Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Derry - a resilient city

The Academy of Urbanism (AoU) had its annual Congress in Derry this year.  
In his introduction to the first AoU Journal, the Academy chairman Kevin Murray argues that “better places tend to be more tolerant of a diversity of people and backgrounds, making people feel comfortable and providing them with positive stimuli for creativity and collaboration”. This hardly sounds like the Derry of the popular imagination, but the Congress provided an opportunity to explore the new and infinitely complex reality.

Aerial view 1970s

Shipquay Street (Mark Lusby)

In his brilliant book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson calls the city a “great engine of supercreativity”, a crucible of innovation and creativity.[i]  No one could describe Derry as an engine of supercreativity, although it is generating a few sparks. Even the ever-optimistic ONE Regeneration Plan for Derry – Londonderry acknowledges that the city has a small, fragile economy, heavily dependent on the public and third sectors.  The same document contains a “Summary of Key Inequalities” which reveals that, in the most deprived parts of the city, the mortality rate is exceptionally high; the economic activity rate is alarmingly low (below 50% in places); about three-quarters of the adult population have no educational qualifications; and more than half of all primary school children qualify for free school meals. This is depressing, although hardly unique: much the same might be said about parts of Grimsby, Dundee or Oldham.
One might argue that, even a generation after the worst of the Troubles, Derry is in many ways the antithesis of the ideal city. It is too small to pack an economic punch, its traditional industries have collapsed, the private sector is weak, there is a low-skilled workforce (despite some great schools) and poverty is endemic.  It is hard to imagine a modern European city that is less diverse, and Derry remains segregated by religion and obsessed with its dual identity and its contested history. In some parts of the city, rough justice is administered by armed terrorist gangs, and one Congress delegate challenged official self-congratulation by highlighting the risks still faced by young people who choose to cross the community divide.

Above: The Fountain, below: Bogside

The Derry-based Nerve Centre is leading the Divided We Stand project which uses GPS technology to track the movements of school children in Northern Ireland as they go about their daily lives. Provisional findings suggest that religion continues to have a profound impact on the geography of everyday life for young people in Derry. The city centre appears to be more or less neutral territory, but the home, school and social life of young Catholics and young Protestants is often confined to mutually exclusive territories. Indeed, the subtext of the ONE Plan is an apparent acceptance of separate development. There is much talk of equality of opportunity, respect, cooperation and coordination but the inevitable Wordle diagram of key terms and phrases doesn’t mention integration.

So is Derry a model of good urbanism? Scarcely. The riverside, once a busy port and a centre of industry, is utterly miserable. Crass developments like the Foyleside Centre and the Millennium Forum have trashed the scale and character of the historic city; much of the rich industrial heritage has been allowed to wither away.  The regeneration model posited by the ONE Plan is based on heroically optimistic demand projections, and the Congress was given a glimpse of a laughably awful “masterplan” for the Fort George site.

But, for all these disappointments and challenges, Derry survives, albeit by the skin of its teeth. In a 1961 essay, the great Ian Nairn celebrated the city’s “fighting spirit...Derry is one of the proudest places I have ever been”.[ii]  Fifty years on, after decades of conflict and tragedy, the theme of the AoU Congress was resilience, and it could not have been more appropriate. 

The ONE Plan may be a series of clunking clichés (“Derry-Londonderry’s key assets remain the place and its people”) framed in fractured syntax (”...a compelling and exciting opportunity for delivering transformation for regeneration through sustainability”) but what matters is the fact that it was written at all, and that so many people were engaged in the process. Thankfully, the new Peace Bridge isn’t a crass “iconic” gesture, but an elegant structure which makes crossing the river Foyle a real pleasure; by linking a divided city it has created something of practical as well as symbolic value. The restoration of the Ebrington Barracks will raise the quality bar, although it is not entirely clear where the demand for the new spaces, indoor and outdoor, will come from. The city’s cultural renaissance is real, as exemplified by the Playhouse, the Nerve Centre and the Gaelic cultural centre Cultúrlann - though it is heavily dependent on the subsidised sector and the creative economy remains small and fragile. The winning 2013 City of Culture bid was an unqualified triumph which provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to attract new investors and high-spending visitors. The latter will be delighted by a place that is thrillingly distinctive, despite the indignities inflicted on it by bombers, planners and developers, and the welcome will be warm and generous.

Above: Peace Bridge, below: Ebrington

If the purpose of the Academy of Urbanism is to learn from place, Derry was an outstanding choice for the 2012 Congress. Difficult, ambiguous, admirable and infuriating in equal measure, the city falls short of the European benchmark for good urbanism in all kinds of ways. But Derry has triumphed over adversity to become a better, happier and more optimistic place than it was ten years ago. It is salutary to read the account of the city in the 1979 Buildings of Ireland volume, with the walls occupied as a military camp and the bombers – and planners – wreaking daily damage on the urban fabric.[iii] Derry is still a difficult and troubled place and the wounds of the recent past are, understandably, still raw but it has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Now the city needs to translate its proven resilience into a credible plan for sustainable prosperity. It will be a huge challenge but Derry has made a brave start.

[i]         Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation, Allen Lane, London, 2010
[ii]        Ian Nairn, “Proud Derry”, The Listener, 21 December 1961
[iii]       Alistair Rowan, The Buildings of Ireland: North West Ulster, Penguin, London, 1979

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Cultural regeneration in Sussex & Kent

I seem to have crossed the boundary from not blogging enough to not blogging at all, but a journey around the south of England provided so much food for thought that I've decided to give it another go. The principal purpose of our trip was to attend the premiere of my brother Pete's fabulous new film, The Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists, now showing (in 2D and 3D) at a cinema near you - http://www.aardman.com/ . But we prefaced this glittering occasion with a visit to Oxford, followed by a look at the new cultural attractions of Sussex and Kent: The Towner in Eastbourne, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, the brand-new Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and Margate’s Turner Contemporary.

Pallant House Gallery

To complete the set, inevitably dubbed the “string of pearls”, I’d already seen the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. It is a very beautiful showcase for 20th century British art in new galleries added to the original historic house by Colin St John Wilson and M J Long. The new Pallant House cost £8.6m and opened in 2006. Both the permanent collection and the exhibitions programme are exemplary and the building is a delightful addition, skilfully inserted into the fabric of the old city: http://www.pallant.org.uk/ .

Towner, Eastbourne

The Towner Museum of Contemporary Art, an £8.5 project designed by Rick Mather, replaced a much-loved but outdated gallery and opened in 2009: http://www.townereastbourne.org.uk/ . It’s hard to appreciate the building just now because the Congress Theatre, to which it is attached, is currently under wraps. I have to admit it didn’t do much for me, but I was more concerned about content and management than the architecture. Only a miserly selection of the Towner’s wonderful permanent collection is on display, with much larger areas of gallery space devoted to community projects and temporary exhibitions. I felt short-changed, even though admission is free, and I was depressed by the state of the building: the cafe was unkempt, circulation in the shop is impossible even though there is plenty of spare space, and every available surface seemed to be covered with notices printed on A4 paper. An investment of that scale and ambition deserves better.

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

Heading east, and another £8m has been spent on the restoration of Bexhill’s wonderful De La Warr Pavilion, Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff’s modernist masterpiece which opened in 1935. This investment is being complemented by an ambitious programme of improvements to the sea front, the Next Wave. The individual elements of the Next Wave, designed by HTA, are very nice, but so much has been thrown at a narrow strip of land – seating, shelters, showers, play equipment, lighting – that the effect is a bit chaotic, but there’s no doubt that it’s a change for the better: http://www.next-wave.org.uk/article/5564/Home . The Pavilion, meanwhile, looks sensational – as it should, because it’s a building of international importance. The current exhibition, sculpture by Cerith Wyn Evans, was designed specifically for the building and is exceptionally good: http://www.dlwp.com/ .

Jerwood Gallery from the beach

There’s been a bit of a to-do about the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings mostly, as far as I can tell, because the new building at the Stade (HAT Architects: budget £4m) and the adjoining public space have replaced a coach park: a depressing but familiar gripe. A fellow guest at the B&B – the excellent Black Rock House http://www.hastingsaccommodation.com/ - told me that her taxi driver claimed that the gallery had been paid for by the Jedward brothers, which is an excellent idea. I suspect that, when the fuss dies down, everyone will be very pleased with it. The gallery was wholly funded by the Jerwood Foundation to provide a showcase for its collection, and it sits very comfortably between the town’s famous net shops and at the back of the wonderfully chaotic section of beach which is home to the fishing fleet. The first selection from the collection is a treat: not exactly challenging or ground-breaking, but thoroughly enjoyable and likely to please a lot of people: http://www.jerwoodgallery.org/ .

Turner Contemporary, Margate

So finally to Margate to see David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary, at £17.5m easily the most expensive of these projects when it opened in 2011. Visitor numbers so far have far exceeded expectations, and they should get another boost when the Tracey Emin show opens in May 2012. I thought the building – plain, bordering on austere - was a huge success, with beautiful, calm gallery spaces.

But visiting Margate brings you face to face with the rationale for projects of this kind, because – despite faint stirrings in the Old Town: galleries, studios, smart shops et al – the evidence of poverty and deprivation is daunting. Will the gallery help? Probably, yes. But the scale of the problems facing Margate is startling. There are huge tracts of sub-standard property, “entrenched and interlinked cycles of deprivation, ill health and incapacity, and worklessness”, and large numbers of children in care and other vulnerable groups. An excellent report by Shared Intelligence (2008-09) tells the story. The problems are profound and systemic; as in many seaside towns, they date back to the 1970s and 80s when surplus holiday accommodation was converted into low-cost housing for the benefit claimants. Two council wards, Margate Central and Cliftonville, are among the 1% most deprived in England; and more than a third of the shops in the town centre are empty: http://www.thisismargate.co.uk/pdf/Margate_Renewal_Study.pdf

There are boarded-up kebab shops, a 99p shop, fish and chips and independent fast-food outlets of every description, derelict pubs and grotty amusement arcades where the feckless and witless are encouraged to gamble their dole money. It is a hellhole. It's so bad that Marks & Spencer packed up and left some time ago. The Primark shop front is tatty and letters are missing from the signage. (Independent, October 2011).

Margate is a reminder of both the limits to what cultural regeneration can be expected to achieve and how long it will take. Turner Contemporary will bring more visitors to town, and there is already evidence that they are spilling out into the still fragile, but improving, Old Town. Decent restaurants and cool hotels and B&Bs, like the wonderful Reading Rooms - http://thereadingroomsmargate.co.uk/ - will, in all probability, follow. A new fast rail link to London may encourage more entrepreneurs and creatives to take the plunge, as they have in Folkestone. It is reasonable to anticipate at least modest economic growth and diversification.

But it is not at all clear that the benefits of growth will reach the town’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, and there is a real fear that changes to the housing benefits system will drive another wave of migration from London and other more expensive markets to the benefit ghettoes of Thanet, Folkestone and Hastings. With the exception of the Old Town, the centre of Margate already belongs almost exclusively to the troubled and deprived: their marginalisation has been compounded by the development of a huge new shopping and leisure complex at Westwood Cross, between Margate and Ramsgate.

I am an enthusiast for, and consumer of, cultural regeneration. It has made a positive difference in Folkestone, where the emphasis has been more on enterprise than on infrastructure, and it should help to strengthen the modest but measurable turn-around in the fortunes of Hastings and Margate. Conditions are very different in Bexhill and Eastbourne – two thoroughly respectable (and rather dull) resorts – and in the prosperous cathedral city of Chichester. But the smart new or refurbished galleries fit very well with their image and quality of life and should help to attract more day and overnight visitors. All this is fine, but it’s not a cure-all. In Margate, especially, but in almost every traditional seaside town, we encounter deep poverty, stretching back over 2 or 3 generations. Breaking that cycle of misery and indignity will require much more than a string of pearls, boutique hotels and fine dining.

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