In light of recent events, questions are being asked about who designs our urban public spaces, and which interests they serve.
Following the Sarah Everard case, in which a police officer is charged with the kidnap and murder of a young woman who was walking home from a friend’s flat, the government announced a doubling of the Safer Streets Fund.
These measures include increased CCTV and street lighting but do little to tackle structural issues in the design of our cities. Take Back the Night, the #Cuéntalo protests and more recently Sisters Uncut highlight the power of direct action in reclaiming public spaces.
The latest project from FutureEverything considers what our towns and cities would look like if artists and young people were allowed a greater say in their design. Since 1995, the Manchester-based organisation has been bringing together arts, culture and technology in their events and community outreach programmes.
With the help of Studio Treble and five ‘Citizen Futurist’ artists, young people from across Greater Manchester participated in a series of workshops reflecting on the future of their high streets.
They encouraged ‘drifting’ around public spaces, led by intuition rather than maps
Part of the project entitled ‘this place [of mine]’ takes the form of an online hub. Scattered around the hub are artworks including games, manifestos and audio-visual pieces which focus on the future of Beswick, Oldham, Leigh, Stalybridge and Rochdale.
Artist Izzy Bolt’s work, ‘Infinity Link’ is a hypertext narrative that introduces the user to the cities of Wider Creamshant and Layst Ditch. The city has been left to rot and Bolt’s story begins as the citizens take back control.
Bolt’s dystopic narrative draws wry parallels with modern-day Greater Manchester. The demise of Creamshant began “when protests were made illegal by the money-laundering state” and, in an all too familiar trope, “urban apartments in the mills […] turned out to be not what everybody in the town needed”.
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Another featured artist, Joe Whitmore took inspiration from historical activism in public spaces. His interactive game, ‘PiQUE-NiQUE’ is inspired by the aftermath of the French Revolution when newly liberated citizens gathered and picnicked in the royal parks.
Political activism inspired many of the works featured in ‘this place [of mine]’. Creative Associates Michelle Collier and Vicky Clarke held a workshop on the artist-activist group Situationist International.
Founded in 1957, the Situationists saw the modernist city, with its strict grid layouts, zoning and skyscrapers, as another cog in an increasingly mechanised world. Armed with playful, political disruption, they sought to reclaim the city by using spaces ignored by architects and the wider public.
They encouraged ‘drifting’ around public spaces, led by intuition rather than maps and German architect Gunther Feuerstein even proposed ‘impractical flats’ with slanting walls and floors.
FutureEverything’s “Young Producers” drifted around the internet in search of hashtags and headlines related to their towns. They cut and pasted their finding into digital collages in an attempt to take back the narrative surrounding these urban spaces.
The future of the high street seems bleak. The pandemic has increased the number of boarded up, empty premises which litter high streets across Greater Manchester.
‘this place [of mine]’ offers an alternative route for the future of town planning, highlighting the importance of collaboration, youth participation and creative thinking. Involving artists and designers “can still be a new concept for many regeneration managers and planners,” FutureEverything Executive Director Claire Tymon says.
Arts and cultural organisations can fill the empty spaces left abandoned by retailers, the benefits of which can be seen in Stockport. A decade on from Stockport being named one of 12 failing high streets in the Portas review, Easy Peel Studio and Plastic Shed joined forces to open The Merseyway Workshop.
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Thanks to community support through crowdfunding, the DIY creative space has moved into the Merseyway shopping centre offering creative workshops and talks.
Pete Mercer, from Leigh, was one of the ten Young Producers who created work for ‘this place [of mine].’ His artwork ‘for people, their place’ is an audio-visual exploration of Leigh town centre. Shots of debris caught in trees and a littered high street give the video a sombre tone. There is “potential for it to be wonderful” but to get there he says it is important to realign the needs of the council with the needs of the community.
Mercer suggests involving existing social and cultural organisations in decision making because they “are often led by and rooted in the communities” they work for. They “have a much better grasp of what people want” and “from there we can start asking bigger questions”.
He believes that giving young people a say in local policies is vital to prevent increasing disenfranchisement. Michelle Collier agrees: “every single one of our Young Producers spoke with such genuine passion and commitment to their place and communities. They care – let them in”.
Mercer turned to radical politics and this influence can be seen in his culture zine, STAT Magazine. The magazine is a creative outlet from which he gains “some sort of purpose” and “a belief that things can – and should – change”.
On the legacy of ‘this place [of mine]’, Claire Tymon stresses the urgency for collective action between communities and building owners, town planners and local creative investors.
For Mercer, “there’s not any one silver bullet for these sort of changes, but it’s important to listen to people at every step of the way”.
The final part of FutureEverything’s project, ‘this place [in colour]’, is an app created by Tine Bech Studio and will be released in May.
The online hub has been nominated for a web design award, voted on by the public. You can vote for the ‘this place [of mine]’ hub here.