The making of a city: How Expo 88 changed Brisbane forever
Thirty years ago, the city of Brisbane in Australia hosted a Specialised Expo. This was an event in both senses of the word – it was a planned occasion with a specific theme, but it was also a pivotal moment – a point from which things were never the same again for the host city. Expo 88 left an obvious physical impression on the cityscape, but there were more subtle legacies too; including a shift in the lifestyles and cultural habits of local people. This article explains the significance of Brisbane’s Expo and outlines the reasons why other cities should pay attention to this example of Expo-led urban change.
The idea of hosting an Expo to coincide with Australia’s bicentennial celebrations had been mooted since the late 1970s, but it was assumed that the event would go to either Sydney or Melbourne. When Brisbane and the Queensland State Government indicated they wanted to host the Expo, the Australian Federal Government was sceptical. They questioned the capacity of Brisbane to stage a mega-event. But the success of the 1982 Commonwealth Games gave Queensland the confidence to push for the candidature and once permission was granted by the BIE to stage an Australian Expo, Brisbane was confirmed as the host.
The budget for Expo 88, estimated to be A$645 million, was sanctioned by the Australian Federal Government with the proviso that the costs had to be met by the Queensland State Government or from private business. This suited the State Premier who wanted to stage a ‘free enterprise’ Expo funded by revenue from ticket sales, sponsorship and property speculation. The idea was to minimise public expenditure and to promote Queensland as a place ripe for new investment. The cost of land acquisition and development was A$150 million and legislation was enacted to ensure these costs were recovered by selling the site post-event.
The Queensland government were interested in staging a global event to reposition Brisbane as a ‘new world city’, rather than a regional centre. Staging an Expo was seen as the ideal opportunity to achieve this new status, even though the official appointed to lead the project admitted that people did not understand what an Expo was. The pro-development Queensland administration – led at this time by the controversial conservative Bjelke-Peterson – also saw the Expo as a vehicle to revitalise Brisbane’s dilapidated South Bank.
Although Expo 88 is now regarded very positively by the citizens of Brisbane, in the years leading up to the event many people were opposed to it. Like many other mega-event projects and waterfront schemes, the development of Brisbane’s South Bank displaced low income groups and ‘scruffy’ industries that were swept aside by a growth regime intent on attracting external investment. The area had been badly affected by severe flooding in 1973-4 and a cultural centre had been constructed here in the 1970s, but Brisbane’s South Bank was still home to boarding houses, fish markets and other industrial units.
"The real catalyst for change was the event itself and the way it was embraced by local citizens"
Only part of the site was owned by Government, and so compulsory purchase of land was required. Real estate was purchased at approximately 25% above valuation, as fair compensation. However, there was some low-cost housing on the site and the removal of these units caused negative social impacts. Tenants in neighbouring areas experienced significant rent increases as property developers bought up properties to capitalise on the Expo year. These controversial changes prompted some highly charged criticism: “the rich get Expo and the poor get homeless”.
Even Brisbane City Council was sceptical about the Expo – they were worried that the South Bank development would affect the viability of the existing city centre. There were also criticisms of the costs involved from local and national media. Despite these issues, and question marks over the capability of Queensland to deliver a mega-project, the organisers managed to construct the Expo site on time, and within budget. This provided a solid foundation for a positive legacy. But the real catalyst for change was the event itself and the way it was embraced by local citizens.
Expo 88 was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 30 April 1988. As this was an International Specialised Expo, rather than a World Expo, the event focused on one particular aspect of human endeavour – “Leisure in the Age of Technology”. There were 52 government pavilions but also 32 corporate pavilions; highlighting the private sector oriented philosophy of the Queensland regime that organised the event. The Expo was open for 6 months and attracted 18 million visitors – averaging 100,000 per day. Target ticket sales were achieved 11 weeks before the event even opened – ensuring the financial stability that had eluded the Expo held in Louisiana in 1984.
VIPs and tourists from around the world flocked to Brisbane that year, including royalty and celebrities, but Brisbane residents were the main attendee group. Over 500,000 season tickets were sold, and the regularity with which local people attended meant the Expo was used more like a recreational amenity, than a special event. This provided the foundation for the cultural legacy outlined below.
Visitors liked the pavilions, sculptures and the formal entertainment, but what they loved was the riverfront setting, the animated walkways and the atmosphere of festivity. The leisure opportunities that Expo 88 provided were new to Brisbane, which prior to the Expo had a reputation as a relatively dull and quiet city. The Expo provided opportunities to socialise and people felt that Brisbane came alive. This was meant to be a global event that would launch Brisbane on the world stage, but the key effects were felt inside the city – by Brisbane’s residents. These included a renewed sense of self-confidence. Rather than showing other countries what it was capable of - in line with the Expo’s strapline “We’ll Show the World” - the most significant effect was Brisbane proving it could do great things to itself.
Before the Expo began, there had been criticism of the low levels of Indigenous involvement in the planning and staging of the event. However, various steps were taken to improve their engagement, including demonstrations of traditional arts and crafts, sales of artefacts and the involvement of Indigenous businesses. The Aboriginal flag was flown during some performances, a first for a Government event in Queensland. It is easy to dismiss these initiatives as tokenism, but showcasing Indigenous culture with pride - and educating visitors about the importance of the connection between Indigenous people and their land - improved relations with the Indigenous communities. By educating visitors about this important issue, Expo 88 exemplified the mission of Expos and the BIE.
When Expo 88 finally closed its doors, it was clear that the event had been successful. This was demonstrated not just in terms of sound finances, or because target numbers of participating nations, corporations and attendees were exceeded, but because the event was genuinely loved. Given that most mega-events tend to divide opinion, this represents a considerable achievement. The positivity surrounding the event has persisted – perhaps even grown - over time. An academic study conducted 15 years after the event found that memories were both strong and positive, with one participant summing up the mood; "I remember being happy". Few people could remember what was on display, but the sociability of the event and the activities people engaged in - even conversations shared - were recalled. A further 15 years on, it is hard to find anyone in Brisbane who has a bad word to say about Expo 88.
Although this was a temporary event, Expo 88 changed Brisbane - physically and culturally. The most obvious physical legacy is South Bank Parklands – a 42 ha public park developed on the Expo site which opened in 1992. This is now Brisbane’s most popular leisure precinct attracting around 11 million visitors every year.
The relationship between Expo 88 and South Bank Parklands is more complicated than is often assumed. Many people think that Brisbane’s South Bank is a direct legacy of the Expo, when in fact, the site was cleared following the event and has been redeveloped several times since.
"The success of the Expo had raised expectations and there was an appetite for a post-event South Bank that could replicate the public festivity that people had enjoyed in 1988"
The original legacy plan conceived pre-event was to sell the Expo site and create a tourist oriented precinct typical of those that now dominate the world’s post-industrial waterfronts. In the Official Souvenir Programme the organisers proudly announced that “a proposal has already been accepted to transform the Expo site on the South Bank of the Brisbane River to include a residential area, a luxury hotel, a world trade centre and a retail section”.
However, the success of the Expo had raised expectations and there was an appetite for a post-event South Bank that could replicate the public festivity that people had enjoyed in 1988. So Expo 88 generated a physical legacy not merely via its direct footprint, but via the behaviours, emotions and expectations it engendered. In line with the leisure oriented theme of this International Specialised Expo, the event had opened people’s eyes to the leisure opportunities available in their own city, and they now wanted permanent places to meet and be entertained.
The success of Expo 88 forced the (new) government to change their legacy plans. After public consultation, a revised Master Plan was conceived which designated half the site as publically accessible open space. The idea was to provide public parklands, including an artificial beach, in a design similar to that used in theme parks. This was no coincidence as the company chosen to develop the 1991 Master Plan (Media 5) were specialists in theme park design. Their plan resonated with people and politicians because it reminded people of the Expo.
The new parklands that opened in 1992 were initially a success, but flaws in the Master Plan, the failure to attract a broad range of users, and the lack of revenue from development sales forced a rethink. The development corporation responsible for the site adopted a new vision – one that many contemporary cities should pay close attention to. By building something that appealed to locals, and something that was properly integrated into the surrounding area, tourists were attracted too.
The new Master Plan helped to ensure that the South Bank Parklands was not cut off from the rest of Brisbane. This is common problem with Expos – they tend to leave ‘islands of regeneration’ separated from adjacent districts. By blending the site into the pre-existing street layout and by allowing some of the spontaneity of real life to penetrate the Parklands, the area became more accessible and more alive. Good design was supported by strong programming – festivals, free entertainment and markets were organised which attracted people and encouraged them to stay. Unlike other linear parks that merely encourage people to passively walk through, the South Bank is a destination offering a range of activities and sensory experiences.
Despite its popularity, Brisbane’s new South Bank has been criticised by some academic commentators for its relative exclusivity and for promoting a new breed of public space that is highly regulated. The obvious focus on consumption - the Parklands host 27 trading tenants - is also seen by some as something that restricts the publicness of the space. It conveys the message that only those willing and able to spend are welcome. In this sense we can see South Bank Parklands as a precursor to the new consumer oriented public-private spaces we see in cities today.
In 2017, the Parklands celebrated their 25th anniversary and the site remains a much loved and heavily used part of Brisbane. This is not a relaxing and tranquil space from the traditional parks mould. South Bank Parklands does not provide a way of escaping the city like Central Park in New York does. This is a precinct that hosts event venues, an urban beach, paddling pools and multiple cafés. It is Brisbane’s playground – used by locals and tourists – and one that provides fun by the bucketload.
Expo 88 redefined the city as one oriented towards cultural and leisured consumption, and helped to effect and signal the transformation of the city ‘from provincial backwater to world city’. The expression ‘coming of age’ is often used to describe the significance of the Expo 88 of the host city. The event changed the way that Queenslanders feel about their state capital, but also the way urban space is used and navigated.
In the 1980s Queensland had an authoritarian-style government and Premier, with draconian laws restricting public gatherings. A change of government and a relaxation of many of the trading and licensing laws following the Expo meant that residents were able to continue the leisure pursuits that they had first enjoyed during Expo year – al fresco dining, café culture and city parklands. Once they had tasted this, locals were not prepared to return to their pre-Expo lifestyle.
The legacy of Expo 88 also includes more participation in night time culture facilitated by changes to opening hours that were adopted during Expo year. There was also a strong emphasis on night time entertainment. This was an Expo staged in the ‘winter’ months and, even though it was dark by 7pm, the site stayed open until 10pm every night. Organisers staged spectacular night time parades, and the site featured innovative lighting and illuminated installations. This nocturnal entertainment, alongside the plentiful opportunities to drink, dance and party, helped to nurture the night life we see in Brisbane today.
Some commentators have described the Expo as ‘a social and cultural epiphany’ for Brisbane – it encouraged people to spend their leisure time in the city centre, rather than at the beach or at home. These changes have continued ever since – assisted by the redevelopment of South Bank Parklands which functions as a meeting place and a site for relaxation, culture and entertainment. It is also a tourist hotspot. Brisbane now attracts over one million tourists every year and its emerging role as a centre for leisure, for consumption and for entertainment can be traced back to the Expo.
The other key cultural shift or behavioural legacy generated by Expo 88 was in the sphere of transport. As many attendees have to use public transport during mega-events, organisers often use these occasions to promote the availability and affordability of rail and bus services. In the Official Souvenir Programme, Expo 88 organisers stated that they hoped that the event would launch “a new acceptance and awareness of public transport”. This has largely been achieved - although it is difficult to attribute directly to the Expo. In a city dominated by the Brisbane River, transportation also includes boats. River transport was used extensively during Expo 88 and this is now an integral part of Brisbane’s public transport system. The city’s transport authority operates 30 boats serving 25 terminals – with ferries operating every 15 minutes.
"Expo 88 not only helped to make Brisbane; it was the making of the city."
Expos need to be judged over an extended time frame. These events often involve long-term investments in urban infrastructure and it takes decades for sites to become an integrated part of the urban fabric. It also takes an extended period to appreciate any cultural changes. Thirty years on is an appropriate point to judge the legacy of Expos, and so now is a good time to judge the long-term outcomes of Brisbane’s Expo.
The organisers of Expo 88 promised that ‘Brisbane would never be the same again’ and, perhaps surprisingly, this hyperbole seems to have been justified. Brisbane has established itself as a significant city, and one that is oriented to leisure and consumption in ways that few would have predicted in the 1980s. Perhaps these changes would have eventually happened anyway but the Expo accelerated this transition and ensured they did occur. Expo 88 played a pivotal role in this urban change, and therefore in the evolution of Brisbane as a city. Expo 88 not only helped to make Brisbane; it was the making of the city.
"Expo 88 demonstrated that temporary events change public expectations of urban space – which can lead to permanent changes to the cityscape"
There are multiple lessons from Expo 88 for other cities contemplating mega-event projects of their own, but five stand out:
First, this was a venture funded by revenues from ticketing, sponsorship, merchandise and property sales – proving that mega-events don’t have to result in massive public debts. As the Queensland Government decided to redevelop the Expo site as public parklands, rather than sell it to a private developer, the State Government had to write off a debt of A$150 million. This meant that the Government did not quite deliver their promise to deliver Expo 88 without the need for public funding. However, given the subsequent success of South Bank Parklands, this represents a sound financial outcome.
There are interesting similarities between the early 1980s and the current era: back then cities were also highly sceptical about the financial obligations required to host Expo events. The 1984 Louisiana Expo was poorly managed and was declared bankrupt whilst the event was still running. So, the financial success of Expo 88 was a turning point in the future of Expos. Just as the success of the 1984 Los Angeles Games helped to revive the Olympic Games (after the debacle of the 1976 Games), the 1988 Expo helped to restore faith and interest in staging Expos (after the financial mismanagement of Expo 84).
Second, Expo 88 demonstrated that temporary events change public expectations of urban space – which can lead to permanent changes to the cityscape. This is a fascinating and under explored dimension of the Brisbane project and of mega-events in general. The Expo made people realise what their city could be like; how their riverside could be used; and this meant citizens demanded that the Expo site was retained as a publically accessible leisure space.
The way legacy plans were altered in Brisbane highlights a third principle. Even if legacy plans are carefully drawn up in advance of an Expo it is likely that changes will be needed post-event. Projects on this scale, developed over a long period of time, will require decisive changes of direction – and further investment – before a legacy plan really works.
A fourth lesson is the importance of timing. In the 1980s, Brisbane was a city with unrealised potential, hampered by its geographical marginality. It needed a key that could unlock latent qualities and accelerate its transition from a provincial backwater into a significant metropolis. The Expo provided this vehicle; and positive legacy of the event stems from the timing of the event – this was the time when Brisbane most needed a global event and when such an event would have the most significant impact.
"The cultural transformations that occurred following the Expo means Brisbane’s citizens can still party like its 1988"
Fifth, and finally, the case highlights an important design principle: successful tourism spaces can be created by first focusing on local needs. Too often cities rush to construct generic structures and spaces that they presume will be attractive to international tourists. However, a new tourism paradigm is emerging that treats tourists as ‘temporary locals’ who appreciate similar qualities to permanent residents, and this type of philosophy was evident in Brisbane’s post-Expo masterplanning. By refocusing on the leisure needs of citizens, those responsible for designing South Bank Parklands creates a district that is enjoyed by a range of different users.
At a time when many academic, journalists and citizens are questioning the value of mega-events and large-scale regeneration schemes, Expo 88 is a useful reminder that these projects can deliver returns on investment and leave positive legacies. Ultimately, Expo 88 left a legacy of happy memories and a new leisure oriented city. The creation of South Bank Parklands and the cultural transformations that occurred following the Expo means Brisbane’s citizens can still party like its 1988.