What’s The City Centre For?

Street Party

Ed Carlisle (@edleeds) wonders what the city centre’s for, and introduces a brand new ‘thing’ for the Leeds calendar: the Leeds Midsummer Feast, Sunday 23rd June, 5pm til 10pm on Briggate …

I really like the fact that Leeds has a centre – somewhere where people gather, bustle, bump into one another, hang out, etc. And here in Leeds, it’s easy to forget that loads of UK towns and even cities are seeing their centres wilt and die – victims at the hands of online and out-of-town shopping, a gazillion TV channels at home, the lure of the off-licence, and other exciting social trends.

But – by God – our city centre could be so much better. Indeed, I’m struck by the idea that we could (and in fact, must – judging by the odds stacked against us re-imagine our city centres. Can we think beyond commercialism, and start to re-think what they could become? What could a city centre be if it weren’t solely for shopping, or even paid-for leisure?

Feast Funfair 1900s

Could it be a social space? And I wonder, do we always need commercial venues like bars/cafes/cinemas/whatever to sell us this? What about a space for play? A gathering space? A civic space? A political space, perhaps featuring mass-participation decision-making? And if we like any of those ideas, how do we start to take steps to get there? Could Leeds pioneer something new, whilst still having a centre that people actually come to?

A fair few people are mulling on this stuff – including Playful Leeds, the new Leeds Speakers Corner, and the Association of Street Artists and Performers. And I and a few others found ourselves wondering if we couldn’t add summat into the mix.

Street party Coronation

But I for one didn’t want to organise another event. Events have their place: just last week I was helping at Beeston Festival – and it was very very good, a hugely valuable day in the life of our community. But events are tiring, you have to think a lot, they’re time-consuming, they cost a fair whack – and it’s not always clear what they achieve (as opposed to longer term programmes or projects).

However, it is good to get people together – only could we do ‘events’ differently? Without all that palaver of money, central coordination, infrastructure, etc. On that basis, the Midsummer Feast was born.

Coronation Party

The idea’s simple: just invite people from across the city, of all ages, to get together, hang out, and create an event-like ‘thing’ together. Some will hopefully bring food and drink to share; others music, song, jokes, or performance; others games or crafts; and still others will bring stuff that we haven’t thought of. What will you bring?

Of course, it chimes with the whole Big Lunch thing, and the zeitgeist (love that word) around shifting towards more participatory ways of doing life and society. On that, I was sorry to miss last week’s Long Division festival in Wakey – which heralds ‘DIY culture’. And a guy I know who’s massively involved in the the national festival scene says the Holy Grail for festival organisers is increasingly seen as breaking from the model of entertaining people (ie performers and passive audiences) towards making events as participatory as possible.

Coronation 2

Anyway, Briggate seemed like the obvious place to have it: it’s big, everyone knows it, and pedestrianised so no need for road closures, and – as the oldest street in the city, and the heart of the shopping district – it’s symbolically interesting. And when? On Sunday evenings, the city centre is a gaping vacuum of inactivity – so why not fill it with a bit of life?

So the Midsummer Feast is an experiment – an intriguing one. Can a wide range of people from across the city come together and – without instruction, without having their hands held – have a nice time together? Can we co-create something fun, inspiring, interesting? And – longer term – can we all imagine and take steps to re-create our city centre as (a lot) more than a commercial space? Is that in our collective powers? Surely.

The Leeds Midsummer Feast is on Sunday 23rd June 2013, between 5pm-10pm, on Briggate. Full info at leedsfeast2013.eventbrite.co.uk/. Please help spread the word, and use #LeedsFeast on Twitter. Hopefully see you then – and don’t forget to bring your contribution…


  1. Ed

    I like the idea that people could create whatever event they like in the city centre, that it could be about more than just ‘commercialism’ or ‘pair-for leisure’ – though I’ve got nothing against either of those things – to be, as you say, a ‘social space’, ‘civic space’ or ‘political space’. It seems that a major obstacle though is the increased regulation of public space by local authorities. Public space is in fact no longer that – space open and free for the public to use. Instead councils increasing demand that we seek permission, often paid permission, even to exercise such centuries old civic rights as leafleting (see link below), never mind hold organised or impromptu ‘gatherings’ or ‘mass-participation’ events. For the city centre to be a truly social space we need to challenge such regulation.



  2. I like the idea Ed, and agree with Paul’s comments, public space needs to be just that, for everyone to use without being embroiled in process and cost.
    However, to revive the beating hearts of our town and city centres, I don’t believe occasional/regular events with good willed visitors (even if they are residents from the suburbs) is enough. We need all generations to migrate back to city living, where families can live, work and play. This would bring a sense of community, ownership, pride and respect back to our centres.
    To do this well requires a total rethink, playgrounds, ample and free parking for town centre residents. Local doctor and dental surgeries, green space, I could go on…
    I believe this can happen, but each town and city authority must engage very publicly and overtly. We must also be clear that this is not just the councils’ problem, it belongs to us ALL.
    Many cities are already there, take a look at some of the historic towns such as Harrogate, or cities like York.

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