Creative cities: built on can-do culture

All’s fair in love, war and creative city competition. Well, yes, maybe but losing a heartfelt City of Culture bid can hurt as Creative Dundee’s Gillian Easson freely admits.

‘It was a huge disappointment, it took a while to adjust,’ the entrepreneurial Easson told a Scotland’s Towns Partnership workshop I attended last week (wearing my entrepreneurial Walking Heads hat). But losing out to Hull as UK’s City of Culture 2017 opened the way to something bigger and better for Dundee.

After dusting themselves down, they skilfully redirected all that collective energy and heat generated during the culture bid. Or, to put it another way: when one door closed they pushed hard on a bigger one. As a result Dundee is now in the best global company; a UNESCO City of Design, buzzing with purpose and full of imaginative oomph – you can see it and hear it as soon as you step out of the train.

Comic strip culture

There’s an edgy sense of identity to a city whose heritage includes comic strip heroes: part pride, part tongue in cheek. It’s chronicled in the Adventures in Design murals by comic illustrator Will Morris and graphic designer David Mackenzie on the V&A hoardings. Power tools hammer out much the same message on the building sites.

That’s a cheering counterpoint to omnipresent Brexit blues. Could it also be of comfort to cities now competing for the culture crown in 2021? It’s a crowded arena with Sunderland, Perth, Paisley, Hereford, Coventry, Cardiff, Milton Keynes  and Stoke et al jostling for the prize. And seeking the economic boost that comes with the ability to host the Turner Prize and other cultural trophies.

Perth is said to be the bookies’ favourite and the Fair City is indeed an impressive place. Streets ahead of Edinburgh when it comes to creating and using pedestrian space, it can also teach Glasgow, Dundee and Leith a lot about landscaping a waterfront so that people actually enjoy a stroll by the river. But, you know, perhaps Perth seems too safe a choice.

Bridging the Brexit divide

For Sunderland the City of Culture bid is seen as a chance to heal the wounds inflicted by Brexit, challenging the image of Wearside as a ‘lost city’. According to the Guardian, Rebecca Ball, director of Sunderland’s bid, sees energy and momentum around the city ‘The 2021 bid wouldn’t be an empty project,’ she says, ‘It is about ambition and showing what we can achieve with some help.’

Playing not winning may be the most important part of the game. And, perhaps that is what fires Paisley too. Like so many other towns left behind by industrial decline, the centre of Paisley has extraordinary municipal grandeur. In Scotland, only Edinburgh has more listed buildings – unfortunately many of Paisley’s finest are on the Buildings at Risk Register.

Yet those derelict buildings often contain the key to regeneration and reinvention, as Walking Heads found in the making of our latest audio tour A Brisk Walk: Buildings at Risk, a delightfully quirky collaboration with Architecture and Design Scotland. Symbols of lost prosperity can offer a promise of a new identity – just take a look at what’s happening to Glasgow’s East End with the sudden changes around the restoration of Saint Luke’s and the Clay Pipe Factory as centres of music and art. (See the last stop on A Brisk Walk).

Emerging from the shadows of decline

In the end it is the triumph of the creative spirit that wins the day. Hull, ‘probably the most working class city in the UK’ (according to well-known native John Prescott)  emerged from the shadows of decline.

Phil Redmond, who chaired the City of Culture panel, said Hull was the unanimous choice because it put forward “the most compelling case based on its theme as ‘a city coming out of the shadows’”. Wikipedia

Gillian Easson, co-founder of Creative Dundee, and ‘shaper of creative and socially driven projects’, identifies that same cussed determination in Dundee. A city with infamous health problems and one in four children in poverty is now Scotland’s gaming capital. Cutting edge cancer research combines with new tech in Genes in Space, digital entrepreneurs spark ideas in the quarterly Pecha Kucha Nights hothouse, and community spirit finds expression online through the WEDundee collective.

Win, win, win, you might say. Whoever gains City of Culture 2021 it would be good to think the ‘losers’ can also pick themselves up and put their newly forged collaborations to ongoing productive purpose and growing civic pride. Here’s to the kindling of generous can-do creativity in every town and city. It looks fun but it’s deadly serious too.  In the turmoil of Brexit (along with wider global uncertainties), the healthy prosperity of city life is essential to the economy and social cohesion of nations.


This piece first appeared on Walking Heads where the author is a co-founder and research and development director
Image: By John Lord [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

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