Creating a culture of world-class places

The DCMS and DCLG have worked together to develop a new strategy for improving the quality of the public realm. The Leisure Review went along to the launch to see what it might mean for sport, leisure and culture.

Carolyn Steel looks to culture secretary Andy Burnham's sense of place

The government’s strategy document for improving the quality of place, titled ‘World Class Places’ (sic), notes in its foreword that “the built environment can be a source of everyday joy or every day misery” and the presence of community secretary Hazel Blears’ signature alongside that of culture secretary Andy Burnham’s at the foot of the page reminded the audience gathered to mark the strategy’s launch that the same could be said of politics. In the midst of a very specific and itemised outcry over her (and many of her colleague’s) expenses claims, Ms Blears was scheduled to arrive at the Southbank to discuss something that was at the same time both rather less and rather more concrete: a sense of place within the built environment.

Liverpool’s Albert Dock may be on the cover but London’s Southbank Centre was chosen as the venue for the document’s launch. As a late spring sun broke through the afternoon clouds Denys Lasdun’s masterpiece of concrete brutalism illustrated much of what was on the agenda. The Southbank has vibrancy as its default setting and the whole of the complex hums with activity, warming to its cross-cultural variety as theatre-goers mix with skaters and the orchestral audience shares space with graffiti artists. Yet the Southbank also demonstrates the problem of trying to create public space. The architecture of the Southbank is reviled as often as revered and the co-existence of street culture alongside high culture is too jarring for some. However, although the Southbank challenges and polarises opinion, it remains one of the most exciting urban areas in any of the major world cities.

The afternoon’s first speaker, architect, lecturer and author Carolyn Steel, noted that the Southbank has created a very strong sense of place. This latest document, the first government strategy to address the quality of place-making since the Urban Task Force’s Towards an Urban Renaissance, has much to achieve, Steel argued. Buildings and spaces need to respond to challenges and people need places that are a pleasure to live in, places that foster a sense of wellbeing and provide all the amenities of life. Acknowledging the difficulties of such a challenge, she spoke of the link between quality of life and quality of place. Places are like people in their variation and potential to nurture and excite. Places can be imbued with the feeling that someone has thought about you, that someone cares.

“It’s a good time to ask what sort of cities we want to create,” Steel said. “People want places that are open, generous and fair. Such places don’t cost much to create. The cost of failing is far greater.”

Picking up the theme, culture secretary Andy Burnham referred to the ability of big procurement schemes, such as the Building Schools for the Future and the NHS Lift programme, to deliver excellent design and the large impact that small amounts of money can have in initiatives such as the Sea Change scheme for the regeneration of seaside towns. He argued that the World Class Places strategy demonstrated the role of culture in improving towns and cities. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s own document, Lifting People, Lifting Places, which had been launched earlier that day, had also illustrated the point.

“My department reaches parts other parts of government can’t reach,” Burnham said. “We deal with people’s passions, their hopes and their dreams, and, when it comes to heritage, their identity and their roots. The DCMS can really make a difference.”

The liaison between the DCMS and the Department for Communities and Local Government on a strategy to deliver world-class places was, he said, an illustration of the collaborative nature of place-making and an example of how government can be joined up; it is impossible for one government department to achieve such things in isolation.

“We need to remember at all times that it’s not just about bricks and mortar, steel and glass,” the culture secretary said. “It’s about the people that use them, the people who will shape these places. This has to be hard-wired into the system.”

Having arrived slightly late, communities secretary Hazel Blears wasted no time in putting across her department’s perspective. She explained that she had just come from a meeting on social enterprise that had included her colleagues Peter Mandelson, James Purnell and Liam Byrne. This combination of ministers for business and enterprise, work and pensions, and the cabinet demonstrated, she suggested, that collaboration across government was a reality, with new challenges being tackled in new ways. While some members of her audience pondered the prospect of Lord Mandelson being closely involved with any aspect of our lives, Blears reassured those gathered that no matter how bad the economic outlook might appear, the situation was not as bleak as it had been in 1946.

Although hampered by the juxtaposition of the economic breakdown following the biggest armed conflict the world had ever seen and New Labour’s achievement of the biggest collapse of financial institutions and structures the world had ever seen, the communities secretary’s point was about quality. She quoted Nye Bevan, who had said in the immediate aftermath of the war, “We shall be judged for a year or two by the number of houses we build; we shall be judged in ten years’ time by the type of houses we build.” Good design, Blears argued, is not an expensive add-on and has to be part of the initial vision for any development or regeneration programme of any worth. Planners and architects had looked to ‘streets in the sky’ in the 1950s and 60s but these schemes had not delivered the engaging and enjoyable living environments that had been promised; not every tower block had matched Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles. Involving people in decisions that affect the places in which they live must be the focus of design programmes.

As the starting point for a strategy, World Class Places seeks to explain why quality of place matters. “Improving quality of place is vital if the government is to deliver on its commitments and make this country a fairer, safer, healthier, prosperous and sustainable place,” the document notes. “Quality of place does not just matter for the here and now. The built environment, both good and bad, endures… Decisions made today will continue to have repercussions down the decades.” The “simple but ambitious” vision comprises seven strategic objectives, including stronger leadership, local prioritisation of quality of place, putting the community at the centre of place-shaping, the strengthening of relevant skills, knowledge and capacity.

From a cultural perspective, one could argue that the document acknowledges the role of leisure, culture and sport. Of the eleven local area factors identified as contributing to the quality of place, three are directly within the realm of leisure management: a good range of local sport and leisure facilities; ample, high-quality greenspace and green infrastructure; a good range of easily accessible cultural facilities. Greenspace is acknowledged as one of the four elements identified as inherent to high-quality places and the spread of Green Flag parks are offered as an indicator of the improvement of the public realm. The strategy notes how vibrant environments tend to attract investment and skill; Tate Modern, St Pancras station and the Baltic are provided as examples.

Back on the stage, Nick Johnson, deputy chief executive of Urban Splash, and Jason Prior, a CABE Space commissioner and senior partner of EDAW Ltd, offered examples of good place-making projects, such as New Islington and Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, North Alla park in West London, and the redevelopment of the castle and the former prison in Oxford, but Jude Kelly, creative director of the Southbank and eloquent exponent of culture as a force for creating liveable places, was noticeable by her absence.

Kelly contributed a thoughtful and persuasive article on the role of culture in place-making to a document published by SOLACE in association with the Guardian, Municipal Journal and the government’s own Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA), titled, Inspiring Our Ambitions Through Sport, Art, Culture and Place. Kelly makes a case for cultural space as a catalyst for other social and community agendas. Cultural activities, she argues, create areas in which people can share and enjoy their differences through the entire spectrum of interaction. Regeneration is about a sense of spirit, new issues, new ideas and energy. All these things culture can deliver but policy-makers and those influencing and enacting the design of public places must have the confidence in the achievements of culture.

“I do not think there can be too many claims for education or too many claims for the arts,” Kelly writes. “It is ultimately a question of whether leaders in a local authority framework are prepared to recognise that while bricks and mortar, fiscal return and provision is a set of foundations from which humans can live their lives, when they start living their lives fully they want to find ways of expressing – or looking at how others have expressed – what living means.”

One could argue that his element of places created by people – this ‘humanness’ of a liveable space – is what the government’s new strategy, and the presentations with which it was unveiled, lacks. For all Andy Burnham’s pleasure that “Scouseland” is on the cover, the photograph of Albert Dock might be interpreted as an illustration of public space made bland; the public realm as an anodyne, contrived destination with isolated and incoherent architectural choices. For all the talk of joined-up government, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Department for Communities and Local Government seem to be unaware of its own improvement and development agency’s work in the same area. For all the talk of the Southbank as a world-class place, they may have missed the point.


World Class Places: the Government’s Strategy for Improving Quality of Place is available online at the DCLG website

Lifting People, Lifting Places: Culture, Media and Sport Helping the Country Come Through Stronger – at the Heart of the New Economy is available at the DCMS website

Inspiring Our Ambitions Through Sport, Art, Culture and Place, edited by Derrick Anderson and Martyn Allison, is available at the SOLACE Foundation Imprint website

Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives by Carolyn Steel was published in June 2008.

The Leisure Review, June 2009

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“We need to remember at all times that it’s not just about bricks and mortar, steel and glass,” the culture secretary said. “It’s about the people that use them, the people who will shape these places. This has to be hard-wired into the system.”

Communities secretary Hazel Blears




The Southbank Centre and London's skyline

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