London’s strength as a ‘global cultural powerhouse’ will prove to be a key part of its economic armoury in a post-Brexit world. But it must strive to preserve its fast-dwindling spaces for artists, create ‘holistic’ plans that integrate cultural facilities in a seamless way, and effectively measure the benefits that such facilities bring to their wider environments.
Those were some of the key takeaways from Cultural Strategies: London’s changing places, a half-day conference held at the NLA.
The Brexit view came from Moira Sinclair, vice chair of the Mayor’s Cultural Leadership Board, who said that culture has a key role to play in attracting visitors to a city that remains ‘open to business’ but which also needs an immigration system fit for the 21stcentury.
Sinclair said that the board is adopting an ‘ambitious and grounded plan’ for culture, with the mayor’s cultural strategy balancing infrastructure and ‘soft’ measures to support cultural organisations to thrive. ‘Everyone has the right to an expressive life, and in enabling that, the city can be a better place for us all to live and work. You need that diversity of spaces.’
The loss of cultural spaces takes the heart out of communities, she said; culture anyway is a ‘living, breathing, shifting thing’ that needs to be redefined to take on board new and emerging forms like gaming. The strategy aims to protect where culture is consumed – museums, cinemas and music venues, for example, and where it is produced, recognising too the importance of informal spaces for culture such as green spaces and skate parks. London needs to be a place where more diverse culture can thrive, with culture offering an opportunity to resist the worst aspects of gentrification. It had been a huge achievement to get mention of culture’s importance into the London Plan, and, although the data suggests that most Londoners don’t travel outside their postcode to take in the capital’s ‘world-class cultural offer’, the mayor says that the cultural and creative industries are vital to the city’s success, and for all Londoners. ‘I’ve worked with three London mayors – this is the first time I have seen an attempt to work at a systems level’, said Sinclair. ‘What’s really different is the commitment to integrate culture at a city-wide level’. Planning policy needs to take account of culture, Sinclair added, but it should be seen as a positive contributor to some of the challenges planning is seeking to address.
Following the screening of a new film by Rupert Murray, ‘Creative Capital’, which looks predominantly at Trinity Buoy Wharf as a good example of an arts focus in an age where they are dying out from central London, the GLA’s Kirsten Dunne, senior strategy officer for the culture and creative industries took on the theme, asking what happens when you take culture away from a place. When nightclub Fabric was threatened with closure there was a petition matched by another when a Barbara Hepworth statue in Dulwich was faced with a similar threat, while a scheme that threatened the skate park at South Bank drew a record 27,286 planning objections. ‘The appreciation for culture can’t always be counted in memberships’, she said. ‘It’s visceral; it’s the fabric of the city.’ Housing is of course an issue, and a scheme in New York providing low-cost space for artists proves the notion that culture needs to be thought of as ‘an ecology’ to be held and nurtured. The GLA is creating a cultural infrastructure map as a live tool that, alongside creative enterprise zones and creative land trusts will help to try and keep culture alive.
One of the artists in Murray’s film had spoken of her distress at having to move her studio space some 20 times, and Murray said that everyone he spoke to had had a similar ‘nightmare story’ to tell about creative workspace. ‘People have been hurting’, he said, leading to many in the sector feeling undervalued. ‘We have the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past’. V22 founder Tara Cranswick said her organisation too had been pushed further out, while Be First head of regeneration David Harley said Barking’s response had been partly to open up a lot of its ground floor spaces, such as that it has let to Bow Arts. Alex Russell, joint chief executive, director of engagement and partnerships at the Westway Trust said it let studios at affordable rates and is providing a new multi-floor arts venue for live music. ‘Because we’re a charity and landlord here for the long-term, we feel we can do things a little differently.’
Waltham Forest, meanwhile, has an opportunity to change the borough rapidly by harnessing culture, after having won the honour of becoming London Borough of Culture, 2019. Director of the project Lorna Lee said that it plans a series of arts projects including with 1999 Mecrury Music Prize winner Talvin Singh, Greenaway & Greenaway, and, with Erland Cooper and Marshmallow Laser Feast, a ‘very serene installation’ involving birdsong and a feature that reacts with sound and light. It will also include a street party, bicycle ‘procession’ and other attractions that are ‘of the place’. ‘It’s about social capital’, said Lee. ‘Regeneration is happening but at the end of this it will be about empowering the community. The London borough of culture is a start of something. We’ve come up with a phrase, right from the top of the council: Waltham Forest: powered by culture.’
At Thamesmead, moreover, the task is to provide a ‘whole-place approach to regeneration’, said Adriana Marques, head of cultural strategy for Thamesmead, Peabody. Embedding culture starts with what is there, she said, ‘locking’ it in and making it watertight rather than a superfluous add-on. Other initiatives include the relaunch of a local radio station, bringing more ‘positive’ film-shoots to the area away from the ‘Clockwork Orange’ image of the past, and creating more public art.
Concerted action by interested grass-roots parties also pays dividends, Long Live Southbank project manager Stuart Maclure said his organisation is £850,000 into a £1.1million fundraiser to create a new facility for ‘boarders to designs by FCB and Max Fordham. ‘It’s empowered the local community and cemented the south bank as the centre for culture’, he said. Maclure suggested that similar organisations should use people in their communities, be creative, and do something different. ‘Don’t just wave around placards and be angry’ he advised. ‘Learn the language of those who challenge or oppose you.’
The London Borough of Brent is the London Culture Borough for 2020, and is keen to be established as a place all its residents can feel proud of, said Dr Melanie Smith, director of public health at the authority. But part of the trick is to simply create better spaces’, said Wordsearch Place founding partner, David Twohig. ‘It’s about always trying to bring the commercial reality back to the developer so you create a circular economy’, he said.
The final session of the conference looked at specific schemes. Ballymore’s Roger Black showed how the English National Ballet and London Film School will help to regenerate London City Island, but ventures such as an eatery are another important part of ‘culture’ already helping to create a place. ‘The social dynamic in this place is extraordinary’, he said. ‘It exploded when we sprinkled a little stardust’. Fairfield Halls, moreover, is the ‘mothership’ of Croydon, said LB Croydon’s cultural director Paula Murray, whose refurbishment and regeneration will help create new public realm, housing, and an arts venue that will enhance the case for inward investment.
Finally, Allies & Morrison partner Alex Wraight showed how ‘The East Bank’ has necessitated a complete reworking of the masterplan to create space for the V&A, London College of Fashion, Sadler’s Wells – a mid-sized space to allow choreographers to grow, said its COO Britannia Morton - and the BBC, along with a 600-home residential zone and new pedestrian bridge to the International Quarter. ‘We’ve tried to create a living, piece of city whose diversity, complexity and richness matches its surroundings’, said Wraight.
An ‘unwritten contract’ exists between occupiers and landowners, said Black, that artists and similar need to move on when areas become more desirable. ‘You occupy a space for a period of time and then you find another space; that’s how it works.’
This is the ‘inevitable story of London’, said Derwent’s head of development Richard Baldwin; that London continues to expand and this ‘natural way of cities’ was something to be embraced. Artists certainly like to be edgy, he added, and do not wish to be ‘cocooned’ in a semi-corporate environment, no matter how well designed. In many ways, though, said Murray, Croydon is following on from places like Shoreditch and Brixton, with artists now moving in because it is affordable. ’We have to hang onto that’, she said.
By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ