Marcus Westbury Creating Cities, Niche Press, 2015

Everyone’s a wannabe urbanist it seems. And if we accept Marcus Westbury’s recent manifesto, that’s the way it should be. Initially published through crowd funding, Creating Cities ranges broadly and deeply around the story of the renewal of Westbury’s hometown Newcastle, a narrative in which the author plays a central role, and wears his erudition lightly.

Urban planning texts can be dry and pompous, earnest and utopian, prescriptive and formulaic, or overly ambitious in scope. But this little tome is a real page-turner, chock-a-block full of observations, revelations, practical tips, inspirational insights, creative energy, ground-tested tools and provocative turns of phrase.  The story of Newcastle becomes the story of cities all over the world that are struggling with inflexible industrial-era economic and bureaucratic frameworks, no longer relevant in the digital age.

Creative Cities argues that such towns and cities are wasting their most obvious asset – the talent, imagination, enthusiasm, initiative, and passion of the people who live in them: “The lessons from Renew Newcastle are not about how to transform your community into a global centre of creative industries. They are about what to do when you can’t.”

According to Westbury, answers are not necessarily found in “the big fix”. Grand investment schemes and hard infrastructure projects can be at best an expensive distraction and at worst a vehicle for political corruption. Nor can culture be planned or constructed: “A city can’t build a culture any more than it can build an idea, a thought process or a polar bear.” Cultural innovation and dynamism can however be nurtured: “Cities can seed and feed culture. They can give it somewhere to live, to move, to breathe, to grow. And when it fails … they can provide fertile ground to go to seed in.”

What is required is the conscious decision (underpinned by government and private sector commitment and collaboration), to make small-scale initiatives, and the solving of small problems easy. Westbury’s documentation of the “Renew Newcastle” experiment tempts us all with its tried and tested strategy for the small.