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Waste not, want not: Urban Dream Brokerage fills in the city's blanks, uses creativity to enhance sense of community

A council-funded initiative to bring back vacant spaces for public use is aiming to empower the communities it touches. 

Urban Dream Brokerage was established in Wellington in late 2012 by Letting Space – a public art and urban revitalisation organisation. Funded by Wellington City Council, Wellington Community Trust and Dunedin City Council, since its launch the initiative has instigated 55 innovative start-up projects in Wellington, Porirua and Dunedin.

The initiative was born out of the rising numbers of vacant spaces popping up in cities, and while 2016 saw strong economic recovery across New Zealand, plenty of vacant spaces remain. There have been 48 projects in Wellington alone, ranging from a ‘Moodbank’ – a place for Wellingtonians in a disused bank to register their moods – to a community-made giant iceberg, a koha café, an illuminated bike workshop and a ‘political hair salon’.

Urban Dream Brokerage manager Mark Amery says people need to make sure their town and city centres represent local culture and diversity, and one way of achieving this is giving empty spaces to the people to use.

Cities are no longer just a places for shopping and business. In the last 50 years, New Zealand cities have become local communities too, with the rise of inner-city apartment living. “Cities have fundamentally changed and the public increasingly need these environments to provide a lot of other things. Community building is an issue in cities, and you’ve got to provide spaces for those people [living in cities] to mix, meet and exchange. Our projects are really vital in that sense.”

These creative projects are having positive impacts on the cities, Amery says. 

Creative innovations in vacant buildings are assisting with new tenancies, as it proves to the public that the vacant space is viable, he says. “Most of the projects have been in places that have gone on to be re-tenanted which is win-win, for us and the landlords.”

For a city like Wellington, with its creative capital moniker, providing a space for creative thinking is crucial to upholding the city’s reputation, he says.

For the people coming up with creative projects, it can be a significant step towards them mastering and developing their art. Occupiers have a responsibility during a project, to share something people enjoy and respond to, which Amery says is an important learning curve for people looking to fine-tune their craft.

Since its conception, Urban Dream Brokerage has had largely positive reactions to its projects, despite dealing with challenges like installations in residential areas and noise control. The initiative’s Wellington Lux Light Festival show, Glade, was on Clyde Quay Wharf – a residential area on Wellington’s waterfront. “The community is really welcoming about having these strange events as part of their apartment blocks, even thought they had thousands of people coming to see them,” Amery says.

One of Dunedin’s latest projects saw about 3500 people in two weeks going to a Retro Games Museum in George St. The project was created from a man’s extensive video game collection – one that fills two houses. “There are things like that that really strike a chord with people.”

A city like Dunedin didn’t experience the same level of boom-and-bust recession as New Zealand’s larger cities, but the area around The Octagon still hosts a substantial number of vacant spaces. “These places should be prime real estate, so we like to give them back to the public and create public spaces.”

Urban Dream Brokerage projects are developed first by individuals or collectives proposing their ideas for a creative space – and ideas have to meet specific criteria. First, a project has to be innovative, something that can’t be found anywhere else in the city. It also has to be accessible, and public participation is encouraged. “We’re quite rigorous about it. Something like a new art gallery isn’t the right fit, just like we’re not interested in a shop. It has to be new way of engaging with people.”

An advisory panel decides which projects are put forward to a broker, who then finds the right space for it to take place. This often means talking with numerous property owners to find perfect space. Urban Dream Brokerage advisory board member and current president of the Wellington branch of the Property Council of New Zealand Mike Cole says the projects are win-win for property owners and citizens. “These vacant properties are often then seen in a new light, and leased post-event. Artists have a space for their projects which encourages diversity, a sense of community and public interaction in our cities.”

Mike Cole

Urban Dream Brokerage covers public liability insurance and in most cases contracts are made with little or no rental, so there’s a recognition from the property owner that the project is viable and likely to help the property’s reputation. Some projects last just a few days, while others may continue for as long as a year.

The initiative has a whole raft of projects coming up in Dunedin and Wellington in the New Year and is also working with Massey University on a project in Masterton called ‘My Future Masterton’. “We want to empower citizens to take ownership of their town and what it’s going to look like in the next 50 years. Change is something that happens from within a community, not from the governing bodies,” Amery says. “All our work is about how we can empower people to realise they can change their cities for the better.”

Urban Dream Brokerage is always open for proposals for projects and enquires from property owners.