Can better arts funding help revive Britain’s seaside towns?

The Turner, Margate. Image: Getty.

“Britain’s seaside towns are in urgent need of reinvention,” read the headlines last week, as a new report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns urged greater action to help regenerate Britain’s neglected coastal areas. The report makes several wise recommendations, from improving transport links and broadband connectivity to promotion of better educational opportunities for young people – a recommendation of British Future’s National Conversation on Immigration

But there is more to regeneration in Britain’s towns, coastal or otherwise, than jobs and the economy. Another report this week, British Future’s Crossing Divides: How arts and heritage can bring us together, finds that, across every section of Britain’s society, people agree that we are more divided than any of us would like. It argues that the arts and heritage sectors could play an important role in healing these divisions.

Arts projects have helped bring new visitors, businesses and money to some coastal towns. The Turner Contemporary in Margate, for example, has generated an estimated £68m the local economy. New creative businesses have thrived, earning the town the nickname “Shoreditch-on-sea”.

That is not an entirely complementary moniker, however – gentrification can also heighten divisions within communities. Twenty-five miles down the coast from Margate, people we spoke to in Folkestone expressed pride that their town, which now hosts its own arts Triennial, was renowned for the arts. But many in the group felt that this new cultural offer was not for ‘local’ people. As one said, “… it doesn’t speak to me, isn’t for me, this is for the posh DFLs [Down From London] that come here and the tourists that it attracts.”

In Folkestone, one in five people took part in Pages of the SeaDanny Boyle’s sand sculptures on beaches across the UK. People felt that it referenced the town’s local connection to the First World War and praised the project for “not looking down on anyone and… getting the local community involved”. The project was part of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, which commissioned over 100 arts projects, in more than 220 locations across the UK. Millions across the UK attended 14-18 NOW events, two-thirds of which were free to the public.

We looked in detail at the legacy and lessons of 14-18 NOW. Held over a period that saw the Scottish referendum and the Brexit vote, what was distinctive about 14-18 NOW was the high levels of public support and participation, across social and political divides. Our research showed that half (56 per cent) of the population was aware of the arts programme and 14 per cent of people could recall personally experiencing or attending 14-18 NOW events. Moreover, the programme reached social groups who are less likely to take part in the arts.

Most people agreed that its tone and content of the 14-18 NOW programme were right. In such divided times, we believe that, in a small way, these activities helped bring people together. Our research explored what made 14-18 NOW a success. Can this kind of reach and engagement only be achieved on major national anniversaries? And what broader lessons does the centenary programme offer to those involved in the arts?

14-18 NOW’s events told a story about a shared history, but in way that drew on local and personal connections. Some projects used volunteers, promoting social contact; others were participative, provoking communication between strangers, Community outreach and the decision to hold many free events in public space meant that those who attended represented a cross-section of the local community.

Crucially, more than 80 per cent of the events were held outside London. Brexit has highlighted geographic as well as social polarisation: major cities voted to Remain, while England’s towns and smaller cities largely voted Leave. The term “metropolitan elite” has become common parlance. If the arts and heritage sectors are to play a role in healing this country’s divisions, we need to think much more about geography.

At present, arts funding is disproportionately allocated to organisations based in London. This should be addressed through a “fair funding review”, including funding for the arts in schools and local music services. The review should strike a balance between maintaining national institutions, many of which are based in London, and channelling a higher proportion of funding to northern England and to towns.  

Hundreds of thousands of people saw Tom Piper and Paul Cummins’ poppies installation when it went on tour across the UK. Exhibitions of iconic pieces of art boost local economies and bring in new people – but the default position is for iconic loans to be exhibited in London. We believe this approach should be reviewed and our national galleries should loan much of their iconic art to galleries and museums across the breadth of the UK.  

And as has been argued by Yvette Cooper and Lisa Nandy, we should institute a Town of Culture competition to sit alongside the existing City of Culture events. While towns are not currently prevented from applying only one, Paisley, has ever made the City of Culture shortlist. Our research found that two-thirds of people agreed that was a good idea. If the programme was targeted at local residents, a Town of Culture might also address inequalities in participation in the arts in the UK.  

The next months present huge political challenges and Brexit impacts on us all as citizens. We expect artists to reflect the state of the nation in ways that engender perspective-taking and empathy for the other side. But to do this will require thought by artists themselves, humility and consideration from the London-based arts world, and commitment to addressing the geographic inequalities that divide the UK. 

Jill Rutter is director of strategy and relationships at British Future and is a co-author of “Crossing Divides: How arts and heritage can help bring us together”.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.