In December 2022, the World Economic Forum wrote about how “Europe’s urban areas need urgent action”, outlining the threat of urban centres losing their vibrancy, and how that risk might be addressed whilst also tackling issues of social and environmental resilience. In the same piece, they outlined the problem of sprawling, low-density development – its wastefulness in environmental terms, and the way in which land inefficient places bring about a host of problems; like poor connectivity, which in turn leads to inferior quality of life.
I want to talk about how we might support this urgent urban action to happen. To do so, I’ll highlight three things that relate to culture and planning. The first is ‘redefinition’, which looks at new development and how we can reprogramme our understanding of what makes a happy, highly liveable urban place.
The second is ‘flexibility’. Which relates to understanding the importance of anticipatory planning and design and how this relates to creating sustainable urban centres.
The third is ‘wellbeing’ – a subject I have been devoted to for many years and which I believe is deeply connected to creating and supporting a thriving life of culture in cities.
The provocation put forward by this event is – “how do we drive urban change through art and culture in new and existing developments?”. And this is where we can talk about ‘redefinition’ and developing a new way of thinking around how our cities and towns are composed.
In terms of cultural spaces and their relationship to planning, we need to move away from seeing cultural assets as singular entities within urban systems. Grand cultural spaces like theatres and museums will likely always have a place in the urban core – they are important as beacons of cultural and artistic legacy and progress, and visual reminders of the greatest human endeavour that exists – our ability to create and bring to life beautiful things.
But for urban places to remain programmatically resilient, we must redefine what we understand as the ‘cultural space’. This means finding ways to see spaces for culture as chameleon spaces that can absorb a variety of uses – spaces for art and creativity that can also be used for work, production, and everyday community living.
Mixed-use spaces must be designed with provision for cultural use, enabling creativity to thrive within a system of constant activity. Siloed spaces for culture bring about conditions of vacancy – a small community cinema might be empty during the day, but a shared workspace that had screening facilities would be home to constant activity from day to night.
As designers and planners, we must get creative about how this mix of uses can be supported and expanded on. We also need to unlearn many of the preconceptions we have about specific parts of urban cities or towns.
By way of example – a few years ago, the studio I co-founded, dRMM, worked on a mixed-use development in Hackney Wick in London. Hackney Wick’s industrial past has a strong identity, one which is still visible in the warehouses that line its canals. But now, many of these spaces are occupied by creative spaces. Hackney Wick is now known as a creative destination or go-to area. This has been achieved through the ability to look beyond its industrial roots.
What we must be aware of when introducing cultural assets into existing places is not to manicure out their former usefulness and liveability. Our project in this area, Wick Lane, which was a mixed-use project, took its cues directly from distinct character of Hackney Wick. It mixed light industrial units, retail, and workspace into a co-located arrangement along with 175 homes. The scheme was designed in a pedestrian-friendly landscape of yards and lanes, with six distinct buildings working together to form a new community.
Another good example of redefining places to support culture is the Manchester Mayfield Depot project – a 10,000 capacity venue for culture located at Manchester’s historic former railway Mayfield. The project formed part of a £1billion regeneration effort, with an end-goal to give a platform for “a diverse programme of arts, music, industry, culture and community events” in the core of Manchester’s industrial past.
In 2019 alone, Depot Mayfield as a cultural destination brought 330,000 visitors to Mayfield after more than 30 years of decline. Talk about urban renewal and taking action to revitalise places through culture. Moreover projects like these do not live in isolation – their impact is akin to an urban regeneration domino effect. The Depot project helped to reshape and extend the city of Manchester towards Ardwick and worked in tandem with the benefits of the Northern Hub rail expansion plans. Combined, these plans stood as a catalyst for the regeneration of the wider Piccadilly area.
These re-defining ideas of cultural regeneration and co-location are significant to maintaining the vitality, diversity and element of surprise or uniqueness in place-making. How do we drive urban change through art and culture? By ensuring our planning policies are forward-looking enough to embrace evermore radical versions of mixed-use and co-located environments.
But aside from ensuring that planning policy can robustly support diverse urban uses in close proximity, allowing cultural life and production to thrive within urban places means embracing new levels of flexibility.
Flexibility is one of the most important drivers in integrating cultural space into urban centres – and this means flexibility at all levels, from the scale of infrastructure, down to individual buildings.
In the first place, we need to ensure that our urban centres are well connected and equipped with the right infrastructure to allow anyone to access them, so that everyone can reap the benefits of their vitality no matter where they come from.
In other words, we need good infrastructure to be planned into our urban places to allow people the flexibility required to follow their creative, cultural, or artistic pursuits – whether it’s participating in, or just enjoying, cultural life.
More specifically, robust, long-lasting, and effective transport infrastructure is a key tool in moving away from low-quality urbanity. And this has a knock-on effect vis-a-vis cultural spaces. The more diverse a mix of people present in one urban centre, the more exciting and representative its cultural life will be. Mobility is key to achieving this.
More than ever before in the history of the built environment, the subject of environmental sustainability has been pushed to the top of the agenda. Today, there are no considerations that can be made concerning our cities, towns, and neighbourhoods if they don’t first question carbon impact, mitigation, and resilience.
That’s why flexibility is important to design into places at any level. Architecture and urban design today must first and foremost be anticipatory, working to accommodate uses that respond to today’s activities, but able to be nimble enough to support what might come later. This means designing smarter so that we can reduce the need for demolishing, redesigning and rebuilding later.
Designing flexibly doesn’t just have carbon advantages, it also has the potential to change the way we build cultural spaces into urban systems as the very definition of ‘culture’ evolves with time.
Six years ago, my team at dRMM was awarded the RIBA Stirling Prize for our work on the restoration and revitalisation of Hasting Pier – a beloved yet derelict pleasure pier that had once constituted the beating heart of the seaside town of Hastings.
Our decision with its design was to focus on creating a pier that was as structurally robust as possible. Our project became more about bringing to life a space that was flexible to the various uses its community cared about and wanted to have support, than creating a grand design emblem spoke about culture with a capital ‘C’.
For the community of Hastings, being able to spend hours fishing off the edge of the pier was as valuable an activity as having the capacity to host a rock concert for thousands of people. We designed a pier that was flexible enough to do both.
This is what is important about flexibility in building cultural spaces – having the foresight, and the humility, to know that people’s needs and wants may in fact change over time. If history has proven anything at all to us, it’s that culture is anything but static.
Designing and planning with more innovation and more flexibility is not just vital for the social and functional futurity of places, it’s also important for creating urban places give an element of control and direction back to the people who inhabit them. If we can envision urban futures that are not singular and not static, then we can more easily envision a world where people can be creative in shaping the very fabric of their environments.
At a more basic level, making space for arts and culture is a vital component to people’s quality of life. In 2018, we founded the Quality of Life Foundation – a charitable organisation committed to making health and wellbeing central to the way we create and care for our homes and communities.
The foundation has since spearheaded so many initiatives, studies, and community driven research. All our work is carried out through building and sharing evidence-based findings to show why and how development should focus on people’s long-term health and wellbeing.
Within this work, we’ve developed a Quality of Life Framework, which identifies six overriding themes – Control, Health, Nature, Wonder, Movement and Belonging. These have in turn been drawn out from a series of cases studies, and offer practical steps to placing greater emphasis on health and wellbeing in place-making.
The theme of Wonder is perhaps one of the most compelling within the framework, and outlines the way that joy, fun, recreation, culture, and art can bring to improving people’s wellbeing. As such, within our definition of Wonder, we include creativity, cultural expression, museums and libraries alongside the places where we live and work.
We have come to understand through our research that culture as a component of wonder has an enormous definition. IT ranges from great concert halls, libraries and art galleries of our cities, to grass roots venues where new talent is given opportunities and audiences are introduced to new ideas.
Aside from studying what culture means, we have also studied what it means to people. Most recently, we compiled a community report titled “Your Quality of Life”, which came about through a public digital consultation process with the residents of Harlow and Gilston. The intention was to map what local people value and need in their local area.
The project yielded many findings, and represented a new opportunity for people to be at the helm of future trajectories related to the places they live. Most interestingly in relation to this symposium’s theme, was the findings we gathered on people’s relationship with arts and culture within their locality.
Overall, we learned that people in Harlow, Gilston and the surrounding areas were highly engaged with local cultural and heritage sites, but that they felt generally dissatisfied with the current provision of local services and amenities in their area. In short, people wanted to engage with cultural spaces and endeavours, but didn’t have enough opportunities to do so.
As a result, they actively noted the need for investment into local social infrastructure. This is important to point out because it speaks to the role of culture within people’s overall understanding and rating of their quality of life.
Because the future of cities and towns is all about the future of people. Every strategic, design or planning decision made in terms of integrating cultural provision into urban places must be made with people’s progression, autonomy, and wellbeing in mind.
So I’ll return to the central question posed by this symposium: “how do we drive urban change through art and culture in new and existing developments?”. The answer lies in having the courage to rethink our entrenched definitions of what art and culture is; the foresight to plan places that can support it as that definition changes; and the empathy and mindfulness to keep people’s aspirations at the heart of what spaces for culture are and can become.