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Smaller cities show how arts can transform society

  • Date: 28 October 2010
  • Area: South East

Can the arts stimulate the economy and regeneration in our smaller towns and cities? A new discussion paper argues they can.

Bigger Thinking for Smaller Cities has been published by Regional Cities East (RCE), an alliance of six smaller cities in the East of England.

The paper shows how arts and culture play a vital part in driving local economic growth and bringing people and communities together.

Arts and culture have been integral to regeneration over the past ten years, but a new decade brings new challenges and fresh approaches are needed.

Bigger Thinking for Smaller Cities addresses these challenges head on by presenting examples of good practice in the arts in East region. It explains the principle challenge today is not how to arrest decline, but how to stimulate growth.

It finds that, ultimately, working in partnership on cultural, as well as economic, projects across borders is a key to success.

One example in the paper of this kind of economic stimulus is firstsite, a world-class visual arts organisation which is attracting investment to Colchester. Due to open in autumn 2011, it is expected to attract 1.5 million visitors in its first ten years. firstsite has also acted as the catalyst for the transformation of the St Botolph's area of the city into a new cultural quarter, a mixed-use regeneration scheme that has already levered £50 million of investment.

Another challenge set out in the paper is how to build stronger communities where people can celebrate their heritage. It shows how the UK Centre for Carnival Arts in Luton is using carnival to celebrate the diversity of its residents, allowing people of different backgrounds to come together to learn more about each other. Luton has a growing Polish community and this year the voluntary organisation Active Polish Community joined a diverse range of groups taking part in the annual Luton Carnival.

Finally, the paper tackles the Government agenda for more active citizenship and community participation. It illustrates how the Big Society can be put into practice through initiatives like the Citizen Power: Peterborough project. One strand of this involves a series of creative events, artists' residencies and high profile commissions in which international and local artists are working with local people in Peterborough to help build active, sustainable citizenship in the city.

Discussing the paper Neil Darwin, director of RCE, said: 'Arts and culture have a central role to play in smaller cities, where a high quality of life and intimate networks help creative industries to thrive.  Our research shows how arts and culture is helping to attract inward investment, bring communities together and encourage people to re-engage with the democratic process.  But we can only sustain these Big Society themes if we all think smarter about value for money. This means joining together to agree shared priorities, even if pet projects need to take a back seat, sharing resources where we can and commissioning in partnership for the good of local people.'

The report will act as a guide to other small cities seeking to maximise the value of arts and culture. It also presents national policy makers with four policy measures to help arts and culture continue to make an impact in a straitened economic environment.

Bigger Thinking for Smaller Cities: How arts and culture can tackle economic, social and democratic engagement challenges in smaller cities can be read in full by clicking here.