Why have Arts Council England (ACE) published data and a report about how culture can, apparently, help regenerate high streets now? Particularly given that the report does not even consider the devastating effects of COVID-19 on our everyday lives and, of course, our high streets.

The report, produced by social and economic research consultants Wavehill and entitled Arts and Place Shaping: Evidence Review, was written in May 2020 (when COVID-19 was reaching its first peak) but only published a few days ago. It (re)introduces the strangely pliable term “place shaping” in place of the previously fashionable term “placemaking”.

The report has many problems but I want to briefly point out here why it is deeply troubling, especially at a time when lockdowns continue, cultural buildings and high streets are really struggling with completely uncertain futures, an economic meltdown is looming, and artists are really, really struggling. Put simply, the report, I argue, conflates art buildings with place shaping, social capital (and thereby health, wellbeing, etc., etc.), regeneration, and more – all to make a crass, outmoded, neoliberal argument for the supposed economic benefits of “investing in culture” (read, “buildings”) via big institutions and the now very hackneyed notion of “meanwhile spaces”.

The place shaping report was introduced by ACE Chief Exec Darren Henley in a press release unimaginatively entitled Culture on Our High Streets. He begins by stating that the report and data demonstrate “the value of cultural organisations to our high streets, showing how important these spaces will be in reanimating local economies as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic” (Henley, 2020). The intention is clear from the outset: that ACE see “cultural organisations” as somehow saving our high streets after COVID-19, not artists. Referring to cultural buildings, Henley even goes so far as to make the outlandish claim that “An investment in culture is an investment in our high streets”. Really? What about all the cultural activities that take place away from the high street? He then eulogises about how cultural venues are “central to the social fabric and civic pride of towns across England”, promoting “social cohesion”, creating jobs, and “boosting the economy”.

Henley is reevoking what has been best described as “The Creativity Fix” – a “creativity script” that “encodes an engaging ‘economic imaginary,’ based on a set of principles that combine cultural libertarianism and contemporary urban-design motifs with neoliberal economic imperatives”, all bundled up in a light veneer of mildly socially progressive fluff (Peck, 2009 [2007]). This is the well-trodden, and now widely discredited, path taken by almost every city everywhere on the planet. A path that follows Richard Florida’s Creative Class map (2002), overlayed with liberal sprinklings of Charles Landry’s and Franco Bianchini’s earlier Creative City blueprint (1995). As can be seen, the legacy, in the UK at least, goes back a long way. It was the bedrock of New Labour policy throughout its time in office, plodded on during the subsequent Conservative government years, and has now been revamped, with the now almost ubiquitous term “placemaking” or, in the case of arts-led regeneration, “creative placemaking” being replaced by an equally old term: “place shaping”. The trouble is that even Richard Florida has recognised that his extremely lucrative Creative Class evangelism has resulted in gentrification (Wainwright, 2017). I’ve written extensively on how creative placemaking and its attendant Creative Class/ Creative City narrative is a crucial component of gentrification and artwashing. My argument against this place-based creativity fix is that, no matter what it’s latest fashionable name is, it embodies privilege and power and uses social capital theory to tie art and culture to neoliberal forms of economic and social development (Pritchard, 2019).

So, when I read Henley dressing up the old as the new, I reel in disbelief. Why? Because it’s time to move on. It’s time to move way beyond these tired old tropes of cultural buildings being cornerstones of economic development and community cohesion, not least because, to most people, they are not. I’m talking here about ACE and the state’s vision of what is meant by cultural buildings. This is a limited and specific and, largely, very white, middle-class vision. To suggest that the best we can do after COVID-19 and its massive economic downturn and huge effects on everyone in the country is to go back to normal, expecting the very things that largely haven’t worked for most people and many artists to suddenly come good, is, quite honestly, breathtakingly complacent!
Worst of all, for me at least, is that fact that the place shaping report conflates art buildings with place shaping, social capital (and thereby health, wellbeing, etc., etc.), regeneration, and more – all to make a crass, outmoded, neoliberal argument for the supposed economic benefits of “investing in culture” (read, “buildings”) via big institutions and the now very hackneyed notion of pop-ups in vacant, “meanwhile spaces”.

To briefly expand on my concerns, I’ll start with the idea that popping a “cultural organisation” and even – heaven forbid mentioning the word – artists into “vacant” shops as a temporary solution to empty high streets is exploitative. Why? Because meanwhile use is just what it says on the tin: temporary leases with little or no guarantees of tenure. That’s all artists are good for: short-termism. Likewise, community groups and cooperatives and all the other people who could really bring new life back to high streets. But ONLY BY GIVING THEM THE BUILDINGS and ONLY BY TRUSTING PEOPLE to do amazing things in them. This could be community ownership, permanent asset transfers, compulsory purchases, long-term secure leases, etc. But it is essential that we take back the high streets from the failing claws of corporate blandness and land-banking greediness. Because only then can we begin to rebuild our cities, towns and villages our ways.

To expect artists, cultural organisations and others to temporarily promote “regeneration in our high streets” is crazy. The big-name shops will not return. The people will not come back. Meanwhile use can never support sustainable community and economic development, and it cannot support artistic and cultural development either. Instead, it perpetuates precarity: precarious working, precarious living, precarious economies. And precarity does not generate social capital, does not improve health and wellbeing, and does not promote strong, self-sufficient communities.

When the ACE place shaping report cites Westminster Council as an exemplar of how “high-quality public art across England” has “helped to generate a sense of civic pride, place identity and fundamentally enhance the public realm”, you know things are desperate. The City of Westminster, the report points out, “hosts a large collection of contemporary and historic art in the public realm which contributes to its unique and distinctive streetscape and brings economic and educational benefits to the community” (Parkinson, et al., 2020, p. 15). The report considers this to be somehow linked to place shaping and to “Creating distinctive places”. The City of Westminster is and has for centuries been, of course, a distinctive place. It is the seat of power for the UK government. It is the home of central government and it is the centre of London. The example of the City of Westminster single-handedly serves to reinforce ideas that ACE is both a centralising arm of a centralising state, and an agency that has, and to a large extent still is, London centric. The City of Westminster is also home to many global corporations. Blimey, its even home to Buckingham Palace! Using this affluent and powerful London borough as a primary example of how culture can benefit a place is, and I’m being as kind as I can here, laughably out of touch.

It is of little surprise that the place shaping report’s authors go on to point out, citing “the earlier work of Florida et al” (sic), that a “vibrant arts and culture scene … helps to improve the attractiveness of urban areas to skilled creative workers” by making “creative places … where ‘the creative class’ wants to live”, thereby potentially generating “further growth” (Parkinson, et al., 2020, p. 22). And there we have it. So, this is all about gentrification. This is shaping places for the middle-classes, not the working-classes. A world in which all the “best” places were like mini Westminsters with the Creative Class “clustering” around lovely, clean, safe, socially cleansed, bikeable, walkable, carefully “shaped” places with cultural flagships at their “beating heart” and artist pop-ups pushing their gentrifying frontiers ever outward, gently artwashing the new territories before the bulldozers move in.

The report says this is all about “place branding”, which, of course, it is! Apparently, “New or renovated cultural venues form an integral part of place branding, enabling Chambers of Commerce, Inward Investment Companies and Destination Management Organisations to redefine their local identity as vibrant cultural hubs” (Parkinson, et al., 2020, p. 24). And around the Creative Class gentrification merry-go-round we go again. The role of meanwhile use of empty shops is made clear in the last section of the report, in one of several cut and paste sections without proper recognition that these are quotes from other sources. (This, speaking as an academic, is a little bit naughty.)

Anyway, the report (mis)quotes Centre for Cities research that points out that “one way of utilising the vacant space, while stimulating business activity in the city centre, is to encourage businesses to [temporarily] locate in these vacant properties”. The proposition here is that this “can be an effective way of tackling urban blight, as well as providing spaces for new businesses to try out ideas, start-up enterprises and explore different types of industry previously unfamiliar to the area” (Parkinson, et al., 2020, p. 30). And now we have the “urban blight” trope: a classic weapon in the armoury of gentrification. Businesses are “stimulated” (i.e. reinforced) in the city centres by precarious new start-ups and pop-ups around the gentrification frontier, goes the age-old argument. The gentrification frontier is a wasteland – a place of urban blight – a mess in desperate need of cleaning up. Time for some artwashing!

Artwashing also needs to employ another classic neoliberal invention – social capital – to make sure that we can “understand” the “social causes” of urban blight that have led areas to become identified for “urban renewal” or “regeneration”. You see, areas labelled as suffering from urban blight conveniently are also labelled as having “low” or, indeed, “bad” social capital. Whereas regenerated Creative Class areas and areas like the City of Westminster are celebrated for very high levels of “good” social capital. Put simply, white, middle-class people, neighbourhoods, and activities instil good/ high social capital, whilst lower-class people have low/ bad social capital, live in “blighted” areas, and do things that are “uncultured”.

Unsurprisingly, the place shaping report makes a sweeping statement early on that “Arts and culture can play an important role in the process of developing social capital which, in turn, underpins the effectiveness of [many large, strategic] funding investments” (Parkinson, et al., 2020, p. 7). In other words, big funding investments must demonstrate their effectiveness by “evidencing” how they will or have develop social capital, and arts and culture is a useful way of doing this. If you accept my argument above that good social capital is about white, middle-class culture, the Creative Class, and ultimately gentrification, then it is clear that establishment versions of arts and culture (which study after study has found are hugely middle-class and white) will increase social capital. This makes artwashing a very attractive tool to big investors – corporate, state, and local government alike.

The report’s authors rehearse the many arguments for social capital, trotting out all the buzzwords, such as: “Building social capital through cultural participation”, “knit the social fabric”, “improving health and wellbeing”, a “correlation between cultural engagement and civic, prosocial behaviours”, “cohesive communities”, and so forth (Parkinson, et al., 2020, pp. 5-7). The obvious implication here is that people in areas “blighted” by “low” social capital are uncultured: their lack of participation in state-sanctioned culture damages social capital, unravels the social fabric, leads to poor health and low levels of wellbeing, is responsible for anti-social behaviour, and results in broken, incohesive communities. These implied value-judgements are deeply problematic: employing classist and racist tropes galore. It is simply offensive to suggest that the UK’s social problems can be fixed with a shiny, new arts building here, a gentrified high street there – all underpinned by a little bit of depoliticised participatory art and volunteering.

The report reveals its inherent bias for social capital theory when the authors (again cutting and pasting from another source without quotation marks) argue that “There is now a range of evidence that communities with a good ‘stock’ of such ‘social capital’ are more likely to benefit from lower crime figures, better health, higher educational achievement and better economic growth” (Parkinson, et al., 2020, p. 6). This parrots the World Bank’s statement that “Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together” (2004). The trouble is that the report’s authors failed to include the very next sentence from the report they misquoted above. That sentence reads as follows:

However, there can also be a significant downside. Groups and organizations with high social capital have the means (and sometimes the motive) to work to exclude and subordinate others. Furthermore, the experience of living in close knit communities can be stultifying – especially to those who feel they are “different” in some important way (infed.org, n.d.).

This is a common criticism of social capital theory. I have argued about The Intangible Rise of the Social Capital Artist at length, so will not labour my point. I will say that the ACE place shaping report is inherently one-sided, frequently lacking alternative perspectives. To knowingly omit such a strong warning about one downside of social capital theory is very troubling, particularly because, as is clear from the quote above, there is also considerable evidence that people and institutions with high levels of “good” social capital (white, middle-class people) do not include others and indeed “other” those lacking their “stocks” of “good” social capital. Those with high social capital exclude others, and it is this drive to exclude others that drives gentrification.

Finally, it is important to point out that the ACE report misuses place shaping. It takes Lyons’s term and selectively interprets it. Yes, Lyons links place shaping to social capital, but he does so to argue strongly for both local devolution and a redistribution of funding. He argues that local councils should, by working more democratically and participatively with community members and the third sector, deliver locally specific forms of place shaping to meet local needs (Lyons, 2007). I find Lyons’s work problematic and instrumentalist, but it is about devolving power to local government. And, while I do not necessarily have the faith that Lyons’s has in local governments to deliver the sorts of democratic change he talks about, his concept of place shaping is about devolution, and this is not the function of a central state agency for arts and culture, which is what effectively ACE is. Unsurprisingly, the report does not mention devolution of power or funding at all and is therefore, I argue, at odds with the spirit of Lyons’s original work around place shaping.

So, I can only conclude that this badly written report does not only offer absolutely nothing new but actually seeks to selectively revive and reinforce the neoliberal notions of the Creative Class and Good Social Capital in a whirlwind that attempts to ultimately gentrify high streets by artwashing, displacing present Bad Social Capital residents in so doing. It is easy to mock place shaping because it is a terribly power-laden term, but in the hands of ACE and the report’s authors, place shaping takes on a much more sinister, literal form from that intended by Lyons: a belief that if ACE-funded arts organisations can help “shape” a place, they can “shape” the people who live, work, and play in that place. And, if the people can’t be “shaped” or somehow “reshape” themselves to fit the new “shape” of the “regenerated” place, you will be excluded and, ultimately, forced to leave.

We need to think much more radically about community-ownership, cultural democracy, protecting the rights to existing communities to be respected and to share in how their neighbourhoods and communities are developed. We need grassroots, bottom-up regeneration that meets the needs of the people who already live there and welcomes newcomers, not a Creative Class fantasy for some and a gentrification nightmare for others. This report represents, then, a return of the living dead. It revives what Situationist Raoul Vaneigem termed “a perfect social order of zombies” (1994 [1967]) – a technocratic dystopia of single-minded automatons with a Thatcherite, There Is No Alternative mantra which, it seems, just won’t stay dead.

Come on ACE. It’s clearly time for some brave, new thinking! And we need that new thinking NOW!

References

Florida, R. L., 2002. The rise of the creative class: and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Henley, D., 2020. Culture on Our High Streets. [Online]
Available at: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/news-and-announcements/culture-our-high-streets
[Accessed 15th September 2020].

infed.org, n.d.. Social Capital. [Online]
Available at: https://infed.org/social-capital/
[Accessed 18th September 2020].

Landry, C. & Bianchini, F., 1995. The creative city, London: Demos.

Lyons, M., 2007. Place-shaping: a shared ambition for the future of local government, London: UK Government.

Parkinson, A., Buttrick, J. & Knight, E., 2020. Arts and Place Shaping: Evidence Review, London: Arts Council England.

Peck, J., 2009 [2007]. The Creativity Fix. Variant, 34(Spring), pp. 5-9.

Pritchard, S., 2019. Place guarding: Activist art against gentrification. In: C. Courage & A. McKeown, eds. Creative Placemaking: Research, Theory and Practice. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 140-155.

The World Bank, 2004. Community Driven Development. [Online]
Available at: http://www.worldbank.org/en/webarchives/archive?url=httpzzxxweb.worldbank.org/archive/website00996A/WEB/OTHER/COMMUNIT.HTM&mdk=21600690
[Accessed 18th September 2020].

Vaneigem, R., 1994 [1967]. The Revolution of Everyday Life. London: Rebel Press.

Wainwright, O., 2017. ‘Everything is gentrification now’: but Richard Florida isn’t sorry. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/oct/26/gentrification-richard-florida-interview-creative-class-new-urban-crisis
[Accessed 18th September 2020].

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