Articles, research and publications produced by Plan Projects.

Article written by Ivan Tennant for Tripwire, the magazine of the Royal Town Planning Institute of the West Midlands .

At the end of 2010 Property Week magazine ran a competition inviting ‘artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs’ to come up with ideas for ‘meanwhile uses’ for a number of building sites close to the Royal Docks in East London. Plan Projects led one successful team, putting forward the ‘Honey Factory’ for a site in Canning Town. This would be a visually striking multifunctional space providing event and educational facilities for people, a café and housing for a number of bee hives set in a ‘wild flower meadow.’ ‘Meanwhile uses’, the temporary use of land awaiting development, offer a case study on how projects that sit at the intersection between creative expression, economic development, social inclusiveness and environmental improvement can be an extraordinarily powerful way of delivering change.

People are familiar with the strategy that foresees regeneration taking place on the back of new capital projects being dropped into a place in the manner of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This is, however, not the only model that exists for the use of culture to deliver change. The approach in Bilbao has been described as ‘culture-led’ regeneration. There is another model, ‘culture within regeneration’. This takes the form of more subtle interventions, often working at the grass-roots, that seek to help a community adjust to new economic realities or address entrenched social issues. For new communities culture based initiatives can build identity and connections to established settlements. The term ‘area cultural strategy’ refers to the development of a place based programme of projects that address key issues of relevance to the decline or sub optimal performance of towns and cities.

The emergence of culture as a specific aspect of planning is part of a broader phenomenon. During the latter part of the twentieth century, partly as a result of the conspicuous failure of approaches to town planning based on modernist principles urban designers responded to the need for places to work better for people. The continued importance of improving standards was underlined by CABE’s well know report into design quality that found that the vast majority of new housing developments were of mediocre to poor standard (CABE, 2007). The development industry therefore remains under pressure to improve. ‘Liveability’ has become a buzz word. This quality is applied to places that offer access to economic opportunity, enjoy a strong civic culture and possess a high standard of environmental quality.  It is argued cultural strategies should form an essential component in delivering such conspicuously successful places.   

At the level of the city, an important aspect of this is to do with economic ‘resilience.’ Some UK cities during the recession were revealed to be ‘brittle;’ their vulnerability in the face of change accounted for by their economies being insufficiently diverse or their workforce lacking the skills required by emerging industries; or they lack sufficient differentiation – that their approach to regeneration mirrored that of other places and, as a result, they lacked compelling reasons for investors to remain. Commentators have observed this condition comes as a result ‘one dimensional’ economic development focussed solely on the ‘hard economic outcomes’ of job creation and new workspace created; this fails to recognise the fundamental interconnectedness of the civic and economic lives of places (CLES, 2010).

Both at a local and city level, a cultural programme can be helpful in addressing precisely these issues of ‘brittleness.’ It asserts the true complexity of how places work; it can support the wider economy by improving the skills of the workforce and encouraging confidence and aspiration among young people; it can build an approach to regeneration that respects (and capitalises on) the embedded values and traditions of place; it has been shown to be effective in strengthening people’s basic skills such as interacting with others and prompting a willingness to participate in wider society. Furthermore, within a vision for the regeneration of towns and cities, the ‘civic economy’ offers a powerful means of economic diversification. This is economic opportunity generated by the community, for the community. While ostensibly a form of economic development, such activity has been shown to be high in cultural value by improving social cohesiveness and providing a wealth of informal services of great social value.
Ivan Tennant, Principal, Plan Projects 

Leave your own comment