Over recent years, claims have been made for the impact the arts and cultural activity can have on social regeneration. However, this impact is hard to define and harder still to quantify. Professor Graeme Evans explores the issues.
The ?Building Tomorrow: Culture in Regeneration? conference at the Lowry, Salford in February 2003 saw participants call for greater evidence to support the claims commonly made for the ways in which cultural activity positively contributes to the regeneration process. What was sought was a more joined-up approach to regeneration and a longer-term view of the social and economic impacts, as well as greater emphasis on measurement and the quality of evidence itself.
Earlier this year, Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell launched the consultation report ?Culture at the Heart of Regeneration?. This report was founded on a review of evidence commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). For this review, ?regeneration? was defined as the transformation of a residential, commercial or open space that has displayed the symptoms of environmental, social and/or economic decline. ?Culture? in this case excluded ?sport? (which is to be similarly reviewed at some point).
The review identified three models through which cultural activity is incorporated into the regeneration process; culture-led regeneration, cultural regeneration, and culture and regeneration. In the first of these, cultural activity is seen as the catalyst and engine of regeneration (a flagship); in the second, cultural activity is integrated into an area strategy alongside other activities in the environmental, social and economic sphere ? a cultural planning approach; and in the third, more common scenario, activity is not integrated at the strategic development or master planning stage of regeneration. Reasons for culture frequently being an ?add-on? rather than an integral part of a scheme include the fact that the partnership bodies responsible for regeneration are rarely structured to facilitate collaboration between those responsible for regeneration and cultural activity. Another common reason is the lack of a champion with experience of what cultural activity can contribute to regeneration.
All three models offer examples of good and bad practice. There are culture-led regeneration projects that have been too ambitious in their projections and landmark buildings that have failed to secure community ?ownership? or reach their targets (in terms of income, audience numbers and profiles). There are culture and regeneration projects in which the arts programme has been ?retro-fitted? to poorly conceived developments in an attempt to improve their appearance, to animate a place or to secure community involvement. In some cases existing arts activity is bypassed as regeneration transforms an area and new cultural projects are established, with no understanding of what is already available, or the impact this will have on existing provision.
Given the major new settlements planned to meet government housing and sustainable communities targets, such as the Thames Gateway and Northern Way, the way that cultural activity and arts amenities are planned will be crucial both to the regeneration process itself and the quality of life of these communities. The nature of the cultural plans that have been developed, if any, is not clear from these proposals. A more sophisticated understanding of culture?s role in delivering sustainable development would therefore be timely.
Capturing the contribution that culture can make within area-based regeneration is, however, problematic. Some arts organisations are resistant to the measurement of ?externalities?, for defensive as well as ideological reasons. The depth of published evidence is also varied and variable in quality. Much ?evidence? is to be found in the advocacy surrounding cultural project promotion, with descriptive case study material that lacks any substantial evaluation or evidence base. The evaluation that is carried out through project and programme assessment tends to be short-term and cultural impacts are not measured. Most frustratingly, despite public funding, such evaluations are seldom publicly accessible or subjected to independent assessment. Lessons are not therefore shared. Where academic peer reviewed publications present a more ?scientific? assessment, the tendency is one of cultural pessimism - generally negative assessments of impacts, particularly in the case of major cultural projects where both sides of the story are not equally aired in the public eye. This can include positive benefits arising where the predominant or media view is negative, as is the case with the Millennium Dome.
Sounder evaluation studies are becoming more widely available, as is a (confusing) range of toolkits and guidance. Most good practice seems to be developing in the area of social impacts, carried out for small-scale projects and programmes, and to a lesser extent environmental and heritage impacts. Ironically, in view of the prime economic rationale for major regeneration investment, it is the lack of hard economic evidence that is most apparent. What is universally lacking though ? and this is where evidence is critical to establish the regeneration case for culture ? is longitudinal impact evaluation. Only time will tell how far regenerative effects are felt and distributed within and across communities, audiences and in cultural development generally.
The review concluded that despite the general evidence that confirms culture?s contribution to regeneration, it is not only the choice between culture and other types of investment in regeneration, but which type of culture best serves the regeneration and community objectives. Today, few would dispute the role and value that culture has in regeneration, but there is much less understanding of the very different effects that different types of cultural intervention produce in the short and longer term. Regeneration-led cultural activity can often be of the wrong kind and/or in the wrong place, in extreme cases actually displacing creative activity altogether, whether through gentrification, or crowding-out more diverse or community-oriented culture, a scenario familiar around flagship projects ? from Bilbao to Birmingham.
The DCMS consultation report called for further evidence and responses to these issues, and our review called for longitudinal studies of culture?s effects within the regeneration cycle, and greater recognition of the contribution of artists in the contentious regeneration process. Newer techniques measuring the value of good urban design should also be applied, particularly to capital projects. This will help to avoid the tendency to develop award-winning architectural statements which then fail the operational ?fit for purpose? test.
Having the confidence to make the case for culture?s lasting contribution to the regeneration taking place in the UK requires robust, hard evidence and the mainstreaming of cultural activity and investment ? not as an add-on or palliative ? but as an equal alongside the contribution that employment, environmental, health, community cohesion and safety improvements can make to the quality of life of areas undergoing regeneration.
Professor Graeme Evans is Director of the Cities Institute at London Metropolitan University and chaired the study that led to the publication of the consultation paper.
e: firstname.lastname@example.org. ?The Contribution of Culture to Regeneration in the UK: A Review of Evidence? by Graeme Evans and Phyllida Shaw, and ?Culture at the Heart of Regeneration? are both available at http://www.culture.gov.uk
The DCMS is inviting comments on their review, including examples of regeneration impacts and quantitative evidence arising from cultural activity. These should be submitted by October 15 to George Cutts, DCMS, 2?4 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5DH; e: email@example.com