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August 3, 2022

Louise Blackwell

Levelling up: How outdoor culture can improve urban life

Cities and towns across the UK can enliven their centres by levelling up arts and culture.

As the Levelling Up agenda and the candidates for the UK’s next prime minister continue to attract headlines, the Creative High Streets report by the Urban Research Unit, Arts Council England and South East Local Enterprise Partnership published in January 2022 argues that “Culture plays a major role in attracting and retaining talent, encouraging inward investment and boosting the visitor economy, which records 139 million visitors annually, with nearly £9bn spent by them.

levelling up Crawley
A big hand in Levelling Up: Aura’s Odyssey. (Photo courtesy of Animated Objects)

“The South East has over 15,000 creative businesses, accounting for 9.6% of total businesses in the region. In the South East, 4,600 creative businesses are located within 200m of a high street, one-fifth of the region’s creative businesses are located within 200m of a high street and 10% of high street businesses are working within the creative and cultural sector on average.” 

There’s a real focus from the powers that be to use arts and culture as a tool to revitalise struggling high streets and town centres, with the UK’s Levelling up agenda a source of discussion. 

Crawley, in West Sussex, is one such example and one of Arts Council England’s (ACE) Priority Places. It has recently been awarded a grant of £1m over three years by ACE’s Creative People and Places programme. The town is also the recipient of government-backed Towns Fund investment; £450,000 of which will be used to develop ideas for a cultural quarter.

Regardless of what happens to the Levelling Up agenda when we have the next prime minister, now is the time to bring in significant investment and ensure that a robust infrastructure to support the multifaceted arts and culture ecology is put in place so that once the investment spotlight moves elsewhere, creative people have strong roots to build upon.

Crawley: Art as a tool for improving urban life

Creative Crawley is a new arts charity that’s currently working in partnership with Crawley Town Centre Business Improvement District (BID) to help people look at the town through new eyes. The brief is to engage in Levelling Up the town centre with arts and culture. Every wall, piece of street furniture and footbridge is a canvas to bring to life, every street corner or square is a potential performance space and every building is a future cultural hub. 

[Read more: Cities are facing a “silent emergency” in the erosion of children’s play areas]

For just over a year, Crawley Town Centre BID and Creative Crawley have been working in partnership with local people, businesses and the Borough Council to commission and present the work of local, national and internationally renowned artists in the town, free to attend for local people. It’s started to change the way Crawley and the people who live there are perceived.

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From an exhibition about the strength of locals made by a former strong lady, shown in shop windows to a sci-fi dance spectacular on the back of a 40ft truck in the park in the centre of the town to a Bollywood dance workshop in a former restaurant on the high street, the partnership has been working together using arts and culture to bring the town to life and offer new opportunities to have fun and to look at the town in a different way. 

Partnership working from Yorkshire to Crawley

Crawley Town Centre Business Improvement District is leading the way in using arts and culture to support their levy payers and create a distinctive sense of place in Crawley town centre. Instead of working on a project-by-project basis, they are three-quarters of the way through a two-year contract that enables Creative Crawley to plan in advance and develop ideas together. It also means they can connect with projects that other progressive BIDs around the country are doing too while Levelling Up. 

levelling up Crawley
There Should Be Unicorns by Middle Child as part of Enliven: You’re Welcome. (Photo by Tom Arran)

For example, the current season ‘Enliven: You’re Welcome’ sees a project that was initiated by Animated Objects Theatre Company, based in Yorkshire and originally funded by the Yorkshire Coast Business Improvement District arrive in Crawley in August. ‘Aura’s Odyssey’ brings a 5m-high puppet girl to the town involving more than 200 local people and connecting with Gatwick Airport, local neighbourhoods, the town centre and Tilgate Park with large-scale walkabouts and an open-top bus tour. The project aims to bring people into the town centre and celebrate Crawley as the diverse and welcoming place it is. 

“It is a really exciting time to be in Crawley town centre, with lots of infrastructure improvements taking place on its perimeter,” Wendy Bell, Crawley Town Centre BID manager, says. “It’s the BID’s responsibility to ensure that everything that happens within reflects the energy and vibrancy of our town; working with Creative Crawley has allowed us to expand our vision of making a visit to the town centre a remarkable experience. Using artistic connections within the field of arts and culture locally and nationally will enable us to showcase Crawley as an inspiring place to visit and live.”

The work they are doing together takes time and energy, and, to ensure a lasting impact, will need to be well resourced going forwards. For true change to take place, long-term Levelling Up investment is essential and Creative Crawley is working with the local and national governments as well as other stakeholders to make positive change happen. 

Levelling up impermanence and legacy

The Creative Playground project (the ACE Creative People and Places programme) invites those that don’t usually get to decide what art and culture take place in the town they live in, to do just that. Local people choose what happens. Creative Crawley is one of the consortium members leading that programme and they hope that by embedding the power of decision-making in the local infrastructure it’ll be possible to make a permanent change. 

The work with Crawley Town Centre BID also aims to leave a permanent artistic legacy in the town. Whether this is through changing the way the town looks by, for example, commissioning a 60m mural to brighten up the wall of Marks & Spencer or by presenting unforgettable one-off performances that live in peoples’ memories forever, they hope to make a lasting change in the lives of people who live, work, study and play there.

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