Noel Isherwood

CITY OF CULTURE 2021 where to go when your city doesn’t win?

CITY OF CULTURE 2021 where to go when your city doesn’t win?

Coventry has just staged the first UK Shop Front Festival following its winning bid for the City of Culture 2021.Swansea didn’t win the bid and neither did Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland and the town of Paisley.

The taste is more bitter for Swansea who had previously missed out to Hull.

How do you pick up the pieces and keep going for the next big prize?

The lure of the prize according to the Guardian ‘has intensified after the EU, post-Brexit, cancelled Britain’s previously agreed turn to have a city given European City of Culture status in 2023. That came after much time, effort and money had gone into formal bids from Belfast-DerryDundee, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Nottingham’.

With the addition of these cities, it is clear that far more have lost out than have experienced the big ‘win’.

For Coventry, the backing from the city had been huge, with one early survey saying 80% of residents supported the bid. About 150 businesses gave the bid financial support, which, it is thought, may have differentiated Coventry from other bidders. Their bid also appears to have been a joint venture, combining cultural, community and commercial interests of which the Council was but one participant. While the Council clearly gave their strongest backing to the Coventry bid, they were not the principle driver of the process nor the bid. This suggests that the process of re-thinking the city was resting more with its citizens than that of the city authorities.

Engagement of citizens and their empowerment is now a top priority in connection with any form of sustainable future. The empowerment of women and girls and their education has been identified as the single most effective way to reduce the carbon footprint globally, as identified in Drawdown, a summary of international scientific research on climate change edited by Paul Hawken (2017).

Post Blitz development of central Coventry

What has this to do with a bid for the city of culture?

Perhaps it is the very question of engagement. To be effective, this is a process that takes place over time with the right level of encouragement and skill being applied consistently across the multiple communities that make up a city.

Tracey McNulty, who co-ordinated Swansea’s strategy for the City of Culture bid said “There is a strong sense of contrast here between the run-down areas and the pretty coastline. We have areas of great need. Some places that are only a mile or so apart have a seven-year gap in life expectancy.” (Guardian 03.12.17)

This sense of an intractable problem having deep roots may have been a conundrum to the judges. What is the underlying issue? Where is it all heading and what is being done to address it? However smart a bid might be and however much engagement was done to support the Swansea bid, could it be that this would be seen as just scratching the surface if a longer term strategy of engagement and empowerment has been ineffective. The recent termination of the Communities First program may be evidence of a wider problem with engagement in Wales.

The Big Society ideas promoted by David Cameron, yes the very one who initiated Brexit, have let a genie out of the bottle in England. This has enabled significant community engagement across the country that would have been unthinkable before. Holes no doubt can be picked in the Neighbourhood Planning process but lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The effect of this process since 2011 with the Localism Act may by now be working its way into the City of Culture bids from regional towns across England. Here the principle of engagement and citizen participation may have become more embedded in the development process. Whilst Wales resists the urge to look over its shoulder to what is happening in England it may miss key lessons that could be applied to help progress it towards higher levels of participatory planning and budgeting. Other countries have models which may be more appropriate, but until a suitable model is identified and implemented, Wales may still not have what it takes to address this underlying issue.

This may have been only too evident to the judges assessing the bids submitted.

Unit 19 – temporary uses for community in central city area.

So while everyone pitches in more than willingly to ‘Cwtch the Bid’, the energy levels required to overcome underlying obstacles may currently be too great.For the officials involved in the bid, after recovering from temporary dent in pride, they can dust down and get on with the next bid.

For the many artists, business and individuals involved this is a different matter. It’s not just the pride that is dented but the bank balance and a depletion of energy reserves.

What is certain is that the kind of engagement and empowerment necessary across the city cannot be drummed up during the life of a bid. It needs to be something that has already become embedded across all sectors and started well in advance of such a bid.

National policy support and financial incentives are clearly helpful. But there is no reason why this can’t be addressed at the local city region level with sufficient motivation of all stakeholders, including local councils and a willingness to encourage genuine empowerment of their citizens and communities.

Only then will a bid for the City of Culture be a worthwhile investment.  Until then, the city should focus on developing genuine engagement at the local level, which is the answer in any case to the global crisis.

Swansea is not without its success’s without the benefit of winning the Bid.

The first of 6 awnings to be installed on Swansea High Street

To name but a few, these include the thriving Uplands Market, the Vetch Field growing experiment and other markets that are taking root around the city. There are re-activated spaces for community use such as Unit 19 and a significant change in the perception of the High Street through its regeneration by collaborative working between the Volcano Theatre, Street Traders, Coastal Housing and support from the Arts Council of Wales.

If the success of the Coventry Bid is anything to go by, these multiple small steps seem to be key to changing the perception and functioning of the city for the better to improve the quality of life and well-being for the people who live and work there now.

Planning and design principles should be rooted in solid engagement strategies that not only build consensus but which tap into the invariably rich palette of ideas and expertise that resides in each local  community.

Whether you are establishing or perfecting your action plan, masterplan, building plan or are starting out on an journey of engaging the community and other stakeholders, you can apply for a free telephone consultation with me, Noel Isherwood.

Call +44 (0) 789 1776251 


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