This should be the ‘comeback’ year for culture in our cities, but we need to reconsider how best to define our cultural spaces, says Sadie Morgan
In December 2022, a report from the World Economic Forum revealed that “Europe’s urban areas need urgent action”, and outlined fears that urban centres were losing their vibrancy. It considered how that risk might be addressed while also tackling issues of social and environmental resilience.
This year has the potential to be the “comeback” year for towns, cities and urban places. Three years after a global pandemic crippled our social agency, people are returning to the urban core to participate in the activities that have been beloved by humanity for centuries – arts, culture, entertainment and an overall feeling of shared vitality.
But despite this social momentum, urban life still faces several challenges. So for that “urgent action” to happen within our urban centres, we need to be thinking about how to create a better infrastructure for culture – a binding aspect of society that brings both joy and unity.
In design terms, there are three things that feel crucial to creating stronger infrastructure for culture: the first is “redefinition”, looking at new development and how we can reprogramme our understanding of what makes a happy, highly liveable urban place.
The second is “flexibility”, relating to the importance of anticipatory planning and design. The third is “wellbeing”, which is connected to creating and supporting a thriving life of culture in towns and cities.
Redefinition involves moving away from defining cultural assets as singular entities within urban systems. Grand cultural spaces like theatres and museums will surely always have a place in the urban core – they are important as beacons of cultural legacy and progress.
When introducing cultural assets into existing places, we must be aware not to manicure out their former usefulness and liveability
But, for urban places to remain programmatically resilient, the definition of the “cultural space” should shift towards 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.
In tandem, we must be aware when introducing cultural assets into existing places not to manicure out their former usefulness and liveability. A fine 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 £1bn 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 brought 330,000 visitors to Mayfield after more than 30 years of decline – a notable example of urban renewal and taking action to revitalise places through culture.
>> Also read: Mayfield, Manchester: a park for the people
For cultural life and production to thrive within urban places we also need to embrace new levels of flexibility – from the scale of infrastructure, down to individual buildings. Firstly, we need to ensure that our urban centres are well enough connected to allow anyone to access them.
Good infrastructure allows people the flexibility required to follow their creative, cultural or artistic pursuits – whether it is participating in, or just enjoying, cultural life. Robust, long-lasting, and effective transport infrastructure is key to bringing a more diverse mix of people to the urban core and thus to better pool talent and activity.
If we can envision urban futures that are not singular or static, then we can more easily envision a world where people can be creative in shaping their environments
Designing and planning with more innovation and flexibility is not just vital for the social and functional futurity of places, it is also important for creating urban places that give an element of control and direction back to the people who inhabit them. If we can envision urban futures that are not singular or static, then we can more easily envision a world where people can be creative in shaping their environments.
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.
Within the foundation’s work, we developed a quality of life framework, which identifies six overriding themes: control, health, nature, wonder, movement and belonging. Within our definition of wonder, we include creativity, cultural expression, museums and libraries alongside the places where we live and work.
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. The intention was to map what local people value and need in their local area.
In one specific region, we learnt that people were highly engaged with local cultural and heritage sites, but that they felt generally dissatisfied with the provision of local services and amenities. They actively noted the need for investment into local social infrastructure, pointing to the fact that cultural vibrancy contributes to the overall understanding and rating of quality of life.
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.
Going forward we must have the courage to rethink our existing definitions of what art and culture is; the foresight to plan places that can support it as that definition changes; and the knowingness to keep people’s aspirations at the heart of what spaces for culture are – and can become.
Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM, chair of the Quality of Life Foundation and a design advocate for the GLA