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Why arts schools matter, not just for art’s sake but for urban renewal in Sydney and other cities

Public protests forced a backdown on a proposed merger of university art schools, but their value to cities is still being underestimated. Joel Carrett/AAP

Why arts schools matter, not just for art’s sake but for urban renewal in Sydney and other cities

National Art School (NAS) interim director Michael Lynch has committed to defending its continued independence from the University of NSW. Meanwhile, we have just seen a spectacular backdown by the University of Sydney on a proposal to merge its Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) with UNSW Art and Design.

Quite apart from the loss to arts education and the community that reducing three art schools to a single entity would have represented, it would have deprived us of one of the key tools we have right now in urban renewal. It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider fine art education in New South Wales in a wider city-making context.

As autonomous institutions, art schools are emerging globally as very powerful, deployable instruments of urban transformation and renewal. Sydney is going through a once-in-a-generation urban transformation. With the population of 5 million tipped to grow to 8 million by 2060, we need to ask ourselves: do we own this growth and plan for it, or do we just let it happen to us and suffer the consequences?

To date, we’ve mostly just been letting it happen. The state government in particular is under pressure to sort out many issues: transport needs, housing availability and affordability, and questions of how to plan and govern the city at the scale of the metropolitan region.

We’re seeing big shuddering governance changes, including council amalgamations and the creation of the Greater Sydney Commission, and strategic planning initiatives such as The Bays Precinct Transformation Program and multiple projects in the western suburbs.

Building a better sort of city

Committee for Sydney CEO Tim Williams argues that there are “two Sydneys”: the compact Sydney, within 10 kilometres of the CBD, and the city of sprawl, 20km beyond the CBD.

The first version of Sydney has better public transport, higher-value jobs, services and amenities. It also has higher commercial and residential rental returns and residential property values. It has almost all of the city’s cultural and arts facilities and three of the state’s universities, as well as higher incomes and better health outcomes for its 1 million or so residents.

The second version of Sydney, home to the majority of the city’s population, is the city of the long commute, falling residential property prices, reduced health outcomes, poor public transport, lower incomes and limited access to high-value jobs, services and amenities. This includes almost no cultural and arts facilities. It is low-density, made functional by car-based transport.

So how do we bring the two cities closer together? The infrastructural demands are clear. More investment in public transport linking people and jobs is critical. Another question is how do we make the second Sydney more attractive for jobs and people?

We have limited mechanisms at our disposal. What has been missing in the conversation about amalgamation is any sense of the role that art schools themselves are playing internationally in city building.

Once we would have seen their usefulness in terms of being focused inward on keeping alive troubling spaces – historic jails, for instance, such as the one the NAS occupies, or former psychiatric institutions in the case of the SCA. Now we can see the outward-facing role of art schools as equally productive and dynamic. The experience of other cities demonstrates the critical role art schools can play in transforming the urban environments into which they are placed.

The Central Saint Martins example

A leading example is the role of Central Saint Martins after the college relocated to King’s Cross, London. This 27-hectare mixed-use urban regeneration project occupies what was mostly derelict industrial land in central London. It has been the largest and most successful urban renewal project in Europe in the last decade.

The relocation of Central Saint Martins arts college to the restored Granary building has helped drive the regeneration of King’s Cross, London. Alan Stanton/flickr, CC BY-SA

Central to its success has been the place-making opportunities created by housing Central Saint Martins in the restored 19th-century Granary building. This provided a critical mass of users – 5,000 students and staff – for the site early on. Now the production of transparent studios, workshops and lecture theatres that flank new public spaces provide a dynamic use of the site well beyond the usual 9-5 commercial occupation.

Large urban renewal projects take time to deliver – even when they involve the complex gold-standard outlay of the elements of housing, work, transport infrastructure and leisure amenity as seen at King’s Cross. It takes years, decades even, to transform a site, to seed activity, to establish a critical mass of diverse users and to make a place habitable.

The flexibility and creativity of a creative industries student body provided the perfect population of early pioneers of what was for many years a construction site. As the site has matured, they continue to provide the distinctive identity and dynamic energy that are among the site’s key qualities.

This is how art schools are being most successfully used globally in urban renewal: as a kind of pioneer occupant lending critical mass of occupation, early user groups for large sites as they are occupied and then, via the critical reflective practice of art schools, allowing everyone to see the potential of new urban environments in new ways.

Will Sydney seize the opportunities?

Urban instruments that have the critical mass of users and programs to perform this kind of function are very hard to find. We have very few of them.

For this reason alone, it is worth asking the question: why isn’t a state government development agency such as UrbanGrowth more involved in this conversation on how to maintain these autonomous schools as part of the strategic objectives for the Sydney metropolitan region?

The universities might ask themselves similar questions. The SCA has now been flagged to move from Callan Park to the Camperdown campus in 2017. So how can the University of Sydney innovatively deploy this arts faculty to produce spaces of creative production as a fundamental part of campus life?

The Chau Chak Wing Museum, due to open in 2018, will consolidate three existing university collections with associated research space. The plans for the fine arts faculty offer an even bigger opportunity: here, the university can build an ecology of relationships, practices, collections and spaces that are about more than just the consumption of art.