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Re-cap on 'R + R: A Tale of two cities', words @bldg 50, July 2009

The urban renewal and revitalisation processes currently playing out in Footscray and Dandenong were the focus of last week's words @ bldg 50 talk. Anthropologist Dr Maree Pardy presented early findings from a pilot research project begun this year, documenting the opinions and values of the users of the suburbs undergoing R + R.

Maree has taken a grassroots approach to her investigation to date. Public consultation has happened on the street and in the public spaces that in some cases have become contested spaces: the ground targeted for renewal. Maree related her exploration of Footscray and Dandenong in tandem, noting the similar historical background that has shaped these suburbs (a history of early development around industry, the settlement of large numbers of immigrants) which has led to other established shared traits today. It's a connection that may not be around for much longer: as Maree points out, Footscray is at a critical point in its development. An inner-city suburb that has until now somehow resisted the creeping affluence that has come to characterise surrounding suburbs like Seddon and Yarraville, the current push for urban renewal likewise looks to spell imminent gentrification.

While community consultation has formed part of the urban renewal framework, and a stated objective is to maintain the 'culturally diverse' and 'artsy' feel as a branding tool that characterises Footscray, it is perplexing to see that the newly-designed public spaces now emerging seemingly reflect less of the existing community's diverse values and aspirations and more the white middle-class locals that local government and developers hope to attract. Maree noted that Dandenong, on the other hand, is free of these inner-urban development pressures and shows signs that its urban renewal program may achieve outcomes that respond to and resonate with the values and needs of the existing residents.

In the end, the audience was left with more questions than answers, and they're certainly big questions. What does the future really hold for these suburbs, for the migrant groups that make them unique, for the very meaning of that multiculturalism? Can a renewal process allow for difference and conflict, rather than striving for the erasure of these undesirable elements of otherness? As Footscray stands at the brink of a critical shift, they're questions that need to be asked.

Maree's passion for the project really came through and it was a refreshing approach and perspective that she presented. The project is still only at a flegling stage and we wish the team well with their planned extended research, for which funding is being sought, and look forward to touching base again further down the track. The gentrification of the suburbs has generated much interest and discussion since this event and will doubtless be a theme we'll explore in future talks.

See you in August! We'll be joined then by Cuban-born architect and professor from the Rhode Island School of Design, Silvia Acosta.


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