Can Planners and Artists work together?

‘Can planners and artists work together’, was the provocative title of the Cross Party Group on Culture (CPG) when it met at the Scottish Parliament yesterday, Tuesday 14th March 2017.  The resounding answer was ‘yes’.


‘Culture defines everything’ noted Phil Prentice, Chief Officer of Scotland’s Town Partnership: it defines what story a town has to tell. Culture defines the physical and social characteristics of a place. It reminded me of the Cultural Eco Systems Services , which sought to at least acknowledge – and quantify – the role culture plays in defining a ‘place’. It was also however noted, that quantifying culture in spatial data, is difficult to do. How can a ‘culture’ thus be defined? Artists could/should therefore be key assets in defining what that culture is, or could be?

The case study of the Stove in Dumfries, by ‘orchestrator’ Matt Baker,  demonstrated how long term commitment to a place, can lead to culture change. Baker’s arts practice spans over twenty years, working on strategic arts projects in Inverness and Glasgow before founding and developing the Stove initiative. The House on the High Street  film (2016) by artist John Wallace, commissioned by the Stove, highlighted the significant vacancy rate of the High Street in the town of Dumfries (73 empty shops currently). The film has served as a rallying call for the local community to challenge the status-quo and in turn has led to a significant regeneration project. More importantly, it highlighted and made visible the power structures at play and the role money plays in dictating how our towns operate. A large proportion of  Dumfries’ housing stock is owned by pension funds, whose sole interest is bringing in the highest financial return.  By keeping the rents artificially high,  it increases their yield value but with devastating effect on the local high street. The timely launch of the divestment + reinvest campaign last week which calls for the the divestment of £1.7 billion of Scottish pension funds from the fossil fuel industry, makes the case that investment in those assets which are actively engaging in the prevention of the building of a sustainable future, is counter intuitive. This logic thus also applies to pension funds investing in highs street properties, where financial returns for external parties trump the interests of the local community, and economy. When those links are made clear and the money connections made obvious, it empowers local communities ‘to do something about it’. The MSP Kevin Stewart, who currently leads on the future of the Scottish Planning System argued that in Scotland, the significant ‘sea change’ in how communities can, and are now enabled more than ever before to deliver services. Legislation such as the Land Reform Act 2016 (how, why and who uses the land in Scotland), the Community Empowerment Act (2015) which enables communities to request Asset Transfers, to for example compulsory purchase those empty high street shops, thus becomes a possibility.

Prentice asked; when did artists ever need permission? Artists just do.. Thus the role of artist as visionary, as one who does things, is a potent one. But Baker for one would be horrified of being thought of as his role as that of ‘genius’ – as someone with exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability – but instead describes himself not as an artist, but an orchestrator*. Without an orchestra there is no music; without community there is no art driven regeneration. Baker conceded that this is ‘the era of communities’ and as Kate Wimpress from North Edinburgh Arts  noted, socio-spatial issues are ‘the new plastics’. Thus a reconsideration of the role of the artist, beyond that of the aesthetic and the decorative (the after thought), but one is which the artist operates as leader , as an enabler, in the role of community engagement. The role of instrumentalism was raised, as was the issue of artist as an often unpaid member of a team driving regeneration, unlike perhaps those of a politician, planner, or developer whose professional and thus paid remit it might be. This raises important and key issues. But these are maybe points to be unpicked in a separate discussion.

Wimpress noted that the process which involves artists in the planning process from the outset, takes not necessarily money (as noted above, perhaps contested), but more importantly ‘timing and language’: allowing the process of dialogue and thinking time to unfold, takes time and considering the language in which this dialogue takes place is paramount to creating understanding. Investing in time and space to allow this process to develop in a meaningful way, she argues, avoids costly mistakes in the future, quoting Derek Bok ‘if you think learning is expensive, try ignorance’. It is a process which empowers and which she contends, leads to ‘civic innovation’. The anthropologists Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam (2007) had argued that the process of improvisation – rather than innovation, and its bias towards technological solutions – should be considered a key characteristic of innovation. They differentiate between improvisation as ‘process orientated and innovation as ‘product focussed’. The digital tools offered up by the Understanding Scottish Places for example, offers brilliant tools for communities to truly understand their town through the mapping of objective data, and compare it with other, similar towns. I would argue that although such tools are a means of empowering communities, it still needs someone to steer that process. Thus we ought to consider that the process of improvisation offered up by Hallam and Ingold, as demonstrated by Winpress and Baker, is what artists are comfortable doing. The critic Lucy Lippard noted in the Lure of the Local (1997) that “for all the art that is about place, very little is of place; made by artists within their own places or with the people who live in the scrutinized place, connecting with the history and environment”. The role of the artists in mapping the places in which they operate, and making visible power structures, connecting communities and empowering has been demonstrated as powerful tool for change. Managing change, as Petra Biberbach from PAS noted, is what planning is all about.  But the process of ‘not knowing’, as referred to by Peter McCaughey, is one which does not sit comfortably within planning. Managing change, as Petra Biberbach from PAS noted, is what planning is all about.  But the process of ‘not knowing’, as referred to by Peter McCaughey, is one which does not sit comfortably within planning. Perhaps then, she argued we should reconsider what Patrick Geddes taught us? As the architect Malcolm Fraser noted: “The great Town Planner had trained and taught as a Botanist! Here was someone who understood that the urban world was an ecosystem..”

As the art consultant Robert Livingston pointed out in the meeting, there is the risk of ‘déjà entendu’ and the risk of reinventing the wheel. The work and international influence of Geddes was referenced by several speakers as was the work of  David Harding whose employment as the Glenrothes town artist (1968-78) was made possible by the Chief Architect and Planning Officer at the time and who in turn was influenced by John Latham’s Artist Placement (1975) at the Scottish Office Development Agency. Thus the understanding of precedents, good practice and successful role models, such as the Stove, will help for this way of thinking to be potentially rolled out and tried in other, different towns.

Perhaps more importantly, now is the time to ensure that place making is an integral part of planning and to get it enshrined in a meaningful way in the planning review. And that should include a role for creative thinking to be embedded in the process of planning and allow for the ‘not knowing’.

Inge Panneels

You can respond to the Planning Review online until 4th April 2017.

You can find out more about this, and other CPG On Culture meetings, on http://www.CPGon or follow #CPGculture

*(a glint of recognition there, as someone described my art practice many years ago as ‘an orchestrator of things’)