Cultural degeneration

Will the Capital of Culture award regenerate run-down Liverpool?

Munira Mirza

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Topics Culture

The Beatles, the slave trade, the Albert Dock and Tate Liverpool are just some of the cultural associations for which Liverpool is known. This heritage, combined with a recent strategy to regenerate the city, was instrumental in its successful bid this week for European Capital of Culture in 2008.

The news of Liverpool’s victory was met with scenes of jubilation in the city. Leader of Liverpool city council, Councillor Mike Storey, remarked: ‘This is like Liverpool winning the Champions League, Everton winning the double and the Beatles re-forming all on the same day – and Steve Spielberg coming to the city to make a Hollywood blockbuster about it.’

The hope is that recognition for Liverpool’s culture will help the economic regeneration of the city. But the attempt to use culture as a tool for economic growth risks failure on both fronts. Judging culture by economic and political criteria does little to aid the development of a genuinely high-quality cultural life. And when it comes to boosting growth, art galleries are a poor replacement for serious economic reform and investment.

Liverpool has long endured a negative image of being a ‘grim up north’ town, scarred by unemployment and crime, poor urban planning and local political scandals in the 1980s. Liverpool Council hopes that the honour of being Capital of Culture in 2008 will encourage the same positive image that Glasgow achieved when it won in 1990. A more positive image is seen as key to increasing a city’s attractiveness to new business, new residents, tourists and the city’s own population.

This is in keeping with the latest thinking in the regeneration ‘industry’. On 27 May, Demos and the British Urban Regeneration Association (BURA) hosted a conference called ‘Boho Britain’, at which American academic Richard Florida argued that ‘creativity’ was the key factor for the regeneration of a city. Cities need to nurture creative entrepreneurs and attract creative people, said Florida; the more attractive a city is to live in, the more successful businesses will want to be there, and the more economically and socially dynamic it will be.

Across Britain, cities have been busily realising this vision by developing major capital projects and revitalising derelict areas. As a prime example of this strategy, Gateshead, once seen as the ‘dirty back lane’ to Newcastle, has shown the world its creativity, with Anthony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ sculpture, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, and the new Millennium Bridge. The idea is that the improved appearance of the riverside and quality of life for residents will generate increased business and attract high-earning incomes.

Gone are the days when employment, industry and housing were considered to be the primary concerns of city authorities. Today, councils revel in their sophisticated awareness of the ‘new knowledge economy’, the importance of ‘quality of life’, and the enhancing power of creative and cultural spaces.

However, these strategies have not been without criticism. At the Demos conference, a number of speakers voiced concern that major landmark projects were often seen as a superficial ‘gloss’ that did little to transform the everyday lives of the city’s residents. There is increasing scepticism that beautiful buildings and creative activity adds up to better economies. For example, much of the regeneration money in Liverpool and Newcastle came from the deep pockets of the European Union (EU)’s regeneration fund, and had little to do with new businesses or artists organically developing in those areas.

And although Glasgow is seen as the model of ‘creative’ urban renaissance, much of the funding that revitalised the area arrived long before the city even decided to make a bid for the City of Culture title (as it was then known) – and this funding has had little long-term material effect on resident’s lives (1).

Regeneration schemes have also caused resentment among residents, because of the ‘gentrification’ process they trigger within local areas. Cultural commentators have added to the resentment by attacking the quality of the culture on offer, arguing that the buildings are more valued for their appearance than their substance. The prime example here is the Millennium Dome, which was attacked for its shallow displays, wasted money and grandiose claims for regeneration of the Greenwich peninsula. The Dome experience explains something of the UK government’s initial reluctance to endorse an Olympic bid for London, for fear that it might repeat the same doomed exercise.

There is a tension at the heart of Britain’s regeneration strategy. While everyone agrees on the importance of culture, the reality so far is that it has not caused a surge in economic growth, social change or community satisfaction.

The resulting backlash, however, misses the point. Some argue that if culture isn’t creating the expected urban renaissance, the problem lies with the kind of culture being promoted.

Strategists argue that culture needs to come from the grassroots, rather than being centrally controlled by sterile and bureaucratic bodies. Indeed, according to Sir Jeremy Isaacs, chairman of the expert panel who determined the winner of the City of Culture bid, one of the reasons they chose Liverpool was because ‘there was a greater sense there that the whole city is involved in the bid and behind the bid’ (2).

Liverpool has emphasised the fact that its cultural map ‘is grounded in the experiences of traditionally under-represented groups and individuals’ (3). The argument is that culture is not just about big beautiful buildings, but also about connecting with local people’s desires and feelings to make them feel included.

But this official promotion of small-scale, local culture would be even worse. While the authorities are in a position to fulfil ambitious projects and actually create an impressive landmark, their attempt to manipulate and exploit neighbourhood photography exhibitions or poetry groups would be more likely to corrode whatever is left of the city’s spontaneous cultural life. Nor will such meddling in small-scale projects attract industry or encourage development.

This debate about cultural regeneration is not really about culture at all. Instead, culture has been politicised and manipulated; it is valued, not for its aesthetic qualities, but for the improved city image or economy that it could yield.

Some city councils exploit culture to demonstrate how ‘in touch’ they are with their local electorate. In a climate of increasing dissatisfaction with local politics, culture seems to offer the possibility of reconnecting with people. However, the more local authorities pin their hopes for regeneration on culture, the more disappointed they will become. When culture is not valued on its own terms, and forced to meet new social and economic expectations, economic and cultural life will both lose out.

In this climate, cultural projects cannot aim to be bold and ambitious (because that is seen as arrogant and economically wasteful) – nor can they justify themselves on excellence alone. And these projects are not economically regenerative – because they are more about making people feel ‘included’ than effecting true economic change.

Liverpool may have been recognised by officials as a city of culture, but it remains to be seen what fruit this will bear.

Read on:

Capital of Complaints, by James Heartfield

Taking creativity to task, by Josie Appleton

(1) See F Bianchini and M Parkinson (1993) Cultural Policy and Urban Regeneration: the West European Experience, Manchester, Manchester University Press

(2) Liverpool named European capital of culture, Guardian, 4 June 2003

(3) Executive Summary of Liverpool’s bid

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Topics Culture

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