Rethinking City Governance Australian-Style

Adelaide-food-festival-bannerAt MLGMA’s Winter Institute in January, keynote speaker Peter Smith energetically and enthusiastically shared his experiences of using placemaking to transform the city of Adelaide, South Australia from ho-hum to a world-class destination.

About five years ago, Smith, CEO of Adelaide City Council, began rethinking the role of government and realized that there was great value in governments operating on a regular basis somewhat like they do in the event of a disaster. He cited the example of the 2011 earthquake that severely damaged Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city. Many policies and procedures were ignored in favor of quick decision-making, and community groups arose to fill in the void with creativity and innovation.

That’s the mindset that Smith brought to revitalizing the city of Adelaide. When he assumed the role of CEO of City Council in 2008, many industries were closing, young people were leaving, and the city was seen as boring and not welcoming to business. A city-wide “Picture Adelaide” project solicited feedback from residents and revealed that the council wasn’t viewed as trustworthy and the approval process for projects took far too long. Beyond that, 70 percent of the 4,000 ideas submitted were about improving public spaces. Those are the places that color people’s experience with their city and keep them attached and interested far more than infrastructure improvements.

Splash-Adelaide-2Based on the residents’ feedback – and using the lighter, quicker, cheaper approach to government – Splash Adelaide was born.  The first year, the city budgeted $150,000 for community-led public space projects and eventually got 30 projects off the ground – everything from street markets and skating events to library on the lawn. The projects were so popular with both the community and the council that in the following years, there were 70 and then 100 community-run activations. Last year, there were an impressive 150 projects and 4,000 Splash Adelaide followers on social media

And Splash Adelaide is being noticed and copied all over the world. In 2013, Adelaide was voted as one of Lonely Planet’s top 5 places to visit. In 2013 and 2014, The Economist ranked Adelaide as one of the top 10 livable cities. And perhaps more importantly, young people are recommending Adelaide for its new “vibe” and the majority of the city staff now understand placemaking and what it can accomplish for their city.

For more on Peter Smith’s presentation at the MLGMA Winter Institute, please visit MLGMA’s website.