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leeds culture strategy & the south bank

leeds culture strategy & the south bank

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Photograph by Tom Joy

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Deciding to bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2023 was just the start.

It focused the mind on two things: the year 2023, and culture. If we’re going to bid, there’s no getting past them two.

It also sharpened the edge of a series of already cutting questions, led by the biggie: what culture?

Since the decision was made to bid, culture and 2023 have been used as a prism for almost everything in the city. Is this new piece of theatre right for a city that wants to be a Capital of Culture? Is this new building up to the standards of Europe in 2023? Does cutting the opening hours of these libraries harm our chances of winning with a bid? Can we be a first-rate European Capital of Culture in 2023 if our football team is still in the second division?

It increased the volume if not the clarity of conversation about Leeds, Europe, culture and the future, bringing to the surface all the optimism, cynicism and confusion you would expect from such a loaded bunch of concepts and terms. Noise and static might work as a sound sculpture — as anyone who remembers the day in 2009 when Hans Peter Kuhn’s installation was switched on beneath the Neville Street railway bridge will confirm — but it won’t win you any Capital of Culture bids, or give you much fun stuff to do during the nomination process.

That should explain why Leeds City Council are currently trying to create a Cultural Strategy for the city for 2017-2030: to get some clarity about the city’s cultural strengths, wants and intentions; to form ideas about starting points, ending points and legacies for the Capital of Culture bid; and to give the city the references and tools it needs to grow culturally, for the next decade and a half, whether the bid succeeds or not.

It doesn’t explain the what. A completed Culture Strategy is hard to picture, which makes it difficult to contribute to making one. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been trying to get our heads around it, because Leanne Buchan — the council officer charged with guiding the process, who describes herself as co-authoring the strategy with the entire city — asked us to gather some contributions, and to help encourage more people to get involved. So we figured we’d better know what we’re talking about, because it’s hard to ask people to help make something that nobody can imagine.

The method we settled upon was to describe how the Culture Strategy will be used, which is like this: as a guide to any significant future development, event or project that takes place in Leeds. Say there’s an idea to build a new theatre in Leeds; that’s got to be checked against the Culture Strategy, to see if it’s something Leeds needs or wants, and how it should be developed so that it’s an asset to the people, and complements what Leeds already has. Or if, after the Grand Départ, say a Formula 1 Grand Prix is proposed for Leeds. Can the organisers show, with reference to the Culture Strategy, how that will contribute to life in Leeds?

Or for another example, take the South Bank. It was once and still is Holbeck and Hunslet, LS11 and LS10, the areas just south of the Aire that, since major industry and railways moved out, have felt disconnected from the traditional city centre — what few people in Leeds yet call the North Bank — and from the residential communities that provided the workforce there: Wortley, Holbeck, Hunslet, East End Park.

That area has begun to change already, in Holbeck Urban Village, where the Round Foundry and Marshall’s Mill became offices; The Midnight Bell, Cross Keys, Engine House and Northern Monk opened as pubs and restaurants; Holbeck Underground Ballroom and Old Chapel Studios established centres for entertainment creation and consumption; and in Hunslet, where Clarence Dock has changed its name to Leeds Dock and found its calling, as home to Sky’s digital campus; and where campuses for Leeds City College, Leeds College of Building and Ruth Gorse Academy hem Duke Studios’ new home on Sheaf Street.

It will change even more in the next fifteen-twenty years. If High Speed Rail becomes real, the HS2 station will form a T with the old station, like a literal dancer starting to spell Trains with their arms; Burberry have bought Temple Works and acres of vacant land around it, for a new factory, museum, homes, public squares; what of Holbeck hasn’t been bought by Burberry has been bought by Commercial Estates Group, to finish what the urban village project started; over in Hunslet, the former Tetley Brewery site is now in the hands of Vastint, a property development company that is a relative of IKEA, who are exploring how to build 1,800 dwellings there around a city centre park; CITU’s plans for Low Fold, including 300 sustainable homes constructed in an on-site factory, are among a clutch of smaller-scale but large impact proposals south of the Aire and close to the city centre.

The idea is that, as those plans become foundations, walls and roofs between now and 2030, that at every step of the way developers will have to refer to and prove that what they’re doing supports and contributes to the aims and values set out in the city’s Culture Strategy. If everything proposed for the South Bank comes off, central Leeds will double in physical size and its population and facilities will increase with it; so it had better be right for Leeds, because that’s a lot to be getting wrong if it isn’t.

The Culture Strategy will be one of the ways the city will try to ensure it grows in a way that enhances what people love about living, working and playing in Leeds already, and in a way that matches the ambitions Leeds people have for their city, so that love can increase.

Hopefully that, for you, answers the what, and gives you the impetus to answer the call for contributions at LeedsCultureStrategy.org, one of the points of contact to help make the Culture Strategy be what its co-authors — Leeds and Leanne — want it to be.

Meanwhile, we took this concept to four Leeds-based artists, and asked them to think about the South Bank, the Culture Strategy, and their lives in Leeds, and answer us through the medium they know best. We also got them together in pairs, two illustrators and two photographers, to talk things over.

Read about our conversations with Olivia Newsome and TONE here, and Peter Mitchell and Tom Joy here.

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Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 35


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