Culture, creativity and conversation: thinking about tomorrow’s towns

May 14, 2019

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by Issy Petrie, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

The V&A, Dundee

Towns and their future are increasing being debated in media and policy circles. A narrative of Britain’s towns as ‘left behind’ can proliferate, presenting us with a picture of bleak high streets and failing industries.

But at the Carnegie UK Trust, we also see towns – home to two in five people in the UK – as places of rich community life, unique cultural wealth, and places willing to innovate in policy and practice.

Many of these towns are pursuing culture-led regeneration. They may be using flagships buildings and programming to capture the economic potential of visitors and investors, and (perhaps in slower and quieter ways) looking to harness culture and creativity to spark local conversations and connections, to raise skills and aspirations, and to create vibrant places that people are proud to live in.

We are interested in how town leaders (both the usual and unusual suspects) are developing these strategies and practices with the wellbeing of their communities in mind. This includes building an inclusive economy, an engaged community, a healthy population and a sustainable environment.

At a debate hosted by SURF at the V&A Dundee last week, the audience and panel were invited to question the current upswing in culture-led regeneration. Are culture and heritage offering a better way to regenerate places, or are they a distraction from the structural economic challenges that mean some places need regenerating in the first place?

From hopelessness to hope

The potential of cultural activities and collective creativity to bring people together and build local capacity for change was a theme throughout the SURF debate. ‘Culture’ – however it is defined, from the everyday to the extraordinary – has the power to get people on to the streets and into shared spaces. Beyond the private home and the workplace, the conviviality of being and doing together helps to form the mycelial connections that build our social capital.

This could be at the pub, a festival, on the allotment. From these encounters, we can begin to think about our shared values – what’s working in a place, and what isn’t? How do we want this place to be? And can we start to change that.

As one panelist put it, culture has the power to move us from hopelessness to hope. Culture can help to uncover or to create positive stories of a place, from valuing hyper-local memories of a park, through to shared pride in a year as City of Culture, our narratives of place can help us grapple with past challenges but also assert the strength of a community. As our Twin Towns project showed, creating civic pride in a unique sense of place helps to build town capacity to act together for change.

Whose culture? And where?

The debate explored some difficult questions. This included ‘art washing’ – dressing up gentrification and exclusion with artistic tokenism. It was an important reminder to look under the hood of cultural development – are there wider transformations happening above and beyond the cultural practices that catch our attention?

We need to remove any idea that a place is being made cultural, that it is benefitting from receiving culture. Understanding every place as already cultural (though maybe it won’t be too flashy from the outside) asserts the assets of a community, and ensures the community itself is the agent of change.

We were also reminded that although culture can help create resilient and strong towns, and spark change locally, culture alone cannot alone alleviate structural inequalities. For some towns, public spending austerity and centralised policy-making have resulted in what seem like overwhelming challenges. However, as both this article about Granby 4 Streets in Liverpool, and this article about so-called ‘left behind towns’ by the RSA explore, very real structural challenges can be balanced by creativity, hope and action.

Carnegie UK Trust has supported learning and collaborative work, such as Twin Towns, that has shown when places are encouraged to think creatively and collectively, they can draw on their strengths and people to develop a positive future. Carnegie UK Trust believes that culture and creativity can play a vital part in this re-visioning of towns, and we will be exploring this further in joint work with The Stove Network in Dumfries. Please do get in touch if you would like to be kept in touch with future developments, or have ideas or comments.