In a park at the start of a lively shopping strip, marquees are rising from the ground. Inside them, local residents prepare Macedonian pastries, Japanese Okomiyaki, Croatian desserts and Dutch poffertjes. Nearby, the local Filipino community is cooking its famous ribs near a Spanish Churros stall; Iranians char grill whole tomatoes; Sikhs hand out water bottles to passers by, and; a Brazilian dance group starts a spontaneous samba in the street.


It’s a veritable United Nations of food, music and culture in a city of some 220,000 people on Victoria’s south coast. This is the Pako Festa, a one-of-its kind free multicultural street festival held annually on the 1km-long strip of Pakington Street that forms the beating heart of Geelong West.


The Pako Festa celebrated its 35th year in 2017 with a record crowd turn out. When it started in 1982, the term placemaking had barely entered the urban lexicon. Today, the Festa is a triumph of diversity and a placemaking success story: an exemplar of the magic that can rise alchemically when a place, people and their stories converge.


Pakington Street - or Pako as it is affectionately known in Geelong - has long been a welcome harbor for migrants from all corners of the world. Many of these migrants arrived In Geelong after World War II to work in the city’s then-burgeoning industrial sector. They converged to build new lives, find their feet, meet, laugh, love, learn, grow on and help grow Pako.


Alongside Geelong’s cultural diversity, Pako’s design and geography have contributed to this phenomenon. The street is some 2km outside the city centre, accessible to Geelong’s industrial inner north and its suburbs. The pavement is wide enough for seating and tables, and is fronted by human-scaled shops with narrow and varied facades, creating plenty of interest at street level.


Pako forms a central spine for a tight, walkable grid network of narrow streets dotted with mostly weatherboard cottages. Car parking at the back of shops, trees and pedestrian connections through retail blocks reduce the impact of cars and let the street breathe. In an auto-dominated city, Pako’s walkability and intimacy stand out.


CEO of Diversitat, Michael Martinez, knows more about the street than most.  Diversitat (taken from the Catalan translation of “diversity”) is a non-government organisation based on Pako that, among its many services, runs the Pako Festa.


Diversitat grew out of the former Geelong Ethnic Communities Council (GECC), which started in 1976 from a base of five ethnic communities that saw a need for mutual support, advocacy and better service delivery for migrants. Today the organisation represents more than 55 groups from around the world, all of which turn out for the Festa.


A big part of the Festa’s success is its focus on sharing the binding rather than dividing elements of culture. Many of these groups run street food stalls that not only raise vital funds for their activities; they share the sensory social glue and binding power of food.


The groups also turn out in cultural dress for the annual street parade, which this year ran for 90 minutes in a full show of the vibrancy of Geelong’s multiculturalism. The parade has included an array of musicians and dancers, Chinese dragons, a Maori war canoe, Italian crooners, Dutch windmills and Indonesian gamelan orchestras; but one constant is the annual reincarnation of Festa figurehead, Carmen Miranda.


A hallmark of the Festa is the way it has grown like a seed in the soil of place. “The interesting thing about the Pako Festa is that it wasn’t put up by the Ethnic Communities Council, it was put up by the traders as an idea,” Martinez says. This speaks to the importance of what Martinez describes as “three pillars” of government, community and business. “If you haven’t got local business on board and the community”, Martinez says, “then what have you got?”


Like the community groups, many traders recognise the shared benefit of this grand street party, bringing al fresco dining into closed off-streets and putting on Festa specials.  Street life isn’t the only success of the Festa; it has also brought cultural groups that may not otherwise mix readily or have tense relationships elsewhere closer. This is understandably a source of great pride: “This year we’ve ad a few of the Iraqi communities involved, we have thae Hazara and the Afghans but we’ve always had groups like the Croatians and Serbians involved from the start,” Martinez says.


The Festa’s growth has brought delegations from other cities keen to tap its essence, much of which lies in the spirit of the place.


“You can’t transplant something into a place.  It has to be home grown,” Martinez says.  “It’s about local communities and traders. Don’t go for the razz-a-matazz. Go for the local artistic content and embrace everybody.”


That aside, Martinez’s advice for other places contemplating something similar is simple. “Go for it.  I think there is something fundamentally great about blocking off a street and getting rid of the cars for a day. You can’t underestimate that.”


Like many successful streets, Pako is dealing with the challenges of gentrification and housing in the area is largely beyond the reach of new migrant groups. Yet Pako’s warm embrace resonates, with generations of migrant families and new migrants alike drawn back by the feeling of welcome and the reverberations of ritual and memory, which permeate the pavement.


Each year, the Festa is the focal point of a cycle of creation, renewal and re-creation of bonds between people and place.  This cycle alone is enough to grow the event year on year, but Martinez is aware of the need to lift the bar, even for a street party big enough to bring Carmen Miranda back to Earth.  So, where to next? Martinez proudly remembers the Festa’s 30th anniversary, which brought together 30 Carmens, “male, female, big and little”.  The 35th  anniversary brought a record crowd. Who knows what might happen at the 40th?


Matt Novacevski is a veteran face in the crowd of many Pako Festas. He holds a Masters in Planning (Professional) from Deakin University and won a Planning Institute of Australia Commendation for his thesis on peri-urban place identity. Matt works as Planning Co-ordinator at the Pyrenees Shire Council and as a Research Fellow at Deakin University’s Centre for Regional and Rural Futures (CeRRF); where he explores the edges between placemaking, planning, stories, philosophy and ecology. You can find him on Twitter @places_calling.




issue 03. autumn 2017