It may come as a surprise that a small, project funded theatre company has shown an interest in discussing city planning, regeneration and redevelopment...
Then again, maybe it won’t.
In 2018, 27% of City Centre Units in Newport were classed as vacant, a figure that no doubt is reflected across the UK, and is set to rise. But this isn't just a blog about empty space.
In the recent Local Planning and Development documents Newport City Council reported that there has been an increase of 9 locations across the city measured as LSOA (Lower social output Area) since the last report in 2014, with 23 areas in Newport now being placed in the top 10% of deprivation, it seems, this resulting in Newport ranking the highest percentage in the WIMD (Wales index of mass deprivation) in the whole country.
These statistics are deeply concerning and what does this mean to us as artists and social connectors who live and work in this city? What do we do with this information? What can we do? Is it our place to do something? As artists, surely it is our purpose to shine a light in the darkness and a mirror up to the world? This often weighs heavy on our shoulders.
It seems at this point we are considering 2 things. The Cities and spaces in which we live, and a regenerative overhaul of our systems that begins to allow for better cultural, social wellbeing and social purposes. The second, the glaring facts of a poverty stricken society that are still being encouraged to spend what they don't have.
When we strip this back, what we are discussing here are human values, and the potential to approach rebuilding a cultural, socio-economic infrastructure in response to a value system based on basic human needs rather than archaic planning habits built on capitalist frameworks.
Here's the disparity- electrical car charge points in cities where many families cannot put food on their tables. Million pound investments into universities when young people struggle to get a part time job, and the expectation on families to consider extortionate fees or have the time/capacity to support grant applications and loans to train for a job that may not even exist by the time the course ends. Or lack the structured postgraduate support really needed to realise their ambition or place in the city they have studied and beyond.
More big shiny buildings.
What if we got radical?
What if we looked beyond offering artists, communities, small businesses and social enterprises 'temporary space' 'temporary start up support' and offered permanent, long term, subsidised space and structured financial support, promoting multi functional space with a social and cultural purpose? and what if these were supported by co-operative strategies to allow for the long term financial success and social growth?
What if we reimagined our open city centre spaces as places to improve wellbeing, raise our social capital and that nurtured a reconnection to our public spaces?
What if, instead of trying to stick plasters over old wounds we looked at a phase of consultancy that didn't include large scale consultation firms shipped in from other places, It included the cities cultural and social organisations and individuals, grass roots voluntary committees, the ones that have continued to connect with their service users, that have gathered vital information and learning on changes to our social wellbeing, isolation and loneliness?
What if we responded to how people felt about working from home and looked at flexible models to adapt how people continued to function based on the last year? What if we could reimagine huge office blocks?
What If the planning and development departments in local authority employed a Cultural and social redevelopment planning and consultation committee, This consultation committee is made up of artists, community leads, community development workers and local authority members and is a group that honestly reflects the city that it seeks to represent, listen to and report on. This committee could be outsourced to other new and exciting redevelopments across cities and act as a people's voice for local authority.
We aren't reinventing the wheel here. There are many local authorities flying the flag for bold and brave regenerative plans with cultural, social wellbeing and ecological welfare at the core. To name a few, the recent greenfield planning in Stockton On Tees, a city, not too dissimilar to Newport:
A radical regeneration of city centre space in Nottingham - creating open green space, wildflower meadows.
The repurposing of Southsea Debenhams into an indoor market supported by the local university, where city centre entrepreneurship, trade and learning directly affect the social and economic infrastructure of a place
Is it impossible to consider some of these initiatives as potential outcomes for our cities in Wales? It is understandably difficult to grasp the potential economic value, however, in a podcast recorded by Mary Portas, entitled The Kindness Economy, she tackles this when discussing social capital and changing trends in high street consumerism, she explains:
“If you make places where people want to be socially, then the economic capital follows"
Newport, to us, seems to be in a perfect position to redefine itself and its identity to make bold and brave decisions, but this takes support and vision from cultural leaders and at local authority level. Newport, as the sandwich filling between two slices of bread (Bristol and Cardiff), has the ability to define its identity as progressive, responsive and adventurous. With its history of democratic anarchism and cultural infrastructure of art, heritage, design, industry and music - Newport is a multi cultural city of creative and community agitators ready to reimagine. If we were only offered the agency to do so.
But this is likely just an example of many cities that could adopt drastic regeneration plans, and some it seems already are.
There is also currently an unspoken, holistic methodology that seems needed in order to repair and rebuild our human and social capital, that provides a gentle sanitised handshake between us and society once again.
We must create a city environment that feels safe, not through signage and red tape (physical and metaphorical) but through calm, progressive, expansive reimagining of planning and process that promotes social cohesion and reconnection. What if we removed metal fencing and offered people a place to share a thought, Attach a note for someone to find, fencing switched to planters, advertising boards into living walls. Making spaces for social reconnection and contemplation.
All of this is to better understand that alongside a focus on basic human needs, we must also adopt a method of repurposing. Of creating spaces, places and services to truly listen, offer reflection, respond, and to discuss, to reconnect us all with life outside our homes.
This may not be the creation of space that has a specific purpose, maybe they have a few, but the concept is that the spaces are open, adaptable and governed by a series of social aims and objectives, and individuals intent on delivering them. These may not be indoors. With enough open, bright, free space to allow people to negotiate themselves and their potential post pandemic social anxieties and Covid safety. In order to continue we must extend our focus to working out of our buildings, and initially connect these to places where people feel safe to be. These are streets, doorsteps, parks and places that promote agendaless social infrastructure.
This isn’t just us talking about identifying and potentially making nice spaces for people to eat a sandwich. This is social, cultural, economic and environmental benefit.
This is often about raising social capital, truly listening and responding to need and understanding that by imparting a sense of trust and ownership in the people of the city, in relation to the spaces around themselves, adopting new means of consultation instead of forms, 140 page documents and external consultancy firms, we have to listen to the current statistics and the people at ground level, These are the people receiving calls in the night from young people on the verge of a suicide attempt, the homeless handed £2,500 fines by PCSO’s for begging and homeless buskers asked to pay a £60 busking license fee, The engagement workers who have developed their practice to include online delivery just to keep talking together, the teachers, parents and students pushed to the edge of their capacities when systems fail them.
People will come out of the last year changed forever. but change can be good, and change can mean action. For most of us the pandemic has meant a greater social connection to our immediate environments, For some it has offered the ability to slow down, take stock, for others it has meant grief, loss and for most isolation and fear but alongside this have been beautiful examples of togetherness, an increased sense of civic pride, window displays, shopping trips, love and care - but this needs to recognised and measured now.
If housing associations and city planning departments seek to better understand the effect that their decisions have on the impact and behaviour of society then they must read Palaces for the People by Erik Klinenberg. A book that enters into a epidemiological investigation of city planning in direct relationship to human behaviour. Klinenberg compares multiple spaces created to promote social infrastructure and mirrored housing complexes with small differences in design but immeasurable impacts on human and social capital. It cites broken windows as a physical representation of lack of civic pride, and allows us to imagine the impact that a series of disused spaces has on its urban landscape in direct relation to raised rates of crime and antisocial behaviour. You see one broken window, why not break another? But how do we measure the need for more social housing alongside the takeover of cultural and retail space? We need a balance. Because without the spaces that encourage social cohesion we send ourselves further into a segregated society of locked doors and closed minds. The pandemic has allowed us to see what happens when we lack social interaction and we are yet to fully measure the long term impact of this social isolation and separation.
This social impact to space is reflected in the city planning and development of negative space such as underpasses and alleyways. These spaces can be redeveloped and often are by artists, but are we really reimagining their functionality? And the need to discuss the socio-economic issues of the areas that often surround them? These commissions regularly come packaged neatly in hours to engage with local communities, but is the support and funds ever really given to invest the time needed to consult, measure and implement creative solutions together? When will we stop seeing community engagement and development as a part time, tick box exercise? And as a vital part of everything we do. This is about co-creation and agency.
It also isn’t an impossible task to consider initiatives that engage with communities to brighten up their own neighbourhoods. To enter into a new relationship with the world outside their front doors, that responds to the changes as a result of the pandemic, that offers them agency, ownership and creative means to redevelop and reshape their spaces, to make them safe and supported. The likelihood is of course, that these areas lack the social capital and agency needed to articulate the re-imagination of their environments, because who has been there to listen to them? Who even asked? Also how do you encourage people to realise their creative potential? It could be suggested that a holistic and long term approach to public engagement is required. It has been proven that, positive action creative social action will often counteract negative and anti social behaviour, This isn't the long arm of the law, or a 'no cycle' sign, the removal of benches or a private security guard, because when people are offered agency and the ability to truly feel a sense of creative civic and local pride the spaces are maintained.
This is really about understanding social and cultural behaviours. Why do young people hang out for hours in McDonald's? because its likely their continued custom is welcome by the staff but for them that space is safe, its familiar, its open enough to promote social gathering which is likely encouraged, therefore in this space they have a raised social capital, it also has free wifi and cheap food. Why do young people hang out in the streets? Because adults voted for a government that stripped social services bare of the staff, tools and funds needed to keep youth centres and provisions open... but that's another blog.
In a recent article in the Telegraph entitled ‘Welcome to Operation Rebuild Britain’ Simon Heffer writes that post WW2 the government appointed a Minister of reconstruction - “to oversee the physical and psychological rebuilding of society” . Is it too revolutionary to consider that local authorities could now do the same?
As a company of artists we have always worked hard to develop close and lasting relationships with people and places. Often looking at our artistry as the vehicle for deeper social connection to a location or a community. For us, it has always started with a location, indoors or out and the people that directly and indirectly inhabit it and the socioeconomic factors that surround it. A typical process for us takes a minimum of 3 years, from conception to delivery and either side of the 'show' in whatever form that takes, is a lengthy process of identifying with local partner organisations and rooting ourselves in the temporary world, listening to people, with the understanding that we can't always stay, and we can't solve everything, we often need to access services that can help and that our work may well be at the very start of a journey or at least a conversation.
This journey never starts with building more buildings, rather repurposing and reimagining what's already there and is often the celebration of human value, connection and telling great stories. Because if we aren't making time and space for each other then what are we doing? If we arent working harder to build social cohesion in or out of publicly funded buildings then all those spaces will ever represent for many is privilege and elitism.
We remain optimistic that we're at a point where these things HAVE to change, but with the nagging doubt based on recent conversations that we have a long way to go before they really do.
In the meantime it's important to focus on the good examples, hold the uncomfortable conversations, listen to those around us and have a heart.
Peace and love,
George - Co-Director