Sensing the city; artists, embodiment and urban space #4

This is my final post on the Sensing the City Salon.

My colleague, artist and academic researcher Dani Abulhawa spoke about her recent performance work ‘Feint Lines’ as well as earlier performance work. These pieces focus on issues of play in public urban space and gendered-performance and also include ‘Alices(s)’ and ‘Unknowable’, where she performs improvised play alone in public spaces throughout the UK. Dani also makes work that references her experiences of being a female skate-boarder, which she describes ‘as a persistent backdrop to the range of things I do’. ‘Feint Lines’ in particular sees Dani performing on a skateboard, occupying a whole floor of a car park in Salford (as part of a ‘Lone women in not quite light night’ event 2018).

I find Dani’s work very evocative – when I’ve heard her speak about it, it always resonates strongly and makes a multiplicity of connections in my mind to a range of urban space issues; from the issue of whether women are allowed in public space at all (‘Occupy the night streets’ India), the controlling and prescribing of women’s actions in public space, how men choose to interact with a lone woman in public space (#MeToo movement), or simply whether or not it’s acceptable for women to skateboard (or free-running, parkour etc).

Dani Unknowable 2014

But at this salon, it resonated most around ideas of adults playing in public space, what this consists of, where and how it can take place, and the question of whether its only acceptable when formalised. For me the potential for play in public space intersects strongly with the issues raised by Dani’s work for women.

Given the issues of ‘death of the high street’ dilemmas face by all our town and cities today, where there is much planning and development-based discussion about reinventing the high street/town centres for not only shopping, but also residential and leisure. Could we open out the ‘leisure’ part of this equation and really think about what we mean by leisure. Artists are already working to redefine, re-imagine and develop our collective understanding of urban space differently. I’m keen to help make the practical real-world connections between the planning, development and regeneration sectors and the arts and artists, especially those working around dance and performance and to foster more cross-sector dialogue around all the issues raised in the last four blog posts on sensing the city; embodiment and urban space.

Image credit: Dani Abulhawa

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Sensing the city; artists, embodiment and urban space #3

This is third post from the Sensing the City Salon is based on Sara Wookey’s presentation. Sara presented a series of works she undertook whilst living in Los Angeles between 2010 and 2014. A core theme was walking, which people experience very differently in LA, a city designed for the car and its driver. She had recently moved from Amsterdam a very different city, excellent for walkers and cyclists. Sara was commissioned by the municipality and also noted urbanist Edward Soja during this period.

I was particularly interested in her walking practices and her use of what known in dance practice as  ‘pedestrian movement’ and how these expand perceptions of how people occupy and move around urban space.

Sara described one work ‘Being Pedestrian’, a collaboration with visual artist Sara Daleiden which was about encouraging people to walk in Los Angeles, via tours, walking workshops with community groups and included a pamphlet publication which helped people ‘warm-up’ for being a pedestrian, which included asking people to become more bodily aware in order to venture out into the city.

Sara Wookey #1

I was particularly interested in a performance workshop project which linked directly to how LA had been designed, such as the particularly tricky ‘mid-block’ crossing. Which revealed the issues pedestrians have crossing certain junctions, by performing on masse, across and around the junction.

One of my recent projects has included working with a community group in Wigan, who are thinking about how one of their public spaces has been designed. As part of the workshop we identified a range of urban design issues relating to access and connections to, from and through their community green. We discussed urban design terms such as ‘permeability’, or how easy a space is to move through and around, we asked – is this a walkable space?

Sara’s work connects strongly to such UK urban design questions, especially in terms of finding creative and engaging ways to enable community groups to understand in depth why their neighbourhood has been designed and laid out as it has. I believe that by working with community groups in such engaging ways, they will develop more agency, enabling them to engage more fully with planners, the planning system and developers in the ongoing regeneration of our urban spaces.

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Sensing the city; artists, embodiment and urban space #2

My second post from the Sensing the City Salon focusses on Victoria Hunter’s presentation about her dance research work in the area of Raval in Barcelona, Spain. Where with a colleague Ana Moya Pellitero, she worked with a group of participants, mainly older women, who were residents of the city, asking ‘How do you know Raval through your body?’

This series of workshops saw the women explore the physical surfaces, streets, public spaces using embodied movement practices – giving the participants an opportunity to have a conversation between their body and the urban space they live in, as a new way to understand and think about the place they live. Victoria reported that some participants felt profoundly moved by experiencing their city in this way and that simultaneously the project created an incidental audience, which witnessed older women playing and enjoying their cityscape.

There is a key agenda in UK urbanism, that of making our urban spaces age-friendly. Here where I live in Manchester, an action research project has been researching, through the development of age-friendly neighbourhood boards, how older people (people over fifty) can have agency in their area, and get involved in making their neighbourhoods more age-friendly. I have been involved in two projects with one of these boards, Mile Platting Age-Friendly Neighbourhoods Board. However, it is clear that spatial exclusion can prevent headway being made, i.e. the challenges that some communities face in having any agency at all in relation to the planning system and development activity going on in their areas, are often insurmountable.

The recent TCPA’s Raynsford Review of the planning system comments on the inequalities in the system, where disadvantaged communities and many different groups (such as older people) are excluded from engaging in the planning system (p.78).

Victoria’s presentation made the connection for me between this issue of spatial exclusion and the potential of her research as an alternative, joyful, embodied and thorough way for older people (and others) to connect their lived experience to their urban place and understand it in a different way. Perhaps the world of planning and development could learn much from this, could it be a valuable stepping stone towards supporting older people to engage in issues around planning and development in their areas?

Image credits: Ana Moya Pellitero and Victoria Hunter

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Sensing the city; artists, embodiment and urban space #1

I recently attended an event entitled Sensing the City Salon, at Coventry University, part of the research programme which is ‘Documenting and mapping the tempers of urban place (a practice-based case study of the city of Coventry)’, jointly led Warwick and Coventry universities. This event brought together academics, dance and movement artists with an interest in ideas around a place-based, embodied experience of towns and cities. There were five presentations (including one from me) intended as food for thought, to stimulate and inform the ongoing action research being undertaken by a range of dance, theatre and visual arts researchers.

For me, each presentation brought up strong thoughts and ideas, connecting to my ongoing thought process around how artists can make closer links to, and be more valued by, the fields of planning, regeneration and economic development, on their own terms. As well as thinking about how artists can have more agency to engage in the development of urban spaces.

My next four posts will be about the four presentations from artists and academic researchers, Annette Arlander, Victoria Hunter, Dani Abulhawa and Sara Wookey.

Annette Arlander described her work ‘Stockhom Tree Calendar’. A fascinating time-lapse video work, in which Annette, positions herself within a tree (facing away from the camera), monthly, over a year, selecting trees based on the Celtic tree calendar. One direction my thoughts took in relation to this serene work, was to issues raised in recent social media of the new UK phenomena of developers netting trees and hedges to prevent birds nesting, prior to cutting them down and building on land.

In her presentation Annette described how trees are also inhabitants of cities, how they belong to cities. How a tree in a specific place, is are part of understanding of cultural history and identity in that place – and if it’s an old tree, how it can be a locus for local place-based memories across multiple generations. Thinking about what the trees themselves remember, could be an alternative way of understanding our towns and cities.

It was Annette’s comment that we are co-dependent with ‘nature’ and other species including trees (and other plants), that made the strong link for me, to the new way of thinking about green, open and blue spaces in planning and development, that of Green Infrastructure (see my posts in Oct and Nov 17). Especially that trees, plants and the quality of our green urban spaces have multiple values across social, environmental and economic arenas – and that the natural environment has the same status as water, energy and transport infrastructure. Thus clarifying that the netting of trees and hedges to expedite development, especially at this crisis point in terms of climate change is extremely counter-productive in human, social and environmental terms.

Image credit: Annette Arlander

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Making a difference: Bradford and Plymouth

I’ve been excited to meet and talk to individuals working against the odds in their towns to make a positive difference to their towns and small cities.

Artists Jean McEwan and Chemaine Cooke of Wur Bradford (see June 18 blog post) are seeking to bring local shoppers and traders together to discuss issues around the decline of the high street in the centre of Bradford.

At a Power 2 Change Learning Camp recently I met entrepreneurs and creatives based in Plymouth working with RIO (which stand for Real Ideas Organisation) whose mission is ‘to deliver real and lasting change through social enterprise’. One of which was Martyn Ellison who is co-running a micro-brewery called Billy Ruffian’s Brewing Co (in partnership with RIO), where some of the beer is made out of left-over bread. I’m very interested in how their business is part of a co-ordinated effort to work towards a strong local economy in Plymouth, by making use of under-used resources to prevent money from leaking out of the area.

Billy Ruffian's Beer

Image credit: Billy Ruffian’s Brewing Co

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Making a difference: Newcastle under Lyme and the 6 Potteries Towns

Following on from October’s blog, I’ve recently been listening to a couple of podcasts addressing issues relating to towns:

Weekly Economics Podcast (from New Economics Foundation): Is it the end of the Road for the High Street?

& Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s Reason to be Cheerful Podcast: Won’t you take me to Funky Town: power and prosperity in towns, featuring Lisa Nandy (Wigan MP).

Both of these raise some interesting questions around how people living and working in a neighbourhood can take greater control over designing and building their local economy. I’ve been meeting with people who are testing out ways to tackle the challenges face by local communities trying to do this. Including the social and economic regeneration company Hometown Plus, who are working in partnership with a strong team of collaborators in Newcastle under Lyme and the 6 potteries towns of Stoke on Trent, Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longley, Stoke on Trent and Tunstall.

Its fascinating to watch the great progress of their innovative CounterCoin programme – a volunteer and business reward scheme, which is inspiring individuals, community groups, arts organisations and independent businesses to work together to bring life back to their high streets.2nd Edition CC

Image credit: CounterCoin – https://www.countercoin.network/

 

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Making a difference in Plymouth, Newcastle Under Lyme, Bradford

This next couple of blog posts are some very early musings on the current relationship between towns and cities and highlights some learning and thinking I’ve been doing about this. As an adult I’ve always lived in big cities (Sheffield, Leeds and now Manchester – sometimes considered the Core Cities ). But increasingly I’ve become interested in and aware of, issues arising out of the relationship between the UK’s big cities and its smaller cities and towns.

Economic development in the UK has focused on, gathering resources around these largest 11 cities (Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham,  Sheffield), drawing in highly skilled workers to these places and concentrating energy, ideas and expenditure on for example infrastructure in these places*. This has been backed up by the idea that the prosperity of these cities will trickle down to elsewhere… however, it’s clear that within these 11 cities, that prosperity hasn’t even been trickling down within those cities, let alone beyond to neighbouring smaller cities or towns. There will be more on this in my next posts.

My attention has recently been drawn to a number of community-led, social and economic activities taking place in three smaller cities and towns: Plymouth, Newcastle Under Lyme and Bradford. The following posts will outline some of the people and projects I’ve come across.

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Image credit: Sarah Spanton, of Cultural Squatters Cafe, York Place, Newcastle Under Lyme

*https://citiesmcr.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/size-matters-london-the-subsidy-junky/ – accessed 17.12.14

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