Post-industrial Dundee is reinventing itself as a hub of creativity

The good old days: Dundee, c1925. Image: Getty.

Creativity and culture have always contributed enormously to the evolution of our societies, but in recent years there has been a growing realisation of the value of the arts as an economic driver.

Cities have woken up to the fact that a vibrant cultural offering makes people want to live there, and the numbers back this up. New York is home to nearly 14,000 arts-related businesses employing nearly 300,000 people and generating revenues of $230bn each year. London’s creative industry sector is worth £35bn and employs around 800,000 people.

These may be massive global cities, but in Dundee, a small city on the east coast of Scotland, the creative industries produce a total annual turnover of £190m and provide employment for 3,000 people. When you consider that the population of the city is just 150,000, you get some indication of the importance of the cultural sector to its economic well-being.

Renaissance city

Dundee is a dynamic city with a strong cultural identity and a history of innovation and creativity. But by the late 1980s, profound post-industrial decline had turned a once proud and world-facing city into a fragmented shadow of its former self.

Now the city famed for jute, jam and journalism – the three Js that defined its economy and global reputation – has become home to a thriving digital media industry, internationally respected universities, world-renowned drug discovery and medical advancements, not to mention a vibrant design and creative sector.

V&A Dundee/YouTube.

Kengo Kuma’s new Victoria and Albert building which sits at the heart of Dundee’s £1bn waterfront regeneration, is already having a transformative effect, with investment flowing into the city and businesses springing up to service the anticipated tourist numbers.

The economist Allen Scott refers to the “new economies” of post-industrial cities, saying:

The peculiar forms of economic order that are in the ascendant today represent a marked shift away from the massified structures of production and the rigid labour markets that typified fordism… [and are] made up of sectors such as the high-technology industries; neo-artisan manufacturing; business and financial services; cultural-product industries (including the media).

This is surely an apt description of contemporary Dundee, where the solution becomes one of nurturing and retaining diverse and rich talent.

Voyage of rediscovery

The fact that the V&A will soon open its first building outside of London coupled with its elite UNESCO City of Design status, means that Dundee is finally being recognised as a design hothouse. Both of these initiatives are the result of dogged determination by groups of passionate people within the city, who believe in the city and wouldn’t live anywhere else. Why move when you can help build?

It is a well-evidenced fact that the creative and cultural economy is growing, and smaller cities like Dundee can benefit from the opportunity to take their share of this market. Many of the building blocks are already in place. The city enjoys a great resource of talent nurtured by the universities of Dundee and Abertay, and a great coastal location with a wealth of local heritage.

Dundee sits on the River Tay, looking over to Fife. Image: Eric Niven/Flickr/creative commons.

This and Dundee’s transformation is not lost on the growing audience for cultural tourism. A thriving cultural scene can drive exponential growth in both tourism and inward investment. It makes a place not just attractive to visit, but also to live, study and work in. This in turn engenders civic pride, a strong identity and a burgeoning self-confidence.

Lessons to be learnt

Dundee’s path to “rediscovery” has much to offer other cities. It’s not based around any individual’s ambition or success. It represents a strong partnership between government, local authorities, agencies, industry, academia and education, where organisations and focused like-minded individuals have agreed a shared vision.

Many people cite the establishment of Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) as the turning point for this cultural shift. DCA opened in 1999, but the idea of building a visual arts centre in Dundee was established in the early 1980s with the aim of brightening up a decaying industrial townscape.

The creation of the DCA (Dundee Contemporary Arts) in 1999 prompted a cultural shift in the city. Image: DCA/creative commons.

The establishment of a biological sciences centre at the University of Dundee effectively kickstarted a new focus in both academia and spin-off businesses around drug discovery. This new identity, labelled Bio-Dundee, harnessed the notion of a dense cluster of scientists and businesses compressed within a three-mile radius. The opportunities for growth on a global scale attracted talent to Dundee from all over the world, and the talent wanted good housing and good schools, but also good cultural and recreational provision.

In the late 1980s to mid 1990s, a new industry began to form in Dundee. Driven by closure of the Timex factory which was producing ZX Spectrum computers, a bedroom computer games industry started to emerge, with the globally successful game Lemmings and later Grand Theft Auto exemplifying its ambition.

Throughout the 1990s the games industry cluster grew, with University of Abertay launching the world’s first computer games degree programme, attracting students and other creatives to the city, which was now garnering international acclaim. The Interactive Tayside business support agency was set up by Scottish Enterprise Tayside, and an industrial strategy was formed.

Desperate Dan, a much-loved character from The Dandy, a comic first published in 1937 by Dundee publishers DC Thomson. Image: Graeme/Flickr/creative commons.

Since then, the city has been able to retain and attract creative talent from all over the world, causing a rising swell of demand, activity and development. In short, people took risks, invested their lives, generated success, and government took note. Investment soon followed.

The city’s continuing evolution is part of a journey which began centuries ago with Dundee’s trailblazing achievements in exploration, trade and communications, and is based on authentic activity and indigenous growth. Linen and textiles, education, jute, jam, journalism, drug and medical research, computer gaming and the creative and cultural industries have all grown from activities that were started by citizens of Dundee, in a physical and political landscape both challenging and complementary, and changing with the times.


The ConversationDundee is not built around recommissioning a brownfield site, developing buildings and then incentivising their use. It is in fact the very opposite: strong, industrious and innovative activity attracting further development funding. Dundee has always been about adapting to change and exploring new opportunities. A new journey of discovery has begun.

Paul Harris, Professor and Dean of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.