The Guggenheim effect is all very well – but every city needs culture

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. Image: Getty.

Since the launch of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao in 1997, arts – or more accurately, arts venues – has been seen as the great drivers of renewal. The model is simple: find an abandoned industrial site, erect an architectural marvel (or repurpose a striking earlier building), stuff it with big name art, and rebuild the town around it. 

In Britain the model has largely been a hit. From Tate Modern to the Baltic and Sage in Gateshead, to V&A Dundee, the story goes, previously unfavoured areas have benefited from what has come to be known as “culture-led regeneration”.

Obviously this is a strategy with limits: there are only so many locations that can offer the combination of circumstances to build a new Guggenheim. Moreover, the model increasingly makes demands “host cities” to provide incentives for taking up a location; and the model risks morphing into the rather more cynical gallery franchise concept (hello, Louvre Abu Dhabi) where the focus is prestige for the host city and profit for the museum, with no focus on genuine creative engagement.

But there is more than one way to build creativity into a community, and more ways to regenerate besides base infrastructure.

A recent report by the Local Government Association examined different models of culture-led regeneration across England, from new infrastructure such as Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard to events such as the Manchester International Festival; and other, more modest projects such as Stoke-On-Trent’s Appetite, a three year programme aimed at engaging Stoke residents in cultural projects. The results are significant, in financial terms but also, importantly, in creating a crucial sense of ownership for locals: in Stoke-On-Trent, 90 per cent of participants in the Appetite programme reported increased pride in their city; Culture Works in Grimsby and North East Lincolnshire boasted of developing a more distinct identity for the area; likewise, with 80,000 participants in 200 events, the First Arts programme succeeded in increasing community pride and cohesion across the former coalfield areas of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

One important conclusion of the LGA report was that the “cultural offer needs to be authentic”; this was essential in building a lasting impact for residents who “wanted their cultural offering to be a true reflection of their place and a source of local pride”. 

For cultural projects to be sustainable and fundable, this is vital. Put simply, if people feel they are part of something, then they will be more open to attending, more open to spending money, and more open to seeing their taxes invested: impactful cultural projects do generate significant revenue, but they can require significant investment too; a local event or venue that people invest in emotionally will find it easier to find financial investment.

In an interview with the Guardian, Arts Council England Chair Sir Nicholas Serota pointed out the irony that while arts and culture provide the backdrop to everyday life, very few people perceive themselves as being involved in culture, saying, “There’s obviously an idea about the arts which is about it being elitist. In sport they don’t have any difficulty at all in recognising the difference between a knockabout game and the Premier League. They recognise there is the professional game and something they can be involved with on a Sunday morning.”

This seems self-evidently true. Moreover, it is true that one can enjoy both a knockabout game and a premier league match: a person’s enjoyment of one will be informed by their experience of the other. There is no inherent contradiction in enjoying and relating to both.

The same is true of culture: while the art world has buzzed with debates over “relevance” versus “excellence”, the truth is that this is not a necessary nor desirable distinction – implying, as it does, an old-fashioned idea that accessibility and artistic excellence are at odds with each other. At our own venues, we have hosted works by popular and acclaimed artists such as playwright Inua Ellams and poet Kate Tempest alongside needlework classes and singalongs for older people. If arts centres are to be cultural centres, then the entire point should be that all walks of life feel they can come through their doors and feel they can find something they will enjoy.

The recent launch of Arts Council England’s new 10-year strategy “Let’s Create” has prompted a rare conversation about the nature of art: what is it, who gets to create it, who gets to participate, all questions that have animated artists and arts professionals for years.

“Arts Council England aims to foster culture in every 'village, town and city'”, proclaimed the Guardian. In the introduction to the strategy itself, Serota stressed that, “Recognition of the part that creativity and culture can play in supporting local economies and talent, health and wellbeing, and children and young people, has flourished over recent years”, while identifying the need to create shared experiences.

The benefits to local economies are clear; an Arts Council study from 2019 estimated an additional £1.4bn gross value added to the economy of the north of England by the arts and culture sector, with nearly 17,000 people employed in the sector. 

This sits alongside evidence from the LGA, and the Arts Council showing that busy inclusive cultural programmes create greater community cohesion and attracts people and businesses to areas. The challenge is to ensure that as cultural practice expands in an area,it starts off, and remains, inclusive for all aspects of the community. The Here and Now project, launched this year with the support of the Arts Council and the National Lottery, is exploring how that works in practice, with 40 new projects undertaken by 40 arts centres, designed to speak directly to, and with, their immediate communities.

We believe this will be an invaluable piece of work allowing us to see how different communities will respond to what is the same project brief – to encourage dialogue within communities about what they want from art, and from arts centres. 

While Grand Designs-style arts venues will always be with us, it’s becoming clearer that the local, smaller scale, and yes, “relevant” cultural projects are increasingly centre stage when we talk about developing communities. We don’t need Guggenheim for every city, or a big-name touring exhibition that makes residents tourists in their own town. To create a real sense of place, people must be able to look at gallery walls and see themselves.

Gavin Barlow and Annabel Turpin are co chairs of Future Arts Centres.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.