Reimagining where we live: cultural placemaking and the levelling up agenda response
by Prof Flora Samuel with the Quality of Life Foundation
The Quality of Life Foundation uses evidence to build frameworks to demonstrate how improvements to our homes and communities can improve our quality of life. The Foundation is working closely with Prof Flora Samuel at the University of Reading on improving community consultation for planning through citizen made maps. The maps show what is there and are therefore an important baseline for levelling up activity. The cultural sector and creatives are heavily involved in designing participatory events and experiences for consultation. Culture and quality of life are intimately connected, hence our interest in this call for evidence.
1.How can culture reanimate our public spaces and shopping streets?
The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project Community Consultation for Quality of Life (CCQOL) is using underused space in shopping malls in Reading and Edinburgh to develop Urban Rooms, a place for the community, university, local, authorities and industry to debate the future of their places. This has been made possible by the generosity of the shopping mall managers Moorgarth. Culture can only reanimate public spaces and shopping streets when there are affordable places for the cultural industries to ply their wares. This means low rent, available space, reduced bureaucracy and the prioritizing of placemaking which we define as the sum of social (including cultural), environmental and economic value.
Creatives are needed for the incremental activation of place in a way that brings local people in on the journey. Carl Turner (of Turner Works) proposes a ‘stepping-stone economy’ of incremental change, offering categories of intervention based on life span. Pop Brixton (a project funded by Make Shift and designed by Turner Works) is a five-year workspace project offering a range of size and types of accommodation, allowing people and organisations to move through the building as they grow and change. It now has over 200 members and has created more than 250 jobs. In these places local people take over the project enabling it to develop a life of its own.
One of the criteria for getting one of the oversubscribed creative spaces in another Make Shift project, Peckham Levels, is to be local. Hackney Bridge, a third project developed by Make Shift, has been built on an empty site on the edge of the Olympic Park and offers makerspace during the day and event space in the evening, including a 500-person event space. The building is open 24/7 offering series of routes through the space, ‘a canvas for creativity’ where local artists can showcase their wares while building identity. The lease for Hackney Bridge is only 12 years so the building was conceived in circular economy terms, for re-use and recycling.
Turner Works are now testing the viability of their ideas outside London with considerable success. As part of their development of a placemaking vision for Weston-Super-Mare, the team were tasked with crafting a new brand identity for the place to up levels of energy, oil the wheels of investment and funding. They used this as an opportunity to get people involved in generating the vision (superweston.net). They draw on classic techniques of art practice such as inviting community members to send in postcards showing their wishes for Weston which can together be collated into something more holistic. The project, including the repurposing of a shopping centre into a cultural hub, the Weston General Store, has enabled the Council to win more funding to develop the hub and event space. Turner Works and Make Shift exemplify what is possible when culture is used to reanimate places.
2.How can creatives contribute to local decision making and planning of place?
Currently creatives are marginalized from the making of places because the social value that they bring to projects is rarely recognized in the systems used by government and local authorities to procure services. All this is set to change with the advance of the social value agenda in the wake of the Social Value Act 2012 in England. Creatives often add value through what they bring to a process (see for example Vriesema and Kloosterman, 2022). Manchester Combined Authority has done a great deal of work in embedding social value into its procurement processes, in this way fostering the employment of small, innovative and local suppliers, such as creatives, who are then given an opportunity to get involved in the making of their places.
Work is currently being undertaken by DLUHC on the use of coding in planning. We argue that coding needs to be focused on planning for social, environmental and economic outcomes rather than aesthetics. The Social Value Toolkit for Architecture published by the Royal Institute of British Architects (2019) made the case for the social value of design, an idea that has been taken up by many including the many people involved in the Construction Innovation Hub Value Tool for procurement. Creatives will only be involved in the planning of places when the value that they bring to the process is acknowledged through procurement and planning.
In terms of local decision-making, creatives have a major role to play in making the structures, both digital and face to face, for community consultation and engagement. They are also active in making consultation more engaging and attractive to a diversity of communities. These two themes are being explored through the Community Consultation for Quality of Life, a major AHRC funded project led by the University of Reading in collaboration with the Quality of Life Foundation. www.ccqol.org The aim is to develop a UK wide code of conduct for participation as well as a toolkit for best practice. Neither of these currently exist.
Digital design is vital to choreograph the user experience of people visiting digital engagement platforms such as Commonplace, the platform that is being used by the CCQOL project, and others. The platform is being used to create ‘social value maps’ with community input (Hatleskog and Samuel, 2021). These will be developed to support democratic processes such as participatory budgeting, currently being used by Newham Council and the development of Citizen Assemblies (Newham, 2021). The maps are a transparent and graphic way to get people to vote about what they want from their place. The idea is that the social value maps are used alongside more ‘objective’ numerical data such as indices of deprivation to develop a holistic and spatial view of where social value is happening. This is the aim of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership currently being developed with Stantec, the Better Places Toolkit https://www.stantec.com/uk/projects/b/better-places-social-value-toolkit The aim here is to make it easy for local authorities to include social value in the local planning process — local plans focus on environmental and economic outcomes alone. GIS technology means that data can be spatially tagged, with algorithms being used to give different weightings to attributes of the maps; the vision of UK wide maps that show the social, environmental and economic attributes of places in real time. Only once we have a clear picture of what is already there can the process of levelling up really begin.
Face-to-face engagement requires design too, as the CCQOL project is demonstrating. The CCQOL pilot projects are taking place in urban rooms in all four countries of the UK. Urban rooms are a place where communities, industry and academia come together to discuss the future of their places, the Farrell Centre in Newcastle being a notable example (Place Alliance, 2020; Tewdr Jones, Sookhoo and Freestone, 2020). The format of the rooms, their exhibitions and their events, are usually designed by architects, but in some cases artists and performance play a vital role in bringing alive the issues in hand. See for example https://unrestrictedtheatre.co.uk/tag/urban-rooms-network/ Art, theatre and performance play a vital role in the user experience of community consultation for people of all ages. Other examples include the satirical work of Play;disrupt (Play Disrupt, 2021), gaming technologies and the digital network tools developed by organisations such as Understory (Understory, 2021). East Quay, the new Arts building at Watchet in Somerset, is a remarkable outcome of extensive arts-based consultation by the Onion Collective. The CCQOL project is developing a database of exemplary projects in this area.
3.How can the Government support places without established artistic infrastructure to take full advantage of the opportunities that the levelling up agenda provides?
In the response above we proposed the use of digital value maps (social, environmental and economic), as a way of showing what is actually happening in places. As the Cultural Value of Architecture in Homes and Neighbourhoods project revealed, culture is a subset of social value (Samuel, 2016). The value maps could therefore be used to show, with some precision, where there really is an ‘established artistic infrastructure’, but this relies on a redefinition of what an established artistic infrastructure is.
Definitions of what constitutes established artistic infrastructure are problematic, erring to high cultural offerings. Art is not a monolithic entity. The kind of art that assists community identity is generally rather different to the kind of art that attracts large amounts of cultural funding (Holmes, 2010) or is attractive to investors as ‘a fungible hedge’ (Joselit, 2013, p. 1). This kind of high cultural capital art is led by ‘intelligentsia-managed institutions’ (Olds, 2002, p. 155), skewed by politics (Bertelli et al., 2014) and bought by highly mobile transnational elites with little loyalty to place. Some artists position themselves in active resistance to the commoditized situation described above, yet both kinds of art have become a tool of global finance and ‘bureaucratized, patronized, professionalized, and commercialized, culture’ (Nowotny, Scott and Gibbons, 2001, p. 27), a situation that has ironically left a generation of young artists dispossessed, their funding cut, unable to rent studios, unable to find jobs.
Not-for-profit artists, such as those that work in communities (Alexiou, Zamenopoulos and Alevizou, 2012), tend to rely for their existence on public funding, their ability to attract funding being related to their cultural capital, accrued through shows in high art venues and so on. This is always going to help those who can afford to live and work in high cultural capital cities such as London, with the arts increasingly become the terrain of the independently wealthy (Dabiri, 2021). The vague term ‘artistic quality’ is a major determinant of public support for the arts (Loots, 2019, p. 274). This can make it difficult for communities to access support for socially-oriented projects. Despite these difficulties there are many communities that are very active in dreaming up events that create sense of place and civic pride (Govers, 2018). It is vital therefore that the government reconsiders the way that it allocates money to the arts in favour of the kind of high social value activities that are so crucial to placemaking.
A Welsh Government investigation found that participation in cultural events has significant links to reports of life satisfaction and that there is a clear connection between deprivation, poor health and lack of access to culture. Culture was here defined in the broadest sense, ‘not just the arts, but also heritage and the historic environment, including the contribution of museums, libraries and the media’ (Welsh Government 2016, p. 10). Enjoyment of culture has also been shown to be effective as a form of social prescribing to address issues like anxiety and increase sense of purpose (Tierney and Mahtani, 2021).
Museums and archives play a vital role in remembering who we are. They are also a very important resource for small children and their parents, not only as somewhere free to go out of the rain, but offering ‘the start of a lifelong relationship with museums, their collections and their stories’(Wallis, 2018, p. 365). A recent study of the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh revealed that the museum was ‘a place where people actively made and remade their identities’(Newman and McLean, 2006, p. 62). Here an exhibition on the history of an Edinburgh neighbourhood provided an opportunity to ‘resurrect a sense of community based upon a shared identity, constructed using the social history of the area, reframing it as a source of pride’. Museums need to be kept open and to be kept free. In our market-driven world, the value of museums tends to be measured in footfall, a very crude measure that forces museums to develop a hybrid role as places of leisure and entertainment (McPherson, 2007). This can lead to the marginalisation of less powerful or visible narratives (Fredheim, 2018). The way the government measures the impact of museums needs to change.
4.How can culture reanimate our public spaces and shopping streets?
Sites and buildings can be given over on a temporary basis for use by artists, craftspeople and musicians. Vacant spaces can host community festivals,
arts or performance events. This not only establishes the site as part of the cultural life of the town or city, it generates activities and businesses that can be used to populate the site once the development takes place, making it feel like somewhere special.
The Spode site in Stoke on Trent is a good example of how creativity and culture has been used to bring a site back into use that fell vacant just as the financial crash hit in 2008. Artists were encouraged to occupy some of the vacant spaces that have grown into thriving business space. The Ceramic’s Biennial took over the large factory space, a temporary theatre was created and now a hotel and restaurant have been developed.
However, the process also works in strong markets where promoting art
and creativity through the development process can build links with the surrounding community and make the development distinctive. A good example is U+I’s development of the Mayfield Depot in Manchester where they have provided space for the Manchester Festival, the city’s Pride event and for a range of creative, cultural and food-related activities.
Alexiou, K., Zamenopoulos, T. and Alevizou, G. (2012) Valuing Community-Led Design. Summary report for AHRC Connected Communities, pp. 1–13.
Bertelli, A.M. et al. (2014) ‘Politics, management, and the allocation of arts funding: evidence from public support for the arts in the UK’, 20(3), pp. 341–359.
Fredheim, L.H. (2018) ‘Endangerment-driven heritage volunteering: democratisation or “Changeless Change”’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 24(6), pp. 619–633.
Govers, R. (2018) Imaginative Communities: Admired cities, regions and countries. Reputo Press.
Hatleskog, E. and Samuel, F. (2021) ‘Mapping as a strategic tool for evidencing social values and supporting joined-up decision making in Reading, England’, Journal of Urban Design [Preprint]. doi:DOI: 10.1080/13574809.2021.1890555.
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Place Alliance (2020) Urban Rooms. Available at: http://placealliance.org.uk/working-groups/urban-rooms/.
Play Disrupt (2021) Play Disrupt. Available at: playdistrupt.com.
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Tewdr Jones, M., Sookhoo, D. and Freestone, R. (2020) ‘From Geddes’ city museum to Farrell’s urban room: past, present, and future at the Newcastle City Futures exhibition’, Planning Perspectives, 35(2), pp. 277–297.
Tierney, S. and Mahtani, K.R. (2021) The role of the cultural sector in social prescribing for older people through the Covid-19 pandemic, What Works Wellbeing. Available at: https://whatworkswellbeing.org/blog/the-role-of-the-cultural-sector-in-social-prescribing-for-older-people-through-the-covid-19-pandemic/.
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Wallis, N. (2018) ‘Titian, tapestreis and toilets; what do preschoolers and their families value in a museum visit?’, Museum and Society, 16(3), pp. 352–365.