“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.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.