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How to save Darwin from itself

Jill Diane Pope, a social anthropologist and creative producer based in Darwin and Paris, ponders the challenges a ‘revitalised’ Darwin faces. She argues the city must embrace its heritage and its many quirks to become a social city.

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The beauty of Darwin’s CBD is found in its most surprising features: the network of arcades that burrows throughout the city; the green space that contains it and even the flashing coloured garlands of fairy lights that signal the presence of the erotic massage parlours. Try to understand Darwin’s (sub)urban eccentricity before erasing it.

I would hate to see this city become a sanitised temple to transient fortunes, its only heritage monuments to long-forgotten tycoons. Shiny surfaces quickly tarnish, and history and identity are found in the darkest corners. Darwin has survived attacks of all kinds; now is the time to work with the city, not against it.

The CBD retail landscape needs to be positioned in stark contrast to the chain stores at Casuarina Square, boutique, independent offerings like the already successful and well-patronised Star Arcade. If pop-up shops are the only way to attract tenants then this is a good thing: something is better than nothing.

I would like to see Darwin discover its urban eccentricity, for it to embrace many of the qualities and features that set it apart from the homogenous globalised urban aesthetic.

In fact, ephemeral studios, ateliers, workshops for start up designers and creatives should be offered with free/subsidised rents, as no hub for these industries currently exists in Darwin. This needs to be linked in with the exciting developments in remote Aboriginal art centres – which often are not accessible for large parts of the year. Regardless of temporary tenants, ideally sufficient permanent retailers would be present in order to create a sustainable and stable retail community (both between customers and shop owners).

Darwin already has significant infrastructure and adaptive responses to its climate and character. Look at what the suburbs do well. Darwin’s suburbs are wild, wonderful spaces that people retreat to with great delight. How do you translate these ideas into an urban setting without resorting to ‘tropical character’ architectural cliches?

Finding Darwin’s ‘authentic’ urban identity/eccentricity is the key to ‘revitalising’ it. For example the CBD arcades allow one to travel from the top to bottom of the city without getting wet and avoiding the sun. How about drawing people into these intriguing spaces rather than leaving them languish. Darwin CBD is more than just a mall and Mitchell Street, it should offer a range of scales and experiences, balancing the mainstream with the esoteric.

Darwin’s heritage started with the Larrakia people and this needs to be foregrounded in a major way – from toponymy to the actual presence of Indigenous organisations in the city (the Live Darwin grant to Larrakia was a start). Darwin’s cosmopolitan population could also be honoured and explored in the city space – from Chinese, Greek to Japanese.

Small-scale museums (think Le musée du Fumeur in Paris, or the Museums of Broken Relationships in Zagreb and Los Angeles) run by local arts groups (eg. Yum Cha Arts) could offer stimulating exhibitions of archival and contemporary work responding to and celebrating these historic narratives, while connecting them to the city’s rich cultural present and future.

I would hate to see some of the decisions currently being made about Darwin’s CBD negatively impact the city’s ability to become a mature, truly vibrant, diverse space – reflective of the unique culture and population of its wider metropolitan area. I think here about Barneson Boulevard – a throwback to 1950s America’s obsession with the road as an architectural object. Darwin’s traffic problems and decreasing population hardly warrant a superhighway as the gate to the city.

Is this really city living at a human scale?

I would like to see Darwin discover its urban eccentricity, for it to embrace many of the qualities and features that set it apart from the homogenous globalised urban aesthetic. It’s not an easy task, but I think with the right combination of good policy and good people involved (researchers and the public and private sectors) there is an opportunity.

Darwin can learn from the lessons seen elsewhere in the world and become a social city, with activated public spaces day and night. Darwin CBD can be a place of culture as well as consumption, where the city’s diverse inhabitants come together to learn and experience the depth of heritage and creative production thriving in Australia’s northern outpost.

And please don’t cut down the trees in Frog Hollow. This isn’t just about saving trees but about saving heritage, and honouring the idiosyncratic beauty of Frog Hollow park, and the adjacent former school, now a hub for arts organisations. Barneson Boulevard is a really terrible idea, one of those watershed moments that has the potential to ruin Darwin CBD once and for all.

There are so many smart, creative minds in this city who love Darwin and who would be happy to work with the government to find other, innovative solutions – economically, environmentally and culturally viable.

‘Having a say’ is great but I feel like the opportunity for those who know and love the city to engage with government policy and action needs to go beyond this and Live Darwin.

Jill Diane Pope is a social anthropologist and creative producer working in the nexus of space, culture and sociability. She has written about architecture, cities and food and drinks for numerous publications. After four years living, working and studying in Paris, Jill returned to Australia via Darwin in 2016, disembarking in the middle of the wet season. What was planned as a short stopover turned into permanent residency and ten months later she is still there.

Main image via Stop Barneson Boulevard at Frog Hollow Facebook

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