This is the third blog in response to the work being done by the team working to prepare District Regeneration Frameworks for Cowcaddens, Townhead, the Learning Quarter and the Merchant City. Professor David McGillivray is Chair in Digital and Event Cultures at University of the West of Scotland, Project Lead for FESTSPACE and Deputy Director of the Centre for Culture, Sport and Events. He can be contacted via email or you can find him on Twitter @dgmcgillivray.
Our FESTSPACE (Festivals, events and inclusive public space) research project was conceived in a pre-COVID-19 world, where those interested in festivals, events and urban policy were debating how to best design and manage public spaces to bring people together, to encourage co-presence (and co-proximity), and generate convivial atmospheres involving as wide a representation of the population as possible. At that time, we were focused on how to ensure festive public spaces were inclusive and equitable, accessible, and reflective of the needs of the place (s) that host them. We heard about how festivals and events could generate civic pride, reflect the unique identity of diverse communities and the unique attributes of the cities that organise them. However, people also talked to us about economic imperatives exerting undue influence on how urban public spaces were being used, and managed, expressing concern about too many commercially-oriented festivals and events taking place in their parks or public squares, removing much valued civic public space for extended periods of time.
Pre-COVID, large staged events played a significant role in the promotion of cities as destinations. During the lockdown, and as measures are slowly being relaxed, we have seen evidence of interesting creative responses that reflect people’s desire for sociability, often with a renewed emphasis on locality, neighbourhood and the quality of the local environment. Everyday cultural activities have emerged, creating solidarity and strengthening community ties. For example, in Barcelona, spontaneous forms of festivity, initiated by individuals and communities, have been established with balconies and terraces taking on the role of public spaces. In Dublin, London and Glasgow we have seen streets operate as the site of different kinds of organised (socially distanced) small community gatherings, including playing bingo outdoors, exercise, dancing, musical performances, and street parties (during VE Day celebrations, for example).
Many of these gatherings have been localised in nature, building on the resilience of residential clusters and encouraging communities to operate collectively. Some public spaces that prioritised motorised vehicles or commercial use have, during COVID-19, been reconfigured as places to enjoy communal social experiences that many would like to sustain as they emerge from the health emergency.
Looking to the Future
The COVID-19 pandemic has significant implications for the preservation of face-to-face collective experiences, the division between the private and public spheres, and the future of the festivals and events sector (s). Post-COVID, new formats and new public spaces will emerge which can help rebuild social life, albeit under new conditions. Our streets, balconies, parks and the spaces in-between will need to be reimagined as environments for communal social experiences, albeit at a distance for now. What does this mean for how our cities might, or should, look in the future? We need to think more creatively about how to work with neighbourhoods to experiment with unused or underused space, at least temporarily. We should consider how to initiate and support meanwhile use, including appropriate, locally meaningful cultural festivals and events, to animate and enhance city centre areas, though being wary of gentrifying threats. We also need to explore models of ownership, management and resourcing to give communities the opportunity to influence what is on offer in their neighbourhoods without imposing unrealistic demands in respect of legal issues and liabilities.
Finally, with specific reference to Glasgow City Centre District Regeneration Frameworks, we also need to ask ourselves:
- What role festivals and events could play in the reconfiguration of city centre districts, balancing the need for showcase events that attract visitors with locally-rooted and meaningful cultural celebrations that represent neighbourhood and community interests?
- How can we ensure that the imperative to conceive of city centre districts as only economic drivers does not accelerate processes of privatisation/commercialisation and the loss of civic public space?
- How might new unused or underused spaces in the target districts be designed in such a way as to accommodate local festivals and events, recognising the diverse needs of the local communities involved?
- How do the DRFs address the issues related to ownership of local public spaces and help develop ownership/management models that enable local groups or organisations to be able to programme activities in these spaces effectively?
- How can the development and animation of existing or new public spaces in the city centre balance the needs of business/economy alongside people’s quality of life?
FESTSPACE is a large research project funded by Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) (http://festspace.net). Led by University of the West of Scotland, with academic partners in London, Dublin, Barcelona and Gothenburg, the project focuses on the different types of festive public space that exist across Europe and what lessons can be learned about inclusivity from these models, how festivals and events affect who uses urban public spaces and how they interact within them, and what are the enduring effects on inclusivity of festivals and events staged in public spaces. One of the FESTSPACE Associate Partners, Austin-Smith: Lord, is the lead consultant on the (Y)our City Centre District Regeneration Frameworks for Glasgow City Council.