Eight years out, preparations for a third UK city to be European Capital of Culture are already underway

The "superlambanana" figures were one of the symbols of Liverpool's year as capital of culture. Image: Getty.

In 2023, a UK city will hold the title of European Capital of Culture. This may seem a long way off – so long, in fact, that we still don’t know which city it’ll be. But the scale of the forward planning required by host cities means that, for those who have decided to bid, preparations have to begin now.

Since the title was first instigated in 1985, the title has been held by two UK cities, in two very different contexts. When Glasgow hosted it in 1990, the EU was still the EEC. What was then the “City of Culture” title was originally conceived as a way of celebrating traditional cultural centres, like Amsterdam, Florence and Athens. Consequently, there was a great deal of scepticism about a focus on culture in a city devastated by industrial decline.

Fast forward to 2008 when Liverpool held the title. To win it at all, it had fought off fierce competition – from Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle-Gateshead, Brighton, Oxford, Belfast and Bradford amongst others. Back then the UK was in the midst of a “cultural boom”, with new arts facilities opening across the country. And in contrast to 1990, the government had a staunch belief in the regenerative power of culture for declined cities.

This belief had been inspired in part by things such as the impact that the Guggenheim museum opening in Bilbao had on that declined port city. Richard Florida’s now much critiqued book The Rise of the Creative Class – which suggested that luring in “creative types” could solve economically-deprived cities’ problems – played a part, too. Meanwhile, the Credit Crunch was just kicking in, and was beginning to shake the foundations of much ideology – including that of the EU.


Now, the UK is going through the bidding process again, and we’re once again in a very different era. Now public spending is being cut, and arts facilities are more likely to be closing than opening; the focus on development in our cities has shifted, allegedly, on to science, technology and engineering.

In contrast to the last biding process this time only three UK cities have so far definitely thrown their hat into the ring: Leeds, Milton Keynes and Dundee. The spending cuts no doubt made many authorities shy away at the money required to be involved. The European Project that saw the birth of the title, meanwhile, has not seemed so precarious in decades.

The Liverpool experience

I was born in Merseyside and was working in the arts in Liverpool during the build up, delivery and aftermath and that city’s title. I now work in Leeds as it ramps up its bid and, although much about the context is different, the sense of déjà vu is palpable.

I have often been asked about my experiences by Leeds residents. Questions like, “What effect did it have on Liverpool?”, “Was it ‘good’?”, “Did it change the city?”, and “Did it benefit the people?”

These are big questions which, to me, do not have simple answers – but I think it was positive for Liverpool and has had lasting effects. At a fundamental level I believe it helped transform the attitude of the city. Despite the terrible impact of spending cuts, in particular on some of the city’s poorest residents, seven years on from holding the title, Liverpool is still thrusting to develop in a way that was unthinkable in my youth.

Back then, the area had been psychologically brought low by extremely rapid economic decline and the huge social effects of this. Merseyside lost 80,000 manufacturing and transport jobs between 1972 and 1982, a rate that, ironically, only really Glasgow could be compared to. By the ‘90s, there was almost an acceptance of failure and malaise, as demonstrated by the consistently thwarted attempts to build an arena for major events.

2008 also saw this 50 foot mechanical spider on the side of a Liverpool office block. Image: Getty.

 

When the 2008 bid was won it was a game-changer: the city had to up its ambition to deliver this huge project. Since then, it’s managed to keep much of that momentum, despite its spending power being hammered by central government cuts. There were of course other factors in the city beginning to turn itself around – increased private investment; government and EU Objective One funding – but 2008 provided a crucial focus and concentrator for change.

The development of the Capital of Culture programme for Liverpool was a bumpy road, with changes of management and direction, political point scoring and media cynicism to contend with. But in the end a large and diverse programme was delivered, which for the most part visitors and locals appreciated.


The challenging thing about Capital of Culture bids are that it’s a lot harder than organising the Olympics. With the latter, you know, pretty much exactly, what’s expected of you. But what is “culture”? Museums, opera, architecture – okay. But what about pop music, poetry slams, graffiti, graphic design, comedy, sports, food, dialect, philosophy, ways of living? Trying to please everyone is a real challenge – and, as with all forms of art, subjective.

Liverpool demonstrated its fair share of fine art collections, historic architecture and cutting-edge theatre, but the city was also canny enough to include the everyday and pop culture in its bid. It even hired Keith Carter, a local comedian playing his “Scouse character” Nige, to meet the judges, rather than trying to gloss over the way that the city has been viewed. From pub singing to experimental eletronica, giant street theatre to community projects, Gustav Klimt to Bill Shankly: in 2008, all these things were showcased.

In a way the process of developing and submitting the bid was almost as important as the win – and this is something other cities would do well to remember.

Liverpool began by examining what was already culturally great and significant about it, which was an important boost to local pride and confidence. Once prompted to think about it, Liverpool citizens realised it had a lot going for it, despite its negative national image at the time. Post-2008, this negative image continues to be slowly chipped away at: the city was recently highlighted as a top 10 global destination by both Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveller.        

Lessons learnt

In Leeds, the context is different. It has a stronger economy, and in many respects a better image.

Yet, by its own admission, it lacks a national cultural profile – this despite boasting one of the highest concentrations of dance companies in the UK, three art schools, the principle opera company in the north of England; despite being a centre for sculpture; and despite having one of the biggest fields of learning disability arts in the UK. So what should Leeds’ bid be?

I would suggest the same thing to any place that is considering bidding: a city should ask itself exactly why it is doing it. What does it want to achieve with the title? Only when it has answered should it ask, “What is unique about our city and how do we want to celebrate it?”

It’s important for cities to learn from the successes and failures of others – but copying slavishly or trying to create a programme, merely to appeal to bid judges, is doomed to failure. By focusing on a city’s strengths, and through talking to those across the wide spectrum of its arts and cultural community, from grassroots initiatives to international directors, the outline will begin to write itself.

There’s one thing that urban authorities should have learned over the last few years as more and more places have competed to be “cultural cities”: having the same things as everywhere else is not necessarily helpful. In the globalised art world, why would you travel far to look at a Jeff Koons work in Leeds, Dundee or Milton Keynes rather than Venice, New York or Miami? A point of difference and celebrating local cultures in their many forms serves the tourists as much as the locals.

“International” culture is still important: bringing in the best from around the world can inspire both citizens and visitors and give new perspectives to local artistic communities. But the focus should still be on the city itself – asking, what does it want to achieve and develop – then working with international artists to enhance that, rather than slavishly following trends.

This happened too. It involves the Women's Institute and Sky, but we don't claim to understand it. Image: Getty.

As well as celebrating what is already great in a city, the title can be brilliant as a catalyst for new initiatives. Often this has manifested itself in a big new cultural building.

A new building can be great, but it can also be a burden and a folly if it is unneeded and unsustainable, and the title can also be a spark for developing things in other ways. Is there an art form that is neglected in the city? A local talent from the past forgotten? A historic site in need of a new use? What problems is the city facing that arts can maybe help contend with?

In other words, cities shouldn’t merely use the arts to gloss over problems or demolish “problem” areas for new venues. They should use them to ask questions and involve people in conversations, looking for solutions at a more holistic as well as a large-scale level – something exemplified in Liverpool by projects such as Homebaked and the Turner Prize-winning Granby 4 Streets.

This wider involvement is, to me, the other key. Every city of any size has a band of creative people toiling away to make interesting things happen. A city that wholly ignores its own talent pool for “better known” or “international” artists is doomed to issues and lack of legacy.

Similarly, though, the title should not just be about pleasing the agendas of local artists and arts organisations: just as crucial is the enthusiasm and engagement of the wider populance of the city. In Liverpool, indeed, the judges said that local enthusiasm for the bid helped swing the title in the city’s favour.

So mass participation and large-scale events, yes, but also in-depth engagement with local people. Liverpool being European Capital of Culture, and the boom in arts around it, aided me, from a pretty humble background, to have a career in the arts. It can do that for citizens of other cities too.

Those leading bids should not be afraid of “fringe” programmes, even if they question what’s going on in the “mainstream” one. One of the best things about Capital of Culture in Liverpool was how the very concept was creatively questioned and scrutinised. Artists and activists in the city used the attention the title brought to create work which questioned UK-wide issues such as the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder and orthodoxies around culture and regeneration. This in turn helped shift the national conversation around them and open up paths to new views and ideas. If deconstructing the very idea of the title and its effects isn’t cultural, I don’t know what it.

“Legacy” is a word that comes from the lips of everyone involved in such titles – but creating one is easier said than done. A big new building is a legacy, but only if it can be sustained. More grassroots spaces for arts might be another one, but not if there’s already plenty.

More ephemeral things like committing to long-term training programmes or youth arts initiatives can have more impact, including in the economic sense that all local authorities have an eye on. But more than that, they have the potential to genuinely inspire the next generation of artists in a city who’ll lead us who knows where.

I’m glad that, despite the harsh climate, some UK cities are still bidding for European Capital of Culture. And I wish them well. Winning the title won’t solve all the problems of a city or transform it, socially or economically. But it can be an amazing celebration and a rewarding process, a catalyst for change, a training and testing ground for many – and an inspiration for many more.

 
 
 
 

How getting a dog made me hate London less

A dog called Martha. Image: Jamie Ross.

I never have been anything but a staunch hater of London. Growing up in what a friend from Chicago called “a forest reserve”, my entire life has been split between a suburban one in a leafy town near Dayton, Ohio and an urban one, spent in stupidly pretty, and still fairly leafy, Edinburgh. I moved to London for a hot second in 2016, hated my job as well as my surroundings, and left, pretty much immediately.

And then, almost two years later, I was offered my current role at the New Statesman, and I packed up my shit and dragged my reluctant boyfriend with me to do it all over again. I sort of enjoyed my summer in London – but I felt strongly that living in the city would never feel like anything other than a necessary evil.

I live in – this is your moment to laugh and call me a posh prick – Notting Hill. It’s a decent location, has more trees and parks than other parts of the city, and, most importantly, is the closest I could get to replicating my old neighbourhood of Stockbridge in Edinburgh, which I loved dearly. But even this isn’t enough to entirely counteract the fact my physical surroundings, on my commute to the office by the Temple, made me feel constantly claustrophobic and stressed. London is cold and unfriendly, compared to many parts of this country, and it is filthy – not in a snobby, prissy, precious fuckhead way, but in a “My life expectancy has probably dropped by three years breathing in this polluted air and stepping on broken glass” way. For my first few months in London, in the middle of the heat wave, walking the streets was like walking through an endless sludge: this was not a city I liked nor one I, really, wanted to live in.

Until I got a puppy.

The one condition my boyfriend imposed when he agreed to trudge down to London with me was that we find a flat where our letting agreement said that we could have dog. So, three months after our move, we got Martha, a twelve-week-old black cockapoo.

Getting her changed our lives in a lot of ways. It’s made it impossible for us to leave the house without having a human being on attendance to watch her like a hawk. It means I now have to wake up at 6:45am every day, weekends included, so that she can take a shit. She has improved our lives remarkably - I mean, we have a living floof doing sweet and adorable shit in our house – but she has changed things a lot.

And the thing I least expected this goddam dog to change has been the way has made me feel more integrated into this godforsaken city: she’s made me appreciate London, even with its downsides.

Actually, something else happened, without which I don’t think my point of view would have changed. Almost immediately after getting Martha – and I mean, like, within hours – I contracted a disgusting cold. The day after that cold cleared up, I got violent conjunctivitis, like the disgusting seven-year-old I am, which took a week to get over.

These two illnesses, combined, lasted around two weeks, so I was trapped at home for roughly seven days of the ten I would normally have been at work. That meant I was around to relieve the puppy burden from my home-working boyfriend.

I was tasked with dragging my puss-filled eyes out to let our dog have a run around, and to get her to piss every couple of hours. This new responsibility forced me to explore the neighbourhood that, for the three months previous, I had generally ignored. What I thought was the worst timing known to man was, not to exaggerate, life-changing. I’m not sure I would have come to this realisation about my new home had it not happened.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Another great day at the park! Pic by fellow small creature @esther.dominy.

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is a book all about how urban planning can make or break our wellbeing – what commutes, cars, bikes, and greenspace do to our mental health. One portion of the book is spent debunking the idea that the sheer amount of greenspace in an area is what makes us happy. Montgomery argues that it’s actually the regularity of greenspace that makes a real difference – it’s not just how much grass and trees there is in the city you live in, but how often you get to see it.


Pre-Martha, my exposure to grass amounted to the occasional lunch in a garden and a visit to Hyde Park once or twice a month. But within a matter of days of getting a dog, I learned that I had not one, not two, not three, but five (five!) piss locations within five (again: five!) minutes of my house. Some were suitable for little more than the aforementioned – but others gave her enough room to run after sticks, leaves, tennis balls, and, her favourite, other dogs, so that she’d be pleasantly exhausted for the rest of the day. What I originally thought was just an expanse of buildings and pavement stretching from my flat to Hyde Park was actually filled with pockets of green spaces that made this trash-laden hell-hole feel a lot less oppressive.

Spending time at parks where other dogs also go to piss meant I started to make relationships with other dog-owners too. For the first time in any place I’ve lived in outside of my home town, I actually started to meet my neighbours, and learn about things that were happening in my neighbourhood, that I would never otherwise never known about. I now know Tiggy, Rex, Bubba, and Charlie, as well as their respective owners. I also know about good pubs, family-run restaurants, and free events that are far better than the deeply average, pretentious brunch place recommended to me by The Culture Trip. My neighbourhood has feeling like a dead space between Tesco, my bus stop, and the tube, to a place I can see as a respite from the rest of this stressful city, full of people I know and new places I’d have otherwise not thought twice about.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Me and some new friends from the other day! Hoping for some more social time this weekend 

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

And taking her out at the same time every day, around the 7am mark, means we then almost always run into the same people. A very sweet kid walks to school around the same time and always smiles at her. We see the same woman with her dog, who always greets Martha with aggressive barking, ultimately ending in a congenial ass sniff. We let her jump up at the incredibly patient builders doing construction on a building at the end of our street.

This morning ritual, seeing my neighbourhood when it’s not rammed with tourists but is quiet and reserved for people who live or work nearby, has become a way to decompress at the start of every day. And as a woman, being up and out when it’s often dark, but seeing people I now recognise, means my neighbourhood has become less intimidating. For the first time in London, I feel safe and comfortable even late at night.

Beyond the confines of my neighbourhood, Martha has made me see London, not for what it does for me, but for what it provides for her. Never have I ever had such an appreciation for London’s public transport system than when I got my dog, who wears a big stupid grin at all times when riding the bus. (Her internal monologue honestly appears to be an endless loop of, “ALL OF THIS STUFF WOW MORE STUFF OH GOD REALLY COULD THERE ACTUALLY BE MORE STUFF HELLO EVERYONE HI OH HI WOULD YOU LIKE TO PET MY HEAD?”)

Even long journeys are now a delight, because watching your puppy be amazed, fascinated, and happy at all times, eventually passing out from exhaustion at all the energy expended, is incredibly heart-warming. Faced from the bus, London, even at its busiest, feels far better with my dog than on my own: her pure, unadulterated excitement is enough to make holding a wild animal on a packed motor vehicle worthwhile.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

dad taught me love • dad taught me patience • dad taught me pain

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

I’m almost certain I will never love London. I don’t think I will ever feel charmed enough by the charming parts to outweigh the onslaught of the, often, literal shit it brings with it. Not everything about having a dog in London is great, of course: there is trash everywhere, trash I used to pass nonchalantly but now have to heave my dog away from in case she eats a used condom or even another dog’s shit. And, obviously, living in a city is probably never great for an animal compared to, say, a suburb or the countryside.

But through my dog I’ve learned what’s actually around me, not just what I narrowly perceive on my begrudging walk to work. Doing that has made London feel a lot less like my own personal hell. Slowly, Martha is making London like some kind of twisted, imperfect, home for me.

Sarah Manavis is the digital culture and tech writer at the New Statesman. She tweets as @sarahmanavis.

Martha Ross-Manavis is small and cute dog. You can follow her on Instagram at @heythereitsmartha.