The arts and culture in town centre regeneration


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Michael Bloomberg once wrote, “Culture attracts capital more than capital attracts culture because the arts are a magnet for dreamers and innovators from every walk of life.”

Towns and cities across the UK are hoping he is right as local authorities and developers look at different uses to help generate footfall and revitalise their centres. 
Culture and art as part of regeneration is not a new idea. The dominance of retail in recent decades has perhaps side-lined them a little but with high street retail suffering, the search is on for a broader mix of uses. 
“Arts and culture are increasingly being discussed as a way to bring people into town centres to increase the footfall throughout the day. You didn’t hear that discussion a couple of years ago,” says Suzanne Benson, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins. 
And there are wider social benefits too as Chris Rundle, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins explains,
Having more localised activity can help reduce car journeys but it also gives a reason for people to go out and be social which is good for health and wellbeing.” 
Adding a theatre, gallery or music venue to your town centre can be a draw, diversifying the offer, helping to create brand and identity but it isn’t an easy fix and neither is it easy to pull off. Cultural uses aren’t always commercial ventures. How do you keep them inclusive and make them pay if you are a private developer or, for the public sector, pay for them if they need subsidising?
Those that are thinking about boosting their arts and cultural offer would do well to look at the failures of the past as well as the successes. 
The Public in West Bromwich is a case in point. Designed as a multipurpose venue and art gallery it opened two years behind schedule and over budget but the running costs proved too much and in 2013 it closed and is now a college. 
In Birmingham, the council chose to build a new library in the heart of the city centre as part of its regeneration strategy, designing it to be a distinctive architectural feature. It houses important collections, has community space and events and attracts nearly two million visitors a year. But its running costs are a financial challenge, particularly as local authority budgets have been slashed. 
That doesn’t mean art and culture projects can’t be successful. The New Gallery in Walsall is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. And research by the University of Hull shows the substantial benefits to the city as a result of Hull being City of Culture in 2017. 
Not only did the year long series of cultural events substantially boost visitor numbers and spend but it helped attract further inward investment and increased engagement with the arts and pride in the city.
Both Manchester and London are embedding culture and arts into their ongoing economic strategies not only to boost footfall but diversify activity.
Part of the push on the arts and culture is to make Manchester more appealing for families and older people,” says Benson.
It is something the property industry gets in Manchester and has done for many years. Developer Bruntwood has long had a connection with the arts not only sponsoring the Manchester International Festival but since 2005 the Bruntwood Prize – the country’s foremost playwriting award. 
Allied London has teamed up with Manchester City Council and is developing the £110 million multi-disciplinary arts venue The Factory as part of its regeneration of the former Granada TV Studios. It will be a permanent home for MIF as well as hosting events and activities all year round. The council expects it to add 1,500 full-time jobs and up to £1.1 billion to Manchester’s economy over a decade.
The Heart of London Business Alliance which includes property businesses among its members is launching a culture and arts strategy to build on the areas existing destinations such as the Royal Academy of Arts. It wants to create more varied activity to appeal to a wider range of people. 
For example, it has just launched a trail of interactive bronze statues around Leicester Square. Themed around the location’s movie connections it includes star names from Laurel & Hardy to Batman, Mr Bean and Paddington.
Plymouth City Council has also been looking at different drivers for economic development including culture and arts. It has good pockets but wants to broaden the offer and make it more inclusive. As well as enhancing and extending what is already in the city, the council is building The Box a £46 million cultural destination including a museum, gallery, cafe and bar. It is set to open to coincide with the anniversary of the Mayflower and will form the cultural heart of the city. 
With more retail space available there is an opportunity to leverage public sector assets for lower income uses and larger developers and landlords are in a similar position.
If you are a private developer investing into the arts and culture uses you need a big portfolio to justify the cost and get the return on investment. Private owners don’t always have long-term or vested interests,” says Rundle.
Urban Splash is an example of how well it can work for the private sector as part of a larger commercial scheme. At its Royal William Yard regeneration project in Plymouth, galleries and creative workshops are part of a commercial and residential mix, together with a programme of events and sporting activities. 
As a result, it has become a popular destination and was ranked as one of the UK’s ‘greatest experiences’ by the Lonely Planet last year. And, this year it won the Business Insider’s placemaking award.
When it is carefully thought through, art and culture can be an important part of a vibrant regeneration strategy helping to create a distinctive and attractive town or city centre. The hard part is ensuring the benefits aren’t outweighed by the development and running costs.
Case study: Art vs library
In 2016, the city council in Helsinki, Finland voted against a proposal to have a Guggenheim Museum in the city.
The reason? The cost to taxpayers and the risk of not getting the anticipated visitor expenditure.
In 2018 the city inaugurated The Helsinki Central Library Oodi. Libraries are part of Finnish culture, every municipality has to have one but this isn’t the first in Helsinki.
Oodi, however, is far more than a library. It is described on the website as a ‘living room for residents’ offering a wide variety of services and activities and actively encouraging people to meet, work, study or hang out in the space – or play and create.
A third of the space is for books the rest is for meeting or activities including areas where you can develop new skills such as 3D printing or using a sewing machine. You can borrow a musical instrument and there is space to make music. There are also places to eat and have a drink.
It is publicly funded but costs are kept down by the use of technology such as robots for stacking shelves. The decision to reject the Guggenheim but fund a library is an interesting one. It suggests that the council saw better value (monetary and social) for the people of Helsinki in giving them Oodi, a space that encourages interaction, activity and learning. 
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