5. Development & Gentrification. Brisbane, AU.

In December 2016, the CL team (Elettra, Jo and Don) were in Brisbane for the fourth iGuzzini Social Lightscapes Workshop, held at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), hosted by the Design Lab and Professor Margaret Petty, Dean of the School of Design.

Configuring Light/Staging the Social_Social Lightscapes West End, Brisbane, Australia This workshop drew in students and staff from the Creative Industries Faculty and was centred on the West End area of the city. With the exception of one lighting designer, all our participants were new to lighting design. They came to the workshop with varied interests in social research, local politics and community engagement, urban design and planning, hoping to learn more about the social aspects of light and lighting.

West End: Development and gentrification

Brisbane’s West End is an extreme case of a familiar urban story: the rapid incursion of development capital into the last remaining inner city neighbourhood, bordering on the central business district. West End doesn’t only offer commuting convenience for a rapidly expanding professional population; much of the new development is along prime river front with a lovely walkway and cycle routes, plus commuter ferry, all held back until the current Brisbane population boom because of periodic flooding, only now technically sorted.

Gentrification and development are the buzzwords, for analysts, activists and residents alike. Walk down our workshop site – the central Boundary Street – and you walk a historical narrative into a seemingly inevitable future. The southern end, plus the dark residential streets fanning outwards east and west, is low density timber Queenslanders, mainly owned or inhabited by an older white working class, by the large post war Greek community and the 1980s waves of Vietnamese immigrants, plus renters who might once have been working class boarders but are now likely to be students or digital nomads.

Further up, around Vulture Street, is the epicentre of an intense countercultural community of artists, activists and early gentrifiers, urban pioneers of the inner city, dating back several decades and incorporating independent retail, community centres, cultural groups and alternative lifestyle. From this point north, West End’s quiet south gives way to a vibrant, indeed heaving, night life.

Boundary Street is topped by the enormous West Village complex, currently a large hole in the ground where the Absoe factory and market area used to be – $800 million of contentious yuppification, including major commercial district and nine 15-22 storey apartment blocks that will tower over a low density neighbourhood with limited infrastructure (especially transport and schools). Beyond West Village a major programme of ‘boulevardization’ marks the transition from old hippies to new yuppies. West Village, however, is only the most visible new development: to the west, down by the river, are all the main development complexes – tens of thousands of new flats for an up-market community with little connection to Boundary Street.

And then hovering over the entire geography is the Aboriginal community. West End was the Aboriginal Kuralpa, with numerous gathering spaces, now largely restricted to Musgrave Park and to ‘Lizard corner’, on Boundary Street, which gathers all the diverse denizens. If any further historical memories of dispossession are necessary, Boundary Street was named as the surveyed early boundary of the colonial settlement but is widely understood to be the boundary beyond which Aborigines had to retreat after the evening curfew.

Workshop: The material politics of ‘gentrification’

The West End workshop offered a great opportunity to explore gentrification from the perspective of material politics – could lighting give us a way into the processes unfolding in the area, and ways of acting on those processes through design?

Building on the workshop structure we trialled in Timosoara in October, the workshop was split into four groups, each tasked with researching, engaging with and representing a different social group (with thanks to Peter Walters for providing the basic typology of West End):

  • Older resident communities (particularly Aboriginal, Greek and Vietnamese)
  • ‘Early gentrifiers’ – the older alternative and counter cultural community
  • ‘New gentrifiers’ – residents and consumers coming in through current development
  • Retailers and business people from all stages of West End’s development

After two days of developing an understanding of ‘their’ social group, participants were reorganized into three design groups that aimed to bring together all four perspectives, defining needs and issues, and exploring lighting design as a material way to address them.

Above all, the process brought out the complexity and diversity that lies under the label ‘gentrification’ (hence our constant scare quotes around the word). Within and between the four groups were differing expectations and worries around a process all experienced as inexorable. The main commonality was a widespread avoidance of an overly negative, defensive and intransigent opposition to development, and a very lucid focus on problems of planning, provision and regulation.

This came across forcefully in one of the main research themes: the new gentrifiers and the older communities live in parallel universes, able to live in the same neighbourhood without even physically encountering each other, let alone sharing space, identity and relationships. For example, New residents of the riverside developments can shop, cycle and go to work in the CBD without passing through Boundary Street at all, unaware of and not integrated into the other lives that have long been led there.

The lighting strategies all centred on some sense of connection and connecting, of mapping out the pathways and nodes that make an urban space a place of overlapping and communicating meanings:

  • Boundaries and connecting corridors: using lighting to literally construct corridors to link new development areas to Boundary Street, lighting up strategic bus stops and landscape features. Dead spaces, where both Boundary Street and the development areas rapidly peter out into dark and empty streets, can be activated as paths to follow and meet.
  • Going Walkabout: focused on development and change as learning processes in which lighting could help new comers become part of the place by understanding it better. Lighting would be part of designs to make the multiple histories and ethnicities of West End visible and connected to each other. Materially, a light and sound trail would link Lizard corner (the epicentre of local diversity) through historic paths to the Aboriginal gathering spaces of Musgrave Park and the Greek Club on its perimeter.
  • Acknowledging Nodes: learning and connecting by learning to recognise – and protect – the places where people gather, the spaces that have a critical mass in people’s daily lives. Research involved uncovering often hidden and informal spaces, and the lighting centred on one gathering space, in which even subtle changes of lighting angle could make the difference between gently supporting social gathering, making it visible but respected by passersby or endangering it through over- or misdirected lighting.

Walters, P. & McCrea, R. (2013) ‘Early Gentrification and the Public Realm: A Case Study of West End in Brisbane, Australia’. Urban Studies 51 (2), 355–370.


Elettra Bordonaro
Jo Entwistle
Don Slater