The big picture
In regeneration everyone wants a cultural strategy. But it’s no use paying lip service to creativity, says David Barrie: it should be built-in across the board.
Creativity can get to parts that other regeneration activities cannot reach. It can personalise a
project, engage new people in the process, and add values that can inspire communities and investors alike. Yet many in the ‘renaissance’ world of regeneration, often avid consumers of culture and the arts themselves, still see creativity as immeasurable froth that distracts from a mythic struggle on behalf of the poor.
Peckham Library, the Angel of the North, the Hay Festival, Tate Modern, Ferens and Walsall Art Galleries, Brighton’s creative strategy, the Custard Factory and waterways across the Pennines: all of these projects have been regenerative in a way that should have convinced us that creativity matters. From my experience of regeneration activity in Castleford, West Yorkshire, I have learned that appointing creative designers, working with ambitious, open-minded project managers, and running ‘cultural’ events can add value to the mission of bringing new prosperity to a deprived community.
It is common sense to boost the creativity of design in regeneration. The personality of the world about you contributes to your quality of life, so outstanding design doesn’t just offer a higher financial return -it improves everyday experiences. People expect quality from their built environment. They also avidly consume new experiences. Design can help regenerators to tap into these dynamics, and perhaps the job description of those responsible for initiating social and economic change should be modified to include the phrase ‘enable the unexpected’.
To run art events alongside a capital works programme is to help establish the principle of individuality, to become an advocate rather than just an enabler, to smoke out low-lying aesthetes, and to challenge investors’ preconceptions about a place. As the fashion industry has long understood, art is a language that can position any sponsor.
Teaming up with a DJ and projecting images of a town and its development sites on the wall of a nightclub might make some cringe, but this is about winning access to a key part of the local economy: younger punters who’ll sustain the future. Two ‘Regeneration’ club nights we have run in Castleford have helped to ‘virally’ market the project, extending and using social networks to make it more ‘investment-ready’.
Admittedly, at times, urban regeneration is worryingly full of fancy architectural visions, symbolic acts of ‘greening’ streets, bolt-on public art and an obsession with ‘creative clusters’. And certainly, there is a great need to find a way of evaluating the economic impact of culture in regeneration -a key theme of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s recent consultation document, Culture at the Heart of Regeneration. But God help the output fetishists in their struggle to find a ‘decision matrix’ that can put a value to eccentricity, tipping points and ‘psychological self-determination’.
Even without an established system for quantifying the value of creative approaches, I think the regeneration sector needs to acknowledge afresh that there is a missing creative link in much of its work -and that Angels of the South, East and West-South-West are not the answer.
Some developers, like Urban Splash and Igloo Regeneration, and project managers, such as Mace, do try to engender in their schemes some of the excitement and emotional response that other creative people achieve in fields like publishing, design or media production. And organisations such as the London Borough of Southwark, government regeneration agency English Partnerships, regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, Wakefield, Manchester and Sheffield councils and government body British Waterways, do demonstrate an active commitment to going the extra creative mile. However, urban regeneration companies should be as advanced, appointing creative directors tasked with adding value to regeneration strategies, lending imagination to community engagement, linking regeneration with cultural development, and wiring social entrepreneurs and local impresarios into the process.
The world of Sir John Egan and the National Centre for Sustainable Community Skills is peopled by surveyors, planners, engineers and graduates in land management and accountancy. It would be good if a future intake includes humanities graduates, lawyers, bankers, geographers and media types to add to a risk-friendly, non-institutional mindset. Finally, more regeneration projects and masterplans should, rather than be rolled out like mighty, impersonal war games, be implemented so individual creativity can thrive.
One way to achieve this is to get consultants and officers to work for and with ordinary people, thinking of them as the starting point rather than the end consumers. Emphasise self-expression and the right to participate. Think small, not big. And remember that, however poor, depressed or powerless, most people have a section of DNA that compels them to do things such as make matchstick models of the Cutty Sark or turn a deadbeat allotment into a Tuscan-style garden paradise. Regeneration schemes can and should be structured and delivered in complex ways that enable the expression of quirky, creative, non-formulaic minds.
David Barrie m executive director of The Castleford Project and an executive producer
at Talkback Thames.
For more details on the Project visit www.channel4.com/castleford
Source: Regeneration magazine