I attended a debate on Thursday night hosted by Creative Dundee and the Architecture Fringe. It was held at Dundee Contemporary Arts and was well-attended by architects, students and ‘creatives’. Four panel members were asked to debate the following question, ‘Is Dundee losing itself in the search for glamour?’. The motion fell. Being a Turncoats event, the panel members had to swap sides half way through the debate and I could sense at least two members of the panel were squeamish in the counter-argument. The event had a social media blackout so panel members could be frank, and I think that made things more interesting. Panel members featured two architects, a curator and an arts collective founder.
I think it’s an excellent question and it’s one that we all have to think about. It’s something I have been thinking about a lot in the last four years in particular while we have been seeing monumental changes in the Waterfront area of the City Centre. The city’s skyline has drastically changed and the investment is in the towering realm of billions. I believe the scale of this change and investment will not be seen again for a generation and the direction of the city and the lives of its residents will be steered by today’s developments for decades.
In that case, we have to absolutely get it right. The city’s location and expertise in key industries have attracted certain investments. The particular strength in the creative sector has attracted the Victoria and Albert Museum to Dundee and our reputation for design won the UK’s first ever UNESCO City of Design accolade. These achievements are fantastic and are a testament to the dedication of individuals that have believed in the city, its people and its strengths. I think it’s important to note that to get things done, you need dedicated and passionate people to believe in a cause.
Causes are the crux of the conversation. What is the cause? What is the point? How will we know when the Waterfront project has been a success? How will see that this has not been a chase for glamour? Are these investments and the disruption it has caused been for aesthetics? Has it been to attract visitors who otherwise wouldn’t bother to come? What kind of visitors are they? Was this all about an image problem? Or is there something deeper at the heart of all this work?
The Waterfront is already looking much better. The loss of Tayside House, the Hilton Hotel and the Olympia is not regrettable. It’s great to see the area next to the River Tay open up and it’s a nicer area to spend time in. I think it will look fantastic when finished and I will be glad to spend a Saturday afternoon there. What I’m not sure about yet, is how this scale of change improves lives? Because surely it should?
Access to culture is important. Having civic pride is important. Design skills are a valuable asset to a city. Design is definitely valuable in a city facing the challenges that we see in Dundee. While the City Centre is under construction and a museum starts to shoot out from the river we still have serious problems in our communities with homelessness, addiction, food and fuel poverty, childhood poverty, youth unemployment, a reliance on public sector jobs and youth pregnancy. Social justice, in particular, is an area that needs a design injection. Not a rebrand. But significant, widespread and brave service design and a much better experience for those that need help the most.
This year in Dundee we have seen a Design Festival, and a Fairness Commission report on poverty. We have seen awards for hard-working restaurateurs, and lunch clubs in the summer holidays for kids who would usually get a school lunch. We are in danger of becoming a divided city. There is a very real risk that people in Dundee become resentful when they see neighbours struggling and headlines announcing new cultural developments.
I realise that new buildings bring visitors and jobs. I have concerns of the companies that go into these buildings. Will the visitors reach other parts of Dundee? Will they be zero hour contracts jobs? Will the construction workers be local? Will the businesses bring anything new to Dundee or will they be the same as any other city space? Does the unemployed workforce of Dundee have the right skills to fill these new posts? What’s wrong with all the empty buildings that we have already? If we can’t fill existing shops and spaces, why are we building more? We have lots of character in the city already fading in old mills. West Ward Works were host to the Dundee Design Festival. Close to the University of Dundee and bringing life to an area needing regeneration, why are we not restoring this instead of building a brand new cultural quarter? No doubt one that looks like a cultural quarter in any city in the UK.
We all need to be paying attention, or better still, pitching and preparing for these opportunities ourselves. Managed well this could be brilliant! Or it could be a big disappointment after years of build-up. I might be accused of looking a gift horse in the mouth but this is what we must all understand… this is not a gift. This should not be something done to us or for us. But with us. It is our representatives, public servants and funds that are running the developments.
I don’t have to be convinced that arts and culture can benefit everyone in society. I was one of the few at the debate who were referred to as being in the ‘hinterlands’, that’s the schemes for most of us. I got great results from an education at Gowriehill Primary School and then Menzieshill High School. I was a keen reader. I got involved in music clubs. I really enjoyed trips to the theatre. I kept those interests up as I got older. I was able to because my results got me a place at university and the support of my family made me have the confidence, the freedom and to some extent, the means to go. I was the first generation in my direct lineage to attend university. This gave me an extra four years to find out what I was interested in before the reality of making a living, paying bills and putting a roof over my head became everyday concerns and not just a Saturday job.
At that point, I didn’t think it was a big deal because others in my school year had applied for university and a handful of us left Dundee. It never occurred to me that in two decades time the area I grew up in would be called the ‘hinterlands’ by a room of academics. It never occurred to me to think that we were working class or any class because I hadn’t realised there were classes. All I knew was finishing my work in class. It’s disappointing to think that we have gone backwards in time from then and sections of the city’s leaders and thinkers are wringing their hands about how to get the ‘rest of the city’ interested in the glamour of the Waterfront.
I feel that this is the wrong approach. I would disagree even that the heart of the city is at the Waterfront. I think the heart of Dundee is in its communities. It’s at the school gates. It’s in sports clubs. It’s in workplaces. It’s at kitchen tables. It’s generosity. It’s a sense of social justice. It’s a sense of humour. It’s a Friday at the Fairmuir Clubbie. It’s at fundraisers for local children. It’s with every car load of goods donated to Togs for Tots and Refugee Camps. Take design principles and cultural activities to these places. Inspire people where they are. Don’t expect families to bundle themselves on a bus to the city centre when it’s £8 return just for two adults and then chastise them for going to McDonalds for an affordable lunch. The ‘free’ culture then starts to look pretty expensive.
A brilliant example of how to inspire a city took place this summer. The Oor Wullie Bucket Trail. A concept that not everyone ‘got’ to begin with. By the middle of summer, the public was hooked. A Wild in Art initiative that had seen success in other cities joined forces with DC Thomson and their famous son, Oor Wullie, and local children’s hospital charity, The Archie Foundation. DC Thomson, a large city employer and local institution gave its support, artists designed statues, the council provided access to many of its sites, businesses sponsored designs, the Overgate provided a retail unit and the public was transfixed. The goodwill shown by those involved was incredible. It was fun. It didn’t take itself too seriously. Ultimately, it will change lives with the funds that were raised at auction and in donations. The journey continues with generous auction buyers gifting the statues back to city organisations which mean we will continue to see them around.
There is, of course, a role in using the principles of design to tackle grittier subjects and address some of the issues I mentioned earlier. That is much harder but it is the right thing to do. If the legacy of investing in buildings and design accolades is that we see these talents applied where our communities need it then that is a good one. A concern of mine is that we leave it all to the local authority. There was a lot of discussion at the debate about what the council should be doing and should be thinking. I take the view that the future of a city is not solely in the council’s hands. Or any organisation’s hands. But in the people that live there. That provides me with much more hope because history had shown that Dundonians have a strong social conscience. They get stuck in and they make things happen. That’s what we need to see more of. Taking the advantages of the city’s current position and using them to improve lives.
I am lucky to work with a team who are passionate about improving lives in the city. The team is led by a social entrepreneur who saw a way to help the organisations helping others and decided to support them. We are taking on a new challenge of transforming an old empty building north of the Kingsway into a thriving hub of enterprise and activity. Utilising the optimism that glamour can bring to a city and use that to drive a project that reinvigorates a former training centre in a part of Dundee that is accessible to the ‘hinterlands’. I think that’s the way to go.
That’s just my view. It’s a topic I never tire of discussing. Get involved in the comments below.