Rural Art Space

April 23, 2007


Filed under: Uncategorized — ruralartspace @ 3:59 pm

Clare Cumberlidge is a Curator and Director of General Public Agency.

Thurrock: A Visionary Brief for the Thames Gateway
A study of failure

I will be presenting what seems like quite an old programme of General Public Agency now Thurrock: A Visionary Brief for the Thames Gateway, a project that we completed in 2004.
It is a model of a different form of culturally-led generation and within the programme there are a lot of different ways in which artists were engaged within a regeneration programme. In fact in some ways I see it as a case study of failure. I will talk about that after I have shown you the process.

About General Public Agency
General Public Agency launched in Mayday 2003. We are a creative consultancy and we work broadly within cultural regeneration. We do spatial, social, and cultural planning, landscape and urban design and organise and produce cultural programmes. An illustration of the kind of projects we do: we were public role coordinators for Argent, who are the developers of Kings Cross Central in London, which is the major development scheme in central London. We have produced a design and a heritage strategy for Dorset County Council, we recently worked for the Tate Gallery for Karsten Höller, doing a feasibility study for the use of slides within the public realm as a mean of public transportation. We work for both private and public sector clients. All our work is informed by our international research base, and we extend that research base partly through research and publications but also through running workshops nationally and internationally, and organising seminars and conferences.
We have a particular methodology. A key part of our approach is about identity and celebrating the particularity and the distinctiveness of place, and we set this within a context of international best practice. A lot of work within planning and regeneration is not informed by an understanding of the international best practice, particularly within the UK. So we have a particular methodology, which starts with research and mapping, followed by a process of exchange which leads then to actual plans and strategic visions. I will demonstrate this methodology in the Thurrock project. General Public Agency is also informed by a particular curatorial methodology. We position ourselves to clients as an interdisciplinary consultancy. We have architects, artists, curators and urban designers within our team. We never mention the word ‘curating’ to private commercial corporate clients, nor do we talk about artists. We are a team, and we respond to what the brief is.

One of our ongoing projects is called ‘public image’ where people donate public images about the public realm, and everybody can subscribe to it. Every week we feature a different public image and it is becoming an amazing archive of people’s sense of where the public lies. On a more philosophical level we are interested in where the current public realm resides.

Thurrock: A Visionary Brief for the Thames Gateway

The Thames Gateway is a government-designated area of growth. 200,000 new homes are due to built in the gateway before 2016 – in theory. There are three areas to the gateway: the London Thames gateway, the Thurrock Thames Gateway, and then the Kent Thames Gateway in the South. The government set up the Unitary Development Corporations (UDC) with extraordinary planning powers, so the planning powers of the UDCs can override the powers of the existing local authorities, and they have large amounts of money to implement their programmes of growth. Our client was a mix of public sector agencies that were operating on the ground in Thurrock. It was Thurrock Council, East of England Development Agency, the Arts Council, Cabe, Sport England, etc, a kind of 13-headed client body.
The initial client’s idea for this project was to organise a conference. The brief was to promote the potential of culturally led regeneration, to look in new forms of culturally-led regeneration, and to raise the profile of Thurrock. We felt that a conference would not do this and we proposed an alternative programme. On the basis that a job is only as ever as good as the brief, we wanted to look at a visionary brief for the Thames Gateway. “What would it mean if you created an informed brief that would lead development?”

Programme Project
We devised a programme in phases:
- factual and creative research or mapping
- three multi-disciplinary Charrettes, one day workshops where strategic principles were developed and visionary briefs evolved
- public and policy presentations to disseminate these findings.
We did a series of mapping exercises and commissioned different practitioners to look at specific areas. The photographer Jason Orton produced a photographic portrait of Thurrock. We felt that it had got a really strong aesthetic, but actually the reputation of Thurrock is that of ‘nowhere land’ – a nowhere land of retail sheds and remains of all kinds of a post-industrial heritage. Thurrock has a really strong heritage, but one that wasn’t recognised internally or externally. We wanted to celebrate that heritage. 60% of Thurrock is green-belt, and there is an enormous amount of river frontage. There is a lot of marshland, much of which is landfill.
And there are enormous housing developments that could in fact just blanket the whole area.

We also commissioned two essays: one by the social historical Ken Worpole, who wrote about the South Essex landscape and memory, and discovered this incredible tradition of small scale utopian communities that have operated there over the past 200 hundred years. Chris Barnes, the environmentalist, wrote an essay as if environmental principles have been adopted, and he was writing in 2020. We produced a new atlas and maps, putting together all the information that all agencies involved had, so that everybody shared the same body of knowledge, including everything from demographics to industry.

The flood plane mapping was controversial. The pale blue bordering shows the river there and the flood planes, and that in fact is were all the housing was being developed and proposed at that time, and nobody was drawing that map.
We also pulled together a series of international case studies to inform the development. We showed
Common Ground who run incredible programmes about local distinctiveness and how to support that. We included a competition in Holland Amphibious Living on how to develop amphibious architecture.
We commissioned three creative practitioners to map the area in different ways. Helena Ben-Zenou did a kind of fine grain contemporary and historical mapping. The art and architecture collective
public works mapped the cultural spaces in Purfleet, with interviews of about 80 local residents about what their culture was. As it is always the case with those projects were you do listen to local people, new and unexpected findings emerged from this and public works’ analysis was really interesting. Purfleet had a very rich culture but there was no public space in which to express it. The finding that local people value the landscape of industry rather than the river which was also a completely unexpected finding to us. We commissioned Nils Norman to make a mapping of the green-belt, and he produced this “call to action”, which was a graphic novel looking at solutions to global warming, which basically was about community activism. It was e.g. proposing that we use the Lakeside Shopping Centre as an alternative fuel production centre.

In the next step we pulled three briefs together that we wanted the Charrettes to address. These were the three briefs that we thought were going to inform the development in Thurrock:
- Access to the riverfront
- New uses of the green belt
- New models of cultural facilities.
What was really interesting about the Charrettes was that everybody who took part had read all the material and all the briefing pack before they arrived, and they all tried really hard where everybody gave their best. I think partly because it was interdisciplinary, nobody was sure of their place within the hierarchy of that group of people. If we had had a group of architects or a group of artists, everyone would have known where they were, they would have been quite comfortable in that setting. And actually that slight discomfort of not knowing who the other participants were worked very well. Ideas started coming out really fast.
The four key principals that emerged:
- Do no harm
- Community engagement
- Innovation and creativity
- long-term thinking.
All principals are quite common sense and blunt principals, motherhood and apple-pie, who could argue with them. And yet they are not adopted within the vast majority of regeneration projects in this country. A series of big ideas came out of this process, one of which was to commission a new form of housing. This idea came from Jeremy Deller who said that “housing was going to be the icon of Thames Gateway”, and that is what we had to adopt as the new expression of culture. So, we all worked together to develop an idea of how a form of housing could be produced.

This is just an idea of a series of prototypes.

The idea that came out of the Charrette on new uses of the green-belt, was a whole new approach to mapping the value of land, and a total rejection of the idea of green-belt brown field, and a methodology which could engage with everything from the flight path of the red goose to a child’s walk to school.

The idea for The Town of Purfleet came out of a whole range of strategies to link Purfleet back to the river Thames, spatial, cultural and economic strategies.

The cultural charette suggested a new form of commissioning agency, instead of the kind of iconic cultural development, in the form of long-term series of commissions, in which different elements of cultural activity could be crossed in each commission.

Finally we then presented all the material and outcomes at the Cruise Terminal in Tilbury, to an audience of politicians, developers and planning and regeneration professionals, including Tessa Jowell who came to the launch, where Richard Rogers gave a speech amongst others. It was all fabulous event, and everybody was really excited.
A strong part of our belief is that all material should be publicly disseminated, so everything is available on the project website
We were then commissioned by the client to to look at what form of delivery vehicle we could design to deliver the proposed programmes. And we did that piece of work. East England Development Agency and the Arts Council developed a joint agreement in which they committed major money to the project in order to get it going. We also had developers wanting to work with us on the housing scheme.
And two and half years on, none of the ideas directly emerging from the programme has happened.

Analysis of failure
It has been really interesting for us that although the project was seen as a major success (we raised the profile of Thurrock and demonstrated a new model of culturally led regeneration), and everybody was happy and they all had this really big great day. But despite the principals and approach having a major legacy in the ongoing work of the client agency’s, nothing is being directly implemented from the programme. At General Public Agency we want to make change happen. So we have thought a lot about why this project might be considered to have failed. And I think my major conclusion is: you can not lead the public sector from the front, which is what we tried to do here. We thought we did this fantastic thing and we will take them with us. Another factor was that the client wanted this programme to happen before the UDC was established, which gave us very little time and we delivered everything from contract to dissemination in 8 months. Basically that was just too fast, it was too fast to embed it. And I think our feeling was it was such a great opportunity, it was worth going for it, but our ultimate conclusion is: if you cannot embed it within the work of the clients, then it is not going to get delivered. The key fact that happened that stopped it from being delivered was that the council went Tory the day before our public dissemination event. And it is only the second time in political history that Thurrock council has not been Labour. I think that demonstrates the importance of political stability and making sure that you have those political advocates with you in the development of any programme.

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