Cultural regeneration (again)

I am grateful to John Thackara and his excellent monthly newsletter for this piece on cultural regeneration.

He writes of Berlin’s ‘Poor but Sexy’ approach to cultural regeneration, as presented by Anna Krenz.  Anna owns a tiny 20 square metre shop-front and art space, Galerie Zero in Berlin,  which has produced 100 pioneering art shows, installations and events over a six year period.  Thackara calculates that these 100 events cost “less than building the men’s toilets in a Frank Gehry-type art museum”.

This re-ignites an always fascinating debate about the pros and cons of major project regeneration, as opposed to micro and social business economic development.  In places like Manchester there have been apparently successful examples of both:  on the one hand the Lowry, which has helped transform Salford, leading to its being able to attract the BBC and a host of other businesses, people and jobs;  and, on the other, the regeneration of the canal district, into a lively, buzzing area of businesses, restaurants, and a hugely diverse resident and working population.

But John’s piece highlights questions not just about environmental impact but sustainability.  Many would argue that the success of major regeneration project like the Lowry Centre is that they can act as a magnet for new developments, attracting in much-needed investment;  others would say that developments like those around Canal Street are much more longer-lasting and have a more significant community impact, led as they are by local businesses, creating a mushrooming local and indiginous economy.  As Thackara says:  “The importance of projects like Galerie Zero is not just that they cost less than fancy museum buildings; their activities, being created in and by a community, also create a lot of the social capital that policy makers are so keen to foster”.

There are plenty examples of both in London.  Deptford has both – a vibrant local creative community and whole street of artists’ workspace, just a few yards from the fantastic Laban building;  the O2 centre on the Greenwich Peninsula is, at last, leading to massive redevelopments, including the impressive Ravensbourne College;  Shoreditch has seen creeping gentrification over a 20+ year period, but is managing to retain its profile as a creative community, despite being fringed by the City.

There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with any of these, of course.  But it is instructive to reconsider them, particularly in the context of planned developments such as those for the Olympic Park.  The chances are that the more successful, longer-lasting and, in John Thackara’s terms, more sustainable developments will be those that work with a local creative community – small voluntary groups as well as new digital businesses.  Many people think that the big blue fence around the main Olympic site is there to protect a Lowry- or Gehry-type development, closing out the local creative population.  But while we’re waiting for 2012, there’s nothing stopping local partners injecting a bit of energy and support into the Anna Krenz’s of this world, who might just help ensure that what emerges the other side of the fence worth the wait!

Hackney Wick 2009

Hackney Wick, 2009

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