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The Art World View – ABCs of Cultural Placemaking: Authenticity, Buy-in and Connectivity

18 September 2017
Sara Barker, Last of Light (3 Needles), 2017. Photo courtesy Marc Wilmot
Sara Barker, Last of Light (3 Needles), 2017. Photo courtesy Marc Wilmot

With the recent UNESCO report making the case for a focus on culture to mitigate the challenges of the unprecedented growth of cities, cultural placemaking has moved beyond a ‘nice to have’ and into pole position for ensuring economically viable, healthy, sustainable communities. The magic ingredient lies not in imposed ideals of what culture should be, but rather in unpicking the complex social fabric and the history, recorded and anecdotal, that makes a place unique. The spirit of a place matters – and can be the most important element in creating genuine, thriving places.

Arts and culture can be a catalyst to illuminate authenticity of place, and often it can be simple and community based initiatives that have the most impact. Our work on Sneinton Market Square, in collaboration with Nottingham City Council and Patel Taylor Architects brought lead artist Neville Gabie to build a narrative identity for the Square’s regeneration. In honour of the site’s long history in food production and distribution, Gabie’s resulting commission Orchard used apple trees as a lynchpin to bring diverse elements of the local community together with a common purpose, by creating an apple tree adoption network. A programme of events involving local artists drew people back to the Square, celebrating its past and creating a sustainable vision for its future.

For developers competing in a challenging market, drawing out authentic elements of their sites can create distinctive identity. Enlighted developers Stanhope and Mitsui have used contemporary art to illustrate the unique history of their Angel Court site in the City of London. Artist Sara Barker’s work Last of Light (Three Needles) which dominates the Angel Court piazza beautifully highlights motifs drawn from the area’s history of tailoring, connecting the old with the new.

Gaining buy-in to the vision for the development or regeneration of a place is integral to its long term success. Slick marketing and public announcements won’t go far in capturing the hearts and souls of existing communities and local objections to proposed plans can lead to costly delays. However creative approaches can often galvanise communities and generate embedded cultural memory in ways that marketing cannot. Artist-led community engagement has the effect of generating emotive relationships to place through a period of change. To support Grosvenor’s London Estate 20 year vision, our team were appointed to develop a Culture and Animation Strategy with the aim of bringing existing cultural establishments, local communities and visitors to the area together to celebrate the historic context of the location whilst building a reputation for contemporary, forward looking and inclusive cultural initiatives. Public engagement is key – the central element of our Public Art Strategy for the University of Cambridge’s North West Cambridge Development is the programme of public events, reaching audiences with information shared through a bespoke website which acts as a living archive of the arts programme.

Cultural placemaking has to take a holistic approach – where the question ‘Where is the cultural element’ becomes an essential part of the planning and developer toolkit. Cultural animation can extend beyond public art programming into functional and design elements – offering a visual language for wayfinding, lighting and street furniture, creating distinctive and memorable local identity and exploring the digital realm as a way of connecting people.

Our cultural strategy work is becoming well known for this forensic examination of place and responses that draw inspiration from what is there to inform what may become.  We work with developers, landowners, cultural institutions and the public sector to generate these approaches, seeing the public realm as a platform for culture in its widest sense, bringing contemporary art practice to new audiences and building important cultural ecologies.

Fabienne Nicholas

Head of Consultancy