We know that the problem of declining town centres and increasing vacancy and dereliction is not unique to Northern Ireland. It's a feature of post-industrial cities, where the displacement of the population into suburbs and commuter belts, the spread of out-of-town retailing, and questionable historic planning decisions converge to challenge the significance and survival of the town centre. So how has this been dealt with in other places that have experienced the same issue?
Well, PLACE and somewhereto_NI placement student Senan Seaton Kelly has been on the trail of some of the most inspiring examples, from post-earthquake Christchurch NZ, to New York City, and back to Bristol.
Gap Filler - Christchurch, New Zealand.
Gap Filler was started in New Zealand in 2010 to deal with the destruction wrought by the earthquake that struck on September 4th of that year. It sees its purpose as a regenerative one - by using vacant spaces in the city in creative, innovative, and people-centred ways, it demonstrates that urban recovery doesn't require large capital investment to make significant changes to the quality of the environment. It engages with a wide range of stakeholders to programme activity in the spaces, and works to remove the legal and bureaucratic barriers to accessing vacant space so that artists, architects, teachers, writers. film makers, engineers, dancers, can get on with what they do best.
They also stress the importance of having the opportunity to simply give something a go:
With smaller-scale temporary projects, the community gets to try out new ideas and create a dynamic for experimentation. Together, we can work out what works by actually doing it, not just talking about it. Some projects might disappoint, but an unsuccessful project on this level costs relatively little time and money, and can help avoid a much costlier failure in the city rebuild. So, in addition to enlivening and enriching the cultural life of the city, these projects are utterly practical.
Read more about Gap Filler here
No Longer Empty, New York City
No Longer Empty is a great example of the potential for contemporary art to be socially engaged and to give creative expression to shared human concerns. Their work is high-calibre, involving international curators and artists working with and for local communities; it responds in site-specific ways to develop themes that explore the past, present, and future of the areas in which the work will appear.
They do this through a process that starts with taking the time to get to know a place in an intimate way, to extract local significance and distill that into a theme to which the selected artists will respond. They work collaboratively with the local community from early in the process right through to the installation and exhibition of the work. Significantly, they also measure the impact their presence has on the amount of footfall through the area and feed this back to local businesses and organisations to help them plan for the future and thrive.
More info here
Bridewell Space, Bristol
A former police HQ is an unlikely setting for a hub of creativity and enterprise in the heart of the port city of Bristol. Recently refurbished, the Bridewell Space houses a range of creative enterprises, and removes the barriers to access by keeping rent low and making leases flexible. As a result, it has become known as a place where creative projects and business ideas can be developed among peers in a lively and supportive environment. The activities in the space are really diverse, from artists' studios to exercise classes, band practice to a company that sells urban tricycles.
It's a great, and very simple, example of how these big city centre buildings can be re-imagined and utilised to create opportunities and enable creative expression and innovation.
Find out more here
If you're interested in the issue of town centre vacancy and want to get involved with finding workable responses to the challenge in Northern Ireland, come to our free event Vacant to Vibrant: Rethinking Town Centres, First Derry Presbyterian Church, Derry~Londonderry. Tuesday, March 26th. RSVP here.