“You’ve shared an experience that was extraordinary”: on the importance of public art

The Sultan’s Elephant marches through London, 2006. Image: Getty.

“Culture plays a vital role in bringing people from all backgrounds together. And I want every Londoner to have the opportunity to access culture on their doorstep.”

As someone who runs a performing arts centre in Stratford, east London this statement from London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan is something that resonates deeply. In spite of the incredible cultural offer that exists in this city and the audiences that flock to enjoy it, my experience has taught me that it is only through a localised or ‘doorstep’ offer that it is truly possible to engage people “from all backgrounds”.

We have found that performances in outdoor public spaces have the greatest reach in drawing people together. These outdoor events can be affronting, disruptive, intriguing and joyful. This is the type of art that you can just happen upon, and as a result the audience is always a random coming together of individuals across class, gender, ethnicity, age, and (dis)ability.

Part of the exhilaration of this (often unexpected) experience is that you share it with strangers. In a big city, when it feels difficult to smile or even acknowledge someone that you don’t know, suddenly you’ve shared an experience that was extraordinary.

As well as building and unifying communities, studies have also shown the link between culture/art and health. However, the recent Creative Health report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group also made plain that engagement with publicly funded art is relatively low amongst those who are economically and socially disadvantaged. While there are multiple reasons for this, bringing artistic performances to peoples’ doorsteps not only allows us to come together through joyful and inspiring experiences: it is also a vital investment in the health of our communities.

Of course there are many examples of incredible spectacles taking place in the city centre. The unforgettable Sultan’s Elephant, nine months after the 7/7 bombings, brought people together to marvel at something fantastical and transformative. I remember watching it, mesmerised, in Horse Guard’s Parade.

Putting outdoor spectacles in less grand corners of the city is important. It brings outstanding experiences to where Londoners live. It makes a statement that our neighbourhood and our community is worthy of something remarkable too.


Arts centres have a duty to serve their communities: it’s one of the things that differentiates them from commercial theatres. They are community hubs that play a civic role in neighbourhoods, and they should serve the whole community, not just a sub-section of theatregoers. But no matter how diverse the range of work presented and the breadth of access and cultural learning programmes, there are always invisible barriers to entering cultural institutions. Outside the building, the opportunities to reach new audiences and make unexpected connections between people are vast. 

The nature of outdoor work, particularly in more residential areas, means that these unexpected connections are integral to the success of the events. We presented some large scale aerial circus performances in a park in North Woolwich last summer as part of a community festival. The work involved building a huge aerial truss – from which the artists hang their equipment, ropes, hoops, silks, and so on – in a park with no infrastructure for live performance.

Through getting to know the regular users of the park, our performers were able to use a bowling green club-house for dressing rooms, and the members of the club then came along to the performance. They felt an ownership of the event having met and helped out the performers. Without investing in these relationships with local people, we would simply be imposing ourselves on a space that isn’t ours. Local communities need to be part of the experience from start to finish and seen as more than just a prospective audience.

Presenting outdoor work often means you can give a platform to local artists and support existing projects, inviting community groups to perform and making technical equipment and expertise available to support them.

Working in an arts centre, you are continually surprised by who walks into your building because of the range of work you present. By taking work outside our building we can engage with people who normally wouldn’t cross the threshold. We live in increasingly challenging political, social and economic times and the bonds within communities are vital. Putting art on doorsteps of people regardless of their backgrounds, that connects us through joy and inspiration, has an important place in nurturing our society.

Tania Wilmer is director of the Stratford Circus Arts Centre, east London.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.