The Great Exhibition of what? Culture, region and development in England’s north

Newcastle (left) and Gateshead (right). Image: Getty.

The Great Exhibition of the North (GEN) begins on 22 June, and runs for 80 days. Culture secretary Matt Hancock told a launch event in Gateshead earlier this year that it would be “the biggest event in England” this year, and would “bring tourism and deliver growth” – although, in fact, he personally wasn’t in Gateshead, and delivered his contribution via a pre-recorded video. Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, meanwhile, has claimed the Great Exhibition of the North “will be talked about for decades”.

These bold claims raise several questions. What is GEN? How did it originate? What will be its impact? And, above all, what is it for?

Based on Tyneside and centred on three “hubs” – the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, the Sage music centre in Gateshead, and the Great North Museum in Newcastle – GEN describes itself as “a free, summer-long celebration of the North of England’s pioneering spirit”, incorporating “a programme of amazing exhibits, live performances, displays of innovation, new artworks and unforgettable experiences”. From each “hub”, walking trails extend across the city, organised around the themes of art, design and innovation, linking various visitor attractions and events. Organisers anticipate that 3m people will visit the exhibition – comprising 60 per cent in-region day visitors, 30 per cent out-of-region day visitors, and 10 per cent overnight visitors – and will collectively spend £184m locally.  Alongside these events, a Northern Powerhouse Business Summit will take place in July.

The Great Exhibition of the North was conceived by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and first mentioned, briefly, in the Autumn Statement of 2014 as a companion piece to his Northern Powerhouse initiative. Northern towns and cities were invited to bid to put on the exhibition: local actors in the North had wanted a series of events in major cities across the region, but the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) insisted upon a competition between places.

Government guidance, published in April 2016, stated that “the winning venue will create and implement an exhibition that celebrates great art, culture and design of the North of England, showcasing local artists and performers, cultural organisations and creative businesses, promoting innovative and entrepreneurial activity, and highlighting research conducted by universities in the region”. The government announced it would contribute £5m towards the exhibition itself, in the expectation this would attract additional private funding. Another £15m was allocated to a legacy fund to attract further cultural investment in the Northern Powerhouse.

Bids were assessed by a panel including representatives of the DCMS, the Design Council and GREAT, the government's international marketing campaign. It was announced in October 2016 that Newcastle-Gateshead had won the competition – although it was noteworthy that other big Northern cities, such as Manchester and Leeds, did not bid. A national committee led by DCMS oversees the implementation of GEN.

Ministers’ claims for GEN’s impact need to be set against the modesty of its funding: £5m would not buy Newcastle United FC a run-of-the-mill attacking midfielder, but would, almost, buy a sensitively refurbished Grade 2-listed house in Notting Hill. Meanwhile “The Factory”, a £110m theatre and arts venue which will be built on the site of the former Granada Studios in Manchester, announced in 2014 by George Osborne alongside GEN, is to be funded by a contribution of £78m from the UK Exchequer and £7m from the Arts Council. GEN is small beer.

Attempts to attract private sponsorship also led to a shaky start for GEN. The announcement that BAE Systems, a major defence contractor with a presence in northern England, would be a key sponsor generated a backlash from some artists, who claimed that BAe’s funding was a form of “artwashing”, or that it “tainted the proud cultures and heritage of the people of Newcastle and Gateshead and, indeed, the North”. A number pulled out of the programme.

BAE quickly withdrew its sponsorship. Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister condemned the critics as “snowflakes” and “subsidy-addicted artists” – an odd complaint given the GEN represents a government subsidy to artists. Local artists announced they would hold “The Other Great Exhibition of the North”.  The likely problems arising from an arms manufacturer sponsoring an arts event were anticipated locally but overruled centrally.

The most intriguing question arising from GEN concerns what it is for. According the government appointed chair of the Great Exhibition, Sir Gary Verity, it aims “to change people’s minds about it being grim up north” and dispel the idea of the region as a place of “flat caps and whippets”.

This curious trope was repeated to me in discussions with some of the architects of the exhibitions’ programme. Successive waves of politicians have attempt to give the image of the north a makeover through Garden Festivals, marketing campaigns and the like. The aim has been both to change external perceptions and raise local pride and aspirations.

But my unscientific poll of young people in Newcastle and London revealed none even knew the phrase that seems to animate GEN. Like Don Quixote, Sir Gary is tilting at windmills, and missing an opportunity for a deeper discussion about the changing nature and value of regional culture and identity.

There is a good likelihood that Newcastle and Gateshead will enjoy the party. The region was adept at putting together a bid in short order that met the requirements of DCMS. Local officials and volunteers will work hard to pull it off.

But this will not alter the fact that GEN is the latest in a line of projects that are nationally conceived and overseen, hindered by limited resources, burdened by overblown claims about likely impacts and with questionable objectives. Indeed, GEN offers evidence for Simon Jenkins contention, “There is nothing more gauche than Whitehall ‘being nice’ to the provinces.”

John Tomaney is professor of urban & regional planning at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London.


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.