sense of ‘place’ and making of great public places takes an alchemy of elements — activity, material, structure, purpose and inspiration. Great places are memorable and stimulate emotional responses in people" (Place Leaders, 2017). However, what many of these celebratory accounts of place and its emotional entanglements often fail to accommodate are the many ways in the relationship between place, affect, memory and public culture can often be highly fractured and dischordant.

At a site like Barangaroo, now lively with office workers on lunch breaks, a 'charming public space' that is also an accessible nature playground and C40 climate champion, home to regular arts events and installations, urban regeneration has also meant eviction and displacement for many vulnerable long term residents. The act of restitution, of removing the 'vandalism' of industrialism, has at the same time denied the capacity for waterfront workers to tell their story of trade unionism at the place from which it first emerged. If history is told by the victors, the celebratory narratives of place and our emotional investment in it are easily refashioned to suit the marketisation and privatisation of public space. Such tensions are evident across numerous placemaking forums and contexts, where the risks associated with 'pseudo-participation', and the naive romanticism of place have led to calls for deeper engagement with the social practices of placemaking against neoliberal agendas attached to city culturalisation (Courage, 2017: 57; Zukin, 2013).

5. Arrivals and Departures

The desire to offer a more contingent and multi-layered expression of place informed the methodologies used to deliver the public art installation at Barangaroo as part of its 2015 Welcome Celebrations in 2015. Our installation, titled Arrivals and Departures, was commissioned to celebrate the maritime history of the area as a working port. In our response we looked for ways that visitors might be offered evocative and personal experiences of past moments and recollections. In this approach we drew from the classic arts of memory (Yates, 1966), which originally established a series of mnemonic techniques to support the arts of rhetoric. One of these techniques involved recreating the rooms of a house, in which representational images would be placed as a trigger to provoke recollections. Instead of a linear historical narrative of changes through time, this memory technique is used by historians to generate more narrative, mobile and embodied experience of a site’s history.

We took this approach literally, but rather than the rooms of a house, we created contained spaces using commercial shipping containers. These functioned as ‘storyboxes’ in which visitors could experience discrete moments and chapters of the area’s history. The use of shipping containers obviously referenced the introduction of containerisation at East Darling Harbour from the 1960s. The storybox containers also helped to capture the very different forms of the area through time, helping to communicate the radical changes that have taken place over time as discrete chapters in an unfolding story. Within each storybox we told different narratives of the site's industrial development, told from the perspectives of workers, children, recently arrived immigrants, soldiers departing for war, and merchants. The storybox containers offered a range of video, sound, poetry and tactile media artworks, allowing visitors to both learn about the history but also emotionally connect with the lives of diverse storytellers. Against the intimate interior scale of the containers, we also presented large-scale video works to create a sense of dramatic scale appropriate to the volume of the space.

We worked with a number of participant storytellers in the creation of the artwork. We engaged these participants by reconnecting with previous contributors to the Unguarded Moments projects, and also through personal networks were able to reach a number of people who had first hand accounts of immigrating to Australia and arriving in Sydney at this site. Dalgetys Wharf. We also collaborated with local residents and the Millers Point Resident Action Group, filming stories of childhood and of growing up in the area. The project included collaborations with the National Film and Sound Archive, major institutional collections and the Maritime Union of Australia, along with two community workshops designed to engage broader private collections of photographic resources.

The project was installed for one month during the Welcome Celebrations and attended by some 80,000 visitors to Barangaroo. As part of the installation we introduced vintage typewriters to allow visitors to share their own stories, and we found many people leave accounts of immigrating to Australia. We ran tours of the project each weekend, and found many people asking whether the installations might be made permanent, but we knew they couldn't be. We knew the maritime history of this site didn't belong here anymore.

Arrivals and Departures was a temporary response to the historical contingencies of place. It contributed to the urban revitalisation efforts of the Barangaroo Delivery Authority, and caused little controversy. It didn't change the structures or processes of development and urban revitalisation at Barangaroo, and it didn't prevent the eviction of the areas longtime residents. The project's title and its emotional register was as much about the story of migration, the working conditions of the poor and the loneliness of the sea it was about the displacement enacted by the arrival of Barangaroo. Many mourn the loss of Sydney's industrial heritage here, not because it was good for the environment or for its biodiversity, but because it tells the story of Australia's complicated origins as a nation. We need this history to connect to our own messy sense of place. But we must continue to get used to forgetting.


This chapter has offered a set of personal reflections on the practice of creative placemaking, and the different tensions and contingencies of place that emerge through the commissioning structures and agendas of contemporary placemaking. Focused at the site of Barangaroo, and telling the story of its history and place within the wider context of Sydney, along with my own creative response to this history, I have wanted to capture not only the complexities of working with a contested site, but also the range of displacements experienced through the act of urban revitalisation. Creative placemaking holds within it many tensions to do with its role and function in support of the wider privatisation and marketisation of public space, but it also offers a platform for engaging with a wide range of affective and emotional registers not always present in either more linear accounts of urban history or the celebratory accounts of much contemporary placemaking. Nevertheless, we surely have much yet to learn and to do to ensure the work of creative placemaking can continue to evolve and be supported in ways that recognise the values not only of lively public domains, but also spatial justice.


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