Visual activism in the urban landscape #1 – how immigrants have made Britain what it is today

These next three posts focus on visual activism – encompassing a variety of forms of street art, guerrilla campaigning, using posters, stickers, paintings and drawing placed in the urban landscape. These images were all taken whilst going about my daily activities in Manchester, this Summer and Autumn.

Found on the street (in the Cambridge Street area), very soon after the UK’s referendum vote to leave the European Union. I think this poster makes a very strong point about the vital and productive role ‘immigrants’ have had for centuries in the UK, helping produce the very nature of what it is to British today. #postreflove



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Thinking about networks, nodes, lines and junctions

I’ve been strangely fascinated with the St Peter’s Square tram development in Manchester city centre this summer. For several months the tram system hasn’t been operating through the centre of the city, due to the laying of new track, in order to bring a new route through the city in the autumn.

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I feel excited by the nodal nature of the new tram exchange. It previously had just one line running through the square, it will now have two. The new branch leads towards Victoria station, and affords the tram network more connectivity and flexibility. For some, as yet unclear reason, I am highly excited by this new development in Greater Manchester’s public transport/mass transit network.

My interest could be to do with the idea of the network and with the possibilities being expanded – allowing people to travel via more routes to their destinations. These lines of thought have been arising since the workshop I held at Edge Hill station in Liverpool – which has many railway lines travelling through it. I hope these thoughts will develop further when I work in Crewe in the autumn, as it’s a town renowned for its extensive railway junction.

Image credits: Sarah Spanton

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The 4×4 series on place-making and the built environment: On Freedom

Manchester’s fourth event in the 4×4 series was held on 22.5.16. The four speakers made presentations that addressed the theme of freedom in relation to cities and the urban. This is my third and final post on the talks (go here and here for the previous posts). I present my take on what took place, with an inevitable slant towards my personal interests (hoping I’m not too far off the presenters’ intentions).

Michael Riebel works for architects and urban designers Hawkins Brown, within their research team ‘&\Also thinktank’ – which dedicates its time to research and innovation. He spoke of freedom from an (art and) design perspective, making challenging suggestions such as, ‘There is no freedom. There are only good rules’. This resonated for me in relation to thinking about how often the most creative, inventive ideas are found when restricted by boundaries or frameworks.

Lucy Montague is senior lecturer in urban design at University of Huddersfield. Her presentation looked internationally at people’s freedoms in urban settings, in particular the use of outdoor public spaces, the regulation of these spaces and the shift from public to private-public spaces. Giving examples of collective public actions such as the large numbers of women in China who dance in public squares, collective prayer during the occupation of Tahrir Square Egypt, the ‘Why Loiter’ campaign in India, where women meet to just ‘be’ in public space. She brought the presentation around to a focus on people’s rights and freedoms to use public space for their daily living, including public speaking and protest – and how vital this is for a healthy society. Noting that these freedoms are being curtailed in the UK and elsewhere, due amongst other reasons, to the privatisation of public space in cities.

David Rudlin manages Urbed, which is one of the partners behind the 4×4 series. His presentation ranged across theories around freedom in relation to cities. How historically people found freedom in leaving rural poverty and moving to the city, where they found ‘stadtluft macht frei’, a German saying meaning ‘city air makes us free’. He juxtaposed this with a recent conference he attended in the USA on the suburban, where a key theme was moving away from cities, and becoming free in the suburbs. He concluded how these contrasts could be understood in terms of two opposing ways of thinking about freedom – with freedom for the individual being found in the suburbs, and freedom for the collective being found in the city.

Graham Marshall is one half of Pro Social Place – a research organisation explicitly linking social science, health and wellbeing issues with urban design and place-making. Graham described urban settings as having the potential to be ‘unhealthy’ for the people living in them. He described how cities are now the main human habitat, and how we need to steward them better. He highlighted how the idea of the ‘commons’ can gave urban inhabitants a place to express their freedoms and to work together towards this husbandry of our cities.


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The 4×4 series on place-making and the built environment: On Love

The second of the 4×4 series of discussions in Manchester on 11.5.16 of this year had the theme of Love – asking how does love impact on our understanding of the built environment.

Mick Timpson is an architect and yoga professional, who founded and directs Beando and Yogalife. Drawing on his experience of yoga and meditation practices he asked professionals working in the built environment to think differently about how we experience the world. Advocating the need to know the world in a different way, to strive be more fully present at all times, and to get out of one’s comfort zone, as this is where the magic happens.

Architect, academic and cycling activist Emily Crompton, described the need to put love into how the built environment is made. She described how we should aim for architecture that is full of love, describing the concept of making places ‘affective’, in particular by engaging local people as more equal participants in place-making processes.

Poet, writer and former director of BEAM (Wakefield), Robert Powell took us on his journey of recent urban walks alongside the rivers Ouse and Foss in York. Undertaken in partnership with visual artist Jake Attree, Robert read from the publication and artist’s book that came out of these walks – talking of his love for the city, of walking and companionship. He also embodied through his readings and the performative nature of his presentation, how the arts can help interpret and understand a place, or a sense of place.

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Sophia De Sousa is director of The Glasshouse. Sophia described what it is like to fall in love with a place, a city, in this case Florence. She talked of falling in love with it, moving there and living there for many years. She described how we act when we love somewhere, how much a place can mean to us, how we forgive the things that ‘drive you crazy’ and are happy to share that city with visitors. Ultimately she feels that ‘Our love for place is highly emotional and as complex as the place itself’, and echoing Emily Crompton’s earlier presentation, concluded that we should build as though it’s for someone we love.

Image credits: Robert Powell, taken by Sarah Spanton

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The 4×4 series on place-making and the built environment: Money

I attended 3 out of 4 of the 4×4 series of discussions in Manchester in May of this year. The series is about promoting real debate about cities, bringing speakers from a range of built environment related backgrounds together. This year was hosted by Bob Phillips, and led by the partnership of Urbed, RIBA NorthWest and the Academy of Urbanism.

The theme for this years’ presentations was Money, Love, War and Peace and Freedom. I attended all of them except War. I’ll blog on my take on what was presented, with an inevitable slant towards my own personal interests (hoping I don’t stray too far from the presenters’ original intentions).

Money was held on 4.5.16 (in the former Cornerhouse building, Oxford Road, Manchester). 4 speakers made 4 presentations, followed by a Q and A session. Each took the theme of money and addressed notions around issues of value in the built environment and the city.

Architect and academic Flora Samuel spoke on how architects are valued within place-making, on the cultural value of architecture and how often the public values a different set of aesthetics to those of architects.

Activist and researcher Morag Rose, spoke about her Phd research at University of Sheffield into women’s experience of walking in Manchester. She talked about valuing the city differently, how walking shouldn’t be, but is a radical act and how women, disabled people experience the city differently to others. She called for the city to be made more accessible for everyone.

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Phd researcher Mick Martin, presented his recent researches into the Temporary Urbanism, or the meanwhile use of vacant buildings and plots in urban areas. He underlined how these spaces have been used in ‘Mundane’ or ‘Extraordinary’ ways whilst developers wait for land values to rise, before beginning to build.

Finally Steve Conner, director of Creative Concern ( ) talked about what needed to be valued differently in cities. He noted the duality experienced in Manchester between making money and social activism, emphasising the inequalities that are highly evident in the district. He highlighted 5 ways to challenge and change the status quo:

  1. Accept that trickle-down economics doesn’t work
  2. Understand that ‘infinite growth’ is not possible
  3. Accept that more money doesn’t make us happier
  4. Economic growth shouldn’t be the priority of a civilised society
  5. People need to be dancing to a different beat to George Osborne’s

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He summed up by directing people towards Steady State Manchester and their calls for a Viable Economy. Finally, in terms of looking differently at what we as a society understand as valuable, he advocated taking the Rochdale Pioneers as role models for changing the world we currently live in.

Image credits: Morag Rose and Steve Conner, taken by Sarah Spanton

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Edge Hill station sound-place walk – investigating planning and movement practice

I’m part of a peer-to-peer sharing/learning network of artists/performers who meet in the North West, known as the Sunday School Network. In March we were hosted by Mary Pearson, whilst she is in residency at Metal’s space on Edge Hill station in Liverpool. Mary, Tim Jeeves and I each contributed an element to the late afternoon programme.

My contribution was an exploration of the train station itself, and the locality it sits within, through a set of planning and regeneration policy documents. Firstly I took the group on a sound-place walk, around the station. Then I asked the group to improvise and explore making movement/performance material by taking text extracts from Liverpool’s Local Plan and Picton Ward’s Economic Briefing paper.




Following discussion post the workshop, it was identified that although in some ways the policy material was challenging to work with, however the taking of a sound-place walk – which as well as focusing on sound, paid attention to the materiality of the train station itself, and the embodied performative possibilities of the space – enabled the participants to mentally inhabit the physical as well as policy space. And has encouraged me that it is possible to use to analyse planning policy through creative means, as well as use policy as a stimulus for creative outputs.

Artists taking part in the workshop were: Dani Abulhawa, Matt Dennison, Tim Jeeves, Mary Pearson, Sarah Spies, Amy Voris and myself.

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Musings and reflections on Leeds city centre – housing, consumerism and ‘narrowing the gap’ #2

In my last post, I made the connection between my 2011 collaborative drawing project Dwelling: a visual gazetteer, which included my own drawing of Skyline Apartments on Duke Street, and the new Victoria Gate shopping centre on Eastgate/Duke Street, sited opposite Skyline Appartments.

This project brought nine visual artists based in Leeds together to reflect on Leeds as a contemporary cityscape – specifically in relation to its new city centre living dwellings.


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At the time I was fascinated by the rapidly changing skyline in Leeds, the number of new development and refurbishments, and wondered who was living in these flats and what changes were taking place to the make-up of the city centre, socially, culturally, architecturally. However I didn’t have any real understanding of how the development of buildings takes place, nor what the politics of regeneration were/are at the time (something the MSC in Urban Regeneration and Development has given me).

Five years later the topic of housing is still an extremely hot one in the UK. The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) has recently launched its #Planning4People campaign, with its four themes of:
• Making planning work
• Planning for housing in new and renewed communities
• Planning for a better society
• Planning for climate-resilient communities

From my perspective this planning focused campaign rightly positions housing and social and environmental justice on an equal footing. I look forward to getting involved, and bringing cultural and creative perspectives to the discussion and activity.

Images from Dwelling 1. By Garry Barker, 2. By Cath Brooke, 3. By Sarah Spanton

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