‘I’d love to live there…’ Culture Makes Places Great

Chris Bailey, Clerk of the Guild of Media Arts talks about the benefits of and opportunities for growing the creative industries in our area


Imagine … on a warm September evening in 2026, the fifth edition of York’s international festival of media arts, Mediale, is about to begin. A crowd of people from York, Yorkshire and the wider world, has gathered in Mallard Square, in front of the newly extended National Railway Museum, to watch a spectacle unfold as artist delegates from our other UNESCO Creative Cities show how the best art meets the cleverest technology. York Central, the new piece of the city in which we are standing, is certainly ‘successful and distinctive’, but what has that to do with York’s thriving creative industries?

Back in 2014, York was designated by UNESCO the UK’s first Creative City of Media Arts. The partners developing the UNESCO programme recognised that York needed to compete on the world stage, and that success comes from showing vision, leadership and commitment to the achievement of shared goals.

Research into World Cities commissioned by the previous Mayor of London, has shown that the creative industries (broadly speaking: the contemporary arts, heritage and the commercial creative sub-sectors) are a vital component of achieving capital city pre-eminence. While once it was assumed that this meant no more than being able to provide highbrow entertainment for corporate clients, we now know that distinctive cultures and innovative creative ecologies feed one another. They are inseparable from an excellent education system and high quality physical environments. In short, successful places are made by, and in turn themselves make, sustainable communities. And what is true of London and New York is no less applicable here.

How does the virtuous circle of good growth work? As consulting firm KPMG have explained, ‘magnet cities’ are more successful than their competitors when they promote equality, creativity, tolerance, vibrant living and working environments, and sustainability. While having sufficient creative enterprises to generate energy is important, they also argue that ‘non-capital’ cities often find it easier to achieve these desirable characteristics than their metropolitan cousins. Smaller cities can be more collaborative in style, less formal, speedier and more transparent in their dealings.

The benefits of creativity have to do, in part, with the way the sector works. Creative businesses often prefer historic working environments and perform better as a result. The sector is projected to be the least vulnerable to de-skilling through the advances of AI. It has always had one of the highest skills profiles of any sector and generates higher profit per employee than equivalent roles in sectors such as hospitality and tourism, which are often the most obvious alternative employment.

York is an obvious place to put into practice the recommendations of 2017’s Independent Review of the Creative Industries written for government by Sir Peter Bazalgette, TV producer and previous Chair of Arts Council England. He notes the disproportionate impact of the creative industries in driving the economy. To strengthen creative networks, he says, it is important to capitalise on cultural assets, link them to projects promoting health and wellbeing in communities, strengthen cultural education in schools and colleges, and allow them to make their contribution to the place. York and its economic geography fit the bill perfectly.

The opportunities for York, on the eve of 2018, are evident, and none more so than a development site that is two-thirds the size of the walled city, and which could house hundreds of enterprises and thousands of residents. Far from being a blank canvas York Central is already partly populated, has a number of structures that are important heritage assets, and is a site of enormous cultural resonance. It is our choice whether or not to value and build on the assets.

As York’s long-awaited Local Plan was being prepared in 2017, a series of public discussions focused on the role of the arts and culture in successful places. For the first time policies for arts and culture were linked positively to the historic significance of the city. Taking a cue from the UN Sustainable Development Goals now adopted by the UK Government, the Plan recognised ‘cultural wellbeing’ as a goal of planning alongside economic and social development.

Successful cities are not isolated. Just as collaboration is the source of innovation in industry, so cities and towns benefit from cross-fertilisation, and from planning jointly for industrial growth. York’s ambitions should be framed not just at city level, but regionally, nationally and internationally as well. The UNESCO designation admitted York to a worldwide network of enormous potential, with University and cultural exchange being only the first and most obvious mechanisms to exchange knowledge andwin good practice.

Back to the future: the 5th Mediale opening night is drawing to a close as you set out on the short walk home through the park with your family, animatedly discussing the creative ways in which York winning England’s highest ranking for ‘social capital’ have just been creatively re-interpreted. As you walk up to the front door of your new Passivhaus standard terraced house, it lights up and unlocks to greet you, whilst your children swap excited tales of the inspiring artists they have been engaging with all evening. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is well underway in York, and your future is bright.

(Images: Congregation York, by KMA Associates www.kma.co.uk/)

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