Beto O’Rourke has made headlines this week by announcing his intention to run as Democratic Presidential candidate in 2020, and then smashing records by raising $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign. What’s interesting to me about this is that Beto is a so-called ‘ex punk’ who used to play bass in a post-hardcore band and grew up idolising punk legend Ian MacKaye (of Minor Threat and Fugazi) – both for his music and his socio-political mouthings. Conservative quarters are of course critical of this aspect of Beto’s past, but to me this is yet another example of the punk movement producing inspiring, socially-aware and effective leaders. Two of the most ambitious and exciting urban design projects that HemingwayDesign have ever been involved in have had leadership of people who were a part of the punk movement.
Mick Henry was the Leader of Gateshead Council when we started working on the design of The Staiths housing development almost 20 years ago. This project really did start to break the mould for thinking around housing developments. The radical idea was to put people and community first and reject norms around mass car ownership, packing people in to housing and prioritising parking space over green space.
Punk is about questioning the way of the world, exploring relationships with authority and challenging norms. For the Staiths project, our ideas really put us up against naysaying highways engineers and “secure by design” police, but Mick Henry was willing to try new things and turn accepted thinking on its head in the same spirit of a 70s kid ripping his clothes apart so he could safety pin them back together in way that was new, different, and better.
Mick helped us push on and achieve a number of firsts (including the UK’s first new build Home Zone), and spread his punk philosophy through his team. This council didn’t let developers get away with anything that contradicted our shared vision, and genuinely believed in making their place better. Just as punk started as a secret subculture for dedicated followers and eventually grew into a significant movement, the small seed of an idea behind the Staiths development has become a new way of doing things for people that are passionate about improving housing.
Currently we are working on urban design and placemaking projects in Perth & Kinross and there we report into the City Development Manager John McCrone, a punk-loving free thinker and another ex-bassist. Through the Vennels project, what is starting to be delivered in terms of public performance and art spaces in forgotten spaces of the city is truly revolutionary and wouldn’t be happening without John’s love for and understanding of the value of underground culture.
In Blackburn where we have had some bloomin’ wonderful success and helped to set up and guide Blackburn is Open and The National Festival of Making, the path has been smoothed by Councillor Phil Riley. He currently heads up regeneration but if there were a ‘head of prog rock, agitprop and all things counter-culture’, he would walk into the role.
On a personal level, punk helped me start to question authority at school, and laid the foundations for the constant questions of the world that underpins our work at HemingwayDesign. Challenging the accepted way of doing things doesn’t have to mean Anarchy in the UK – what all the people I’ve mentioned have in common is simply a willingness to question, be creative and embrace change. It’s the opposite of conservatism, and it’s a different way of seeing the world which is why some people find it scary.
I say let’s get more ex-art punks, deathrockers and hardcore enthusiasts into positions of power – I’m excited to see what happens. And why are we saying ‘ex-punk’ anyway? Punk is for life, not just a way to piss off your parents at Christmas.