By Hannah Tattersall 02 November 2017

Despite buckets of rain in Sydney during the first week of June, and temperatures to rival those of Melbourne, hoards of people were out and about at night enjoying the city’s Vivid Festival of light and sound.

This year’s attendance reached a record 2.33 million people who roamed the streets admiring displays in the Botanical Gardens, Martin Place, Darling Harbour and Circular Quay. The evidence is in: festivals invigorate cities. 

Vivid, which sees fast-moving lights and images emblazon buildings and monuments from the Sydney Opera House to Taronga Zoo, tempts tourists and awakens locals from their work-life cocoons. As well as reviving restaurants and supporting the new food stalls that sprout up in anticipation, it injects a colossal $110 million into the NSW economy.

“Sydney visitors from around Australia and the world fill our hotel rooms, eat at our restaurants and buy in our shops,” observes NSW Minister for Tourism and Major Events, Adam Marshall, who says NSW is on course to double overnight visitation by 2020.

Concept grows in popularity

Unsurprisingly, the number of these city festivals nationally is growing. Adelaide now hosts no less than seven, including the Adelaide Festival of Arts, Adelaide Writers' Week, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and the ever-popular WOMADelaide, its largest and most successful festival of music, arts and dance. 

Attendance stood at 95,000 last year, and a study by Economic Research Consultants in 2012 estimated the overall economic boost to South Australia to be $11.1 million, while a recent EY report found that the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust made an economic contribution of $170 million to the economy of greater Adelaide that same year. 

Luke Hespanhol, a lecturer in design and computation at the University of Sydney, says city festivals are becoming more popular because they offer something special and fleeting. 

“Every year people talk about extending Vivid to a month or having it around all year, but, as well as not being feasible, that misses the point entirely,” he says. Hespanhol says the use of public spaces in a temporary way is what makes festivals such as the one-night-only multi-disciplinary Beams arts festival in Sydney’s inner-city Chippendale (supported by City of Sydney) or the flashy White Night in Melbourne, so appealing. 

Vivid attracts more than four times the number of people who attend the Venice Biennale, he says, which is on for a year. Likewise, Sydney Open, which encourages city buildings to open their doors, takes place over one weekend in November, offering an exclusive peek-a-boo into the city’s architectural history. This year's line up includes more than 60 carefully chosen buildings, from the renowned Harry Seidler’s Australia Square and Grosvenor Place, to the city’s newer breed of skyscrapers like the timber-clad EY Centre. Canberra’s three-week Winter Festival in the City is also a boost for local businesses, according to CEO of In The City Canberra, Jane Easthope, who said tourists and locals alike queue for the short-lived outdoor ice rink in Garema Place.

They are like expressions of curated urban hacking. Luke Hespanhol, lecturer in design and computation, University of Sydney

Excellent branding

Governments and councils are all too happy to support events like these, which “inspire audiences and showcase our city on the national and international stage,” according to a City of Sydney spokesperson, who said that more than $34 million each year is spent supporting culture development in Sydney, including events such as Vivid, Sydney Festival, the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the Biennale of Sydney and Sydney Film Festival. 

“Festivals like these ensure that Sydney retains its status as a globally competitive and innovative city with a thriving creative culture,” the spokesperson said. “These festivals inject tens of millions of dollars into the local economy each year by supporting small businesses, promoting Sydney as an events capital and attracting visitors who spend money on accommodation, retail and visit other attractions during their stay.”

Hespanhol says the flow-on effect from the increase in CBD visitations is that businesses in the area – shops, restaurants, hotels, as well as smaller craft and food stalls – also get a boost. And retailers are coming up with more creative ways to take advantage of that. 

In Sydney’s lower north shore suburb of Chatswood, shops and restaurants stay open late in June to take advantage of the extra foot traffic the lights bring to the station and concourse. 

Festivals will continue to be commonplace in cities in the future, according to Hespanhol, who says they are like expressions of curated urban hacking: a large section of core public space becomes transformed and experienced by an incredible number of people seeking a sense of community for a period of time – only to be removed after a short time, leaving no permanent trace. 

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