Ever since street art became the new name for graffiti and went from being that deplorable criminal act to a new way to make a name for yourself, cities around the world have been trying to grapple with the idea that a mass of concrete, traffic, noise and rush might have a fire in its belly that no one can control.
Over the years I’ve listened to various artists, planners, city officers, designers, regeneration specialists, community warriors, philanthropists, and developers argue the toss about what Leeds should and shouldn’t be. I’ve heard points in them all that I can agree with and some that I can’t. I fully support the idea that there should be less clutter in the city – less stuff that makes it hard to find your way around, fewer big clumpy signs that are functional but resolutely ugly and formal. But one man’s clutter is another man’s creativity. Who’s to say whether or not a procession of astroturf arrows leading the way to the nearest park is clutter or creativity?
I’ve sat in meetings where there is real fear on both sides of the table. A fear of granting permission and then being left with a mess of ill thought-out developments that create hazard and embarrassment, the new white elephants sanctioned by the powers that be. A fear that the city will never change, never evolve and grow to embrace its personality and wear its heart on its sleeve in the way that other cities have. A fear that Leeds will never be a place of the much instagrammed roof or the many-pinned mural or the trending tree-lined viaduct. I can smell the fear from the moment the agenda drops into my inbox. But worse than that I can taste the apathy. Those who’ve been to the meetings, heard the same old story. Those who urge us not to wait for permission but hit stumbling blocks when they try to run with it.
Recently there has been a series of lectures, blog posts, and debates about how to introduce play into cities. How to de-sterilise the city centre, make it feel welcoming, happy, creative and inspiring. The debates follow a usual theme of playfulness, public art, child friendliness and creativity. But very few follow a train of thought that urges tolerance.
I should confess I have an ulterior motive for writing this.
In developing ideas and opportunities for city dressing linked to the Tour de France Grand Depart I’ve met most of the opinions and emotions summarised above. A straight refusal to break the norm pitched against a straight refusal to accept the norm. People genuinely want to play with the city. They want to dress it and feel some kind of ownership of and connection to it. On the other side of the fence the planners, architects and developers want a vibrant city that is talked about as the envy of other cities too and they are not a single species. Planners are citizens too and have different views – it’s really easy to see planning departments and developers as faceless organisations but there are people within those teams with real passion for the city too (they just don’t passively aggressively rant about it on twitter.) But the fear is back and it’s getting stiffling.
What if we get out the dressing up box for the Grand Depart and someone hates what someone else creates? What if there’s an equal amount of love and hate for a particular piece of city dressing? What if the inboxes of councillors get stuffed with demands to remove something but then there’s a petition to keep it? What if you sanctioned it and said yes and now you have to answer for it…
And what if the dressing up box is packed up after the 5th July and never seen again? What if people feel cheated and used for the occasion then locked out again? What if it is only the few who find opportunity through their networks rather than than the entire city who gets to play out?
What if we try a little tolerance? And be realistic.
The whole city won’t get to play. Not because it is an opportunity for the few but because it’s new, we’ve never done it before and it takes time to get the message out. Some of the wealthiest won’t know about it, and neither will some of the poorest in the city. Some people will love it, some will hate it. There will be legalities and red tape to be negotiated. Not because the city likes it but because sometimes that’s necessary and actually can be helpful in the long run. For everything someone loves they can point to something else they hate and vice-versa. Maybe we could be a little bolder and braver and stand by our choices, not sanitise them. Maybe the dressing up box will stay out just not on the scale of the Grand Depart to begin with. Would that be so bad? If the city learnt the difference between play and party?
Perhaps we should play with the city more and have a more open mind the way in which others choose to play. Not everyone likes huge splashes of colour, some find beauty in monochrome simplicity while some declare it soul-less. Maybe we need to have a more toned down version for the everyday to make the major parties and celebrations feel more of an occasion. I love the Pride event, but if I had to fight my way through it to get to work every day the allure might fade. That said there’s plenty here that I could find a little space in my life for.
What if we add balance to the tolerance?
So it’s OK to try something because some will love it, some will hate it, you can’t please them all. It’ll still be a city with grit and grime. It won’t look like a care bear ate too many skittles and threw up all over Park Row. But equally it won’t look like every hipster agency in Shoreditch was given £100 and train fare to play with a northern city for the weekend. The brutal, ’60s edifice of the Bank of England building will still gleam in the sunlight but the next street over a parade of lanterns might light the way to Light Night, or every parking space could get covered with turf for a picnic, or a pop-up LIDO may take over a car park by night rather just the usual ‘official’ events spaces. What if the council knew about it and even enabled all that? What if you didn’t like the lanterns, but thought that’s OK anyway?
What if a public art strategy is about about more than sanctioned sculpture and pretty paving? Leeds could be the city that redefines public art. A sort of Best City blueprint for getting out of the way and letting things happen whilst keeping a watchful eye.
Let’s start here and see what happens: Dressing up the City for the Grand Depart
(Leanne originally posted this piece on her own blog. Thanks for letting us use it on Culture Vultures: Ed.)