Investing in culture outside London will help cool the capital and boost regional cities

The tarnished road sign for Abbey Road, near the Abbey Road Studios in London. Image: Sander Lamme.

Over the last 30 years, the once fringe interest in the role and impact of art and culture in cities has become a huge area of mainstream focus.

In particular its relationship to gentrification occupies the thoughts of many columnists and policy makers, artists and activists. 

Gentrification has been most apparent in the cities that ‘succeeded’ most in the transition to a post-industrial urban world – especially London and New York, which have seen once-deprived areas become enclaves of the wealthy at an ever-increasing rate.

While this is down to a complex combination of factors, the significant role arts and culture can play in gentrification been well documented. Such has been the expansion of gentrification processes that both London and New York risk eating themselves, as they become increasingly difficult to live in for anyone but the extremely well off.

The gentrification of these cities has been examined intensely because of its scale, but perhaps even more so because of the huge concentration of those in media, academia and the arts in London and New York and the impact it has had on the lifestyle of people in these sectors.

What this has perhaps masked, though, are the equally important issues around arts and culture in places that are the flipside to such overheated cities, the far greater number of under-resourced cities.
When industrial decline in the West really kicked in from the 1970s onwards, it impacted most on certain specific areas in an extreme way, such as my native Merseyside, or Glasgow. These could be written off by many at the heart of power as ‘localised failures’ whose decline was their ‘own fault’ for ‘failing to adapt’.

At least 40 years later, what is now clear is that places like Liverpool and Glasgow and Detroit were the canaries in the mine, as post-industrialisation and its impacts have spread across more and more places.

In the UK – outside of the increasingly bubble-like south east, economic stagnation is the norm, save for odd spots often relying heavily on success in specific industries such as Bristol (defence) and Aberdeen (energy), which themselves may well slump, impacting such places.

Bristol, booming again. Image: Shauking.

Outside of London, gentrification connected to the arts has had a less dramatic effect. One impact being that residential areas which have traditionally been popular with artists, public administrators, lecturers and the like, such as Didsbury, Jesmond, Stokes Croft, Aigburth and Chapel Allerton, are no longer affordable to them.

This section of society has therefore started to move into neighbouring – often more deprived – areas, and house prices have begun to rise there. This effect has been largely localised to very specific areas. New suburban housing built on the edges of cities is still more popular with the majority of the middle class in regional cities than most inner urban areas – nothing like the changes in London.
There has also been some impact on space for artists’ studios; music venues etc, being priced out of once abandoned industrial space for apartments, a recent example being Manchester’s Rogue Studios. Long-term leases for such buildings are also harder to come by than they once were.


However, in general, artists finding space, either residential or for the creation and display of the arts, is much less an issue in the regions than in big, capital-flushed cities. The far greater growing challenge for artists in the regions is being able to sustain a creative practice or organisation in such under-resourced areas.

While never easy, with the focus and money always on London, the ever-declining local authority funding for arts and culture, coupled with the closure of publicly supported venues such as theatres, museums and arts centres, as well as the reduction in the number of traditional ‘second jobs’ for creative practitioners (such as FE college lecturers), is a serious threat to the future of the arts and those practicing them in the regions.

With these local economies long having lost the core engines that gave them money to invest in culture now followed by the government cutting off support, this is not likely to get any easier.
There has slowly, after much campaigning, been recognition of the imbalance in central government arts and media funding and resources, and this is changing, but not nearly on the scale, breadth or depth needed to make a significant lasting difference.

There has been a focus on one or two government-favoured cities and investment often sporadic and patchy.

Of course, my focus on the arts is just one part of a much bigger issue – the huge regional economic and power imbalance in the UK, but it is a useful exemplar and something that could help create change in under-resourced areas.

In a different era in the 1950s and 1960s, when areas like Wales, Scotland and Merseyside faced economic challenge, a decades-long programme of investment was directed towards them, with companies effectively forced to invest in less prosperous areas.

The production line at Halewood Factory, near Liverpool. Image: Land Rover MENA.

While this was imperfect, it did in many respects create economic drivers that are still powering these areas to this day, such as the hugely successful Jaguar Land Rover factory in Halewood on the edge of Liverpool. A relentless focus on regional development on the scale seen in that era is what is needed to change the crippling imbalance in the UK, which has now started to eat away at London through its overheating as much as it has done in the regions for years.

As for the arts, the lack of opportunities and finance is much more an issue in the regions than overpriced space. In London, there’s a plethora of opportunities and no space. The solution is as simple as it is obvious. Undertake a long-term, large-scale, sustained investment in arts and culture in the regions.

Channel 4's London HQ, now under threat. Image: Stuart Caie.

There’s likely to be resistance, such as recently highlighted around Channel 4’s suggested move out of London, but at this stage it should be a win-win. London is so economically overheated that its arts and culture are being undermined, while in the regions, economic stagnation and cutbacks are undermining arts and culture.

The small-scale shifts in cultural policy and funding allocations over the past year or so have been a start, but what’s needed is a much bigger and longer-term plan to direct cultural investment and activity away from the capital. And indeed, what’s important for the creative sector is important for many other fields as well.

Would a government want to plan that far ahead and commit to that level of investment and change?

Evidence from the last couple of decades would suggest not, but further back there is a precedent. In these turbulent times it’s increasingly accepted, even demanded, that big change is needed across the country.

Such a large-scale regional cultural investment plan would be a welcome start. 

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Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.