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London Design Festival Debate – Designing a Destination

As part of London Design Festival 2018, we got a panel together to debate whether a 'creative cluster' is born or made.
Nicole Gordon

On a rooftop perch, high above the church of Saint George the Martyr and not-quite-rubbing-shoulders-with the Shard, artists and innovators from one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the country are gathering to begin a debate about the cultural future of the country. Surrounded by an intensely colourful display of flags encouraging onlookers to ‘Commit Some Nuisance’, proud members of the ‘independent state of Bankside’ – an area of London which is home to its oldest theatres and the world’s most popular art gallery – are sharing thoughts on the cultural neighbourhoods of Britain. And at the heart of the conversation is whether our most artistic areas are only brought about by chaos, curiosity and ingenuity or if, in fact, they can be designed.

Creative clusters are places which are home to the creative industries and in which businesses are growing and thriving. And at the moment, they are booming, becoming economically and socially important destinations. One of the leading clusters is Bankside, which sits on the south side of the river Thames, stretching from London Bridge to just beyond Blackfriars Bridge. When known as ‘Banksyde’ in the 16th century, the area’s location outside the walls of the City made it a natural landing place for outsiders, dissenters and free thinkers. It became London’s lively pleasure quarter, home to theatres, brothels, gambling dens and taverns. And now, a growing number of creative industries and cultural organisations are choosing to relocate at Bankside.

For centuries, Bankside welcomed entertainers pursuing ‘indecent’ activities, as well as artists shunned by the mainstream. Today, Bankside Design District is home to London’s oldest theatres and the world’s most popular art gallery; its richness in art, entertainment and culture (Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe and Borough Market being three obvious examples), is a reflection of its anarchic, artistic roots. Bankside’s network of medieval streets continues to encourage curiosity and it retains an ‘otherness’ that inspires creative thinking.

Better Bankside is a partnership of over 650 businesses, a Business Improvement District (BID) which exists to make Bankside a better place to work, live and visit. It aims to improve the quality of the area and enhance the competitiveness of its businesses. It is owned, funded and led by employers in the Bankside area of London.

During the recent London Design Festival, among the hundreds of events, openings, workshops and pop-ups, Better Bankside began the conversation about the future of the nation’s artistic neighbourhoods.

So, do creative clusters just materialise, or can they be made? By the end of the evening, it became clear that the answer is a bit of both. According to Better Bankside chair, Donald Hyslop, ‘You cannot ‘masterplan’ a creative cluster – it’s organic, the effect of a chemical reaction caused by bringing people together and the human urge for meaning, identity and purpose. Creative clusters are both born and made.”

This view was shared by Katrina Larkin, co-founder of the Big Chill Festival and also of Fora, the host of the evening’s debate. Her experience in creating the cluster at Hoxton in the early 2000s told her that its success was down to “finding plenty of ambitious types, pioneers willing to collaborate” and that togetherness is the key – “people need to work together to become a louder voice.”

Director of the Africa Centre, Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, believes that while “…some things can happen organically, conscious choice has a role to play too.” Graham Hitchen, who leads the Smaller Creative Cities programme, supported by the Creative Industries Council, agreed that clusters are both born and made, pointing to places like “‘Brighton and Bristol, where you have a good mix of independent, free minded people who are interested in trying things out, outsiders who are happy to experiment and push against the norm. They pride themselves on being different and their success is based on their independence.”

Time and again the contributors came back to people.

Graham Hitchen: “The most successful creative clusters are about people - especially young people. It’s about people. Think about continuing to attract people who don’t look like you – ‘other people’.”

Katrina Larkin: “I don’t think it matters what age you are – it’s more that you’re with a group of like-minded people. We chose Borough as our main office because we were welcomed in. Get to know your neighbours - that’s how communities are formed. We’re all different - that’s what’s really exciting. The best people to speak to could be those that you don’t think you can learn anything from.

Nick Finney, creative director of NB studios, whose collaborations with Better Bankside include the rebel flags aloft in the room, simply urged, “Get out and meet people. Meet others. Be nice human beings.”

But making sure that you’re reaching all areas of the community is vital.

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp: “It’s important to know what the community is – who it’s made up of. Who is not in this room tonight? Who ought to be included in our discussions? Whose lives are we enriching? Community engagement and knowledge sharing is important.”

But there was also a mood of caution over trying too hard to manufacture a creative community and also whether there is a finite ‘golden age’ of creativity beyond which clusters become too popular, receive too much limelight and lose their edge.

Graham Hitchen: “…there are some places that have tried too hard – Salford and Dundee have seen huge investment but have been a bit heavy handed and failed to ensure that they remain experimental. It’s a real challenge for London, a real risk that parts of London are trying too hard. It’s important not to pretend to be something that you’re not. Historically Brixton, Hoxton and Shoreditch have been good examples.”

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp: "Whatever we try to create, it won’t stay that way."

From the floor, Peter Williams, CEO of Better Bankside, made the point that “You have to know where you’re coming from before you know where you’re going. Hold history precious and don‘t reinvent yourself, as this can come across as phoney. While you have to be realistic about the heritage you lose as an area develops, some places have maybe lost too much. The key is to hold on to history and celebrate it, while building on it too.”

Perhaps the most crucial, practical message of all was that the success of clusters hinges on the relationship between business and culture. Better Bankside spends plenty of time bringing business and cultural leaders together to understand each others’ preoccupations and to encourage them to collaborate. This work is seen as absolutely vital.

Graham Hitchen: “If you invest in young people and diversity you’re likely to be successful. And make a home for young workers and entrepreneurs – housing policies that support young people are very critical. Artists ought to be paid properly. The creative industry is very under representative in terms of diversity and class at the top level.

In wrapping things up, Donald Hyslop emphasised that all contributions, however small, are welcome: “Recently we’ve installed some planters in Union Yard Arches in Bankside  and residents were thrilled when they arrived. These things make a difference day-to-day. Little things make a difference. It takes 1000 brush strokes to make a painting.”

The debate continues…

This is the first of a series of debates to take place over the coming months.

Created Oct 23 2018