Both here in Australia, and across the globe, a move away from the seemingly never-ending growth of our cities is beginning: urbanists, architects, governments and developers are turning to regional and rural areas, examining the way they are changing and looking for new models of habitation. Internationally renowned architect Rem Koolhaas and his team at OMA call the countryside the “new frontline of transformation”. Academic journal Architectural Design released a 2016 special edition titled Designing the Rural: A Global Countryside in Flux. Closer to home, the Australian Institute of Architects NSW Country Division is holding a regular program of events and seminars to explore current topics affecting rural centres, while the Victorian Government has just committed to $20 million to a Regional Centre for Culture program. Regional revitalisation is the new urban regeneration.

In the past 100 years or so, regional towns and rural centres across Australia have seen a change from once thriving centres of industry that rivalled capital cities, to depopulated and often dilapidated places, with grand architecturally designed buildings sitting empty, low levels of education, employment and literacy, and struggling economies. Local Governments, as well as State and Federal, are investing money in a vast range of programs, initiatives and development opportunities to reinvigorate communities, not only to bring them back to life, making them more competitive and attractive, but also to offset the unsustainable growth of cities. Different initiatives are being tried and tested with varied results. This is where we are seeing the shift in our work. As urban strategists working with clients across the public and private sector, we are seeing new projects emerge on the fringes of cities, in large regional centres, and even in the suburbs.

We have recently been working on a number of projects in regional Victoria and New South Wales, which have demonstrated how different the populations and dynamics are in regional centres from major capital cities. Significant time spent working on a project in the Victorian city of Bendigo exposed a trend being seen country-wide: there is a move towards the revitalisation of larger regional towns and cities, while remote rural communities continue to struggle. Populations are becoming more centralised as the shifts in our society make it necessary for us to have more urban centres spread across the countryside that can begin to compete with capital cities – think of Bendigo, Newcastle, Bathurst, Launceston. In Bendigo, many people are choosing the regional city over Melbourne, as they seek space, affordability and freedom, the move to the country allowing them to escape the rat race and afford to make a living from passions, skills and hobbies, while still being within driving distance of the capital. But there are also significant issues within these kinds of regional populations: a large number of individuals in regional centres are aging, with younger people migrating away to bigger cities to seek opportunities and experiences not available in smaller, less populated pockets of the country. Employment opportunities are generally more limited, with lower levels of income, and poor levels of education and literacy. There are also very different community relationships and dynamics at play, with the smaller population meaning Councils tend to hold much more sway, and there is a high level of competition between people, businesses and organisations.

Noticeably, much of the investment going into the revitalisation of regional places goes into innovations centred around arts, culture and creativity. Iconic architectural buildings are being sought to create cultural landmarks; artists’ studios, creative hubs and co-working spaces are being established to try and drive creative activity, thinking and innovation; cultural events and activities that drive tourism are being implemented to boost the economy. Arts and culture is often viewed as a low risk, low investment and high return strategy, supporting the local community at the same time as trying to attract a tourism market. Even long before the days of Richard Florida, creativity has been seen as a fundamental economic driver. But the definition of creativity, and an understanding of the type of creativity that will drive economic success, is blurred. Traditional arts and culture – such as visual arts, crafts, performing arts and music – conventionally tend to flourish in regional centres, while the more diverse creative industries and the talents of entrepreneurially-minded individuals working in non-creative sectors – such as brand and marketing, publishing, architecture, design, and media – are much more innovative and independent, and likely to thrive in major cities. It is these more diverse creative industries that many regional centres are now looking to attract in order to drive local economy.

Rightly or wrongly, many a high hope is hung on the viability of arts, culture, and creativity, particularly in regional cities and towns. Urban development and gentrification literature signals that arts and culture are the pioneers for a local economy. The creative solutions we are seeing across the country’s regional centres are varied, some temporary, others permanent, some that may be short lived, and others that are booming icons of success. In Bendigo, the Bendigo Art Gallery and Ulumbarra Theatre have been a great hit with local, national and international audiences. In the Blue Mountains, a surge in the creative community has seen the delivery of the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, the Blue Mountains Theatre and Community Hub and the highly successful Mtns Made creative advocacy community group. Newcastle’s internationally renowned Renew Newcastle program changed the face of the city.

But how long will arts and culture remain the engine room for these places? Can they work in isolation without investment in other parts of the local community and economy? And can these solutions work across other regional centres? Often, the mentality is that if it can drive the economy in an urban environment, or in another regional centre, then it will have the same effect elsewhere. Renew Newcastle has been replicated world-wide, with varied results. Bendigo is now looking to establish a creative industries hub to stimulate the other parts of its creative community, but this heavily weighs on whether there is a professional market in demand for this type of space. In Parkes, an iconic multipurpose cultural building is being considered as a tool for improving the town, leveraged off the popularity of the Elvis Festival, but there is no guarantee it will make Parkes more attractive year-round. Cutting and pasting a solution that may have worked for another community or in another context is not smart urban renewal or revitalisation, with real risk for their long term viability. What is required is more critical consideration and a deeper understanding of the nuances of each and every place, and the realities of arts and culture to truly change the face of a town. Place-specific approaches and masterplans based upon real consideration and evidence of need have far more chance of delivering initiatives and opportunities that respond to the strengths of the community, standing on the back of core industries, talents, opportunities, needs, natural features of a place, or its history. Delivering custom-designed revitalisation projects will give locals a sense of pride in where they come from, help build stronger and more meaningful identities for places from within, and hopefully drive related economic activity. Not every regional town’s strength can be its arts and cultural community: there is a need to look deeper and create something more meaningful.

There also needs to be a consideration of the rural areas beyond regional centres. These are the communities still being left behind while investments are made in places with more chance of surviving and thriving. With dwindling industries and rapid depopulation, rural places are becoming increasingly isolated. An approach articulated by Rem Koolhaas is to stop seeing the big cities and rural areas as distinctly different, and to start understanding the relationship between the two. A porous relationship needs to be established, where cities and rural communities develop exchanges of knowledge and skill, understanding one another better, and investing time, money and resources in different places. In particular, education, skills and training is the single most crucial investment that needs to be made, not only in rural areas but also in regional cities, if they are ever going to have a chance of competing with the capitals. Perhaps, in the way that we are seeing the fringes of our capital cities flourish and develop as the cities outgrow themselves, we can hope that investment in turning around regional centres and small cities into thriving urban places that are truly competitive, will result in surrounding rural communities feeling the effects. Nevertheless, in a country of this size, with a small population, and a rapidly changing economy and industry, regional and rural development will continue to be a challenge for years to come. There is a whole new world of exploration and innovation opening up, not just for architects, planners, placemakers, developers and governments, but also for philanthropists, programmers, innovators and creatives, as we collectively turn our energy toward regional and rural places.