Artists are the Missing Link in Community Planning

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“Artists are at the heart of London’s creative success and the centre of many of our thriving communities. Only by incorporating artists’ workspace in strategic planning for the city, will we maintain our competitiveness and achieve the Mayor’s ambition of becoming an international “capital of content.” Mayor of London, “Creating Artists’ Workspace” (2015)

I moved to London three years ago. Three years ago I also found Hackney Wick; an artist-built warehouse zone in East London.

When I walked into the first live-work space in a converted warehouse, I knew I had found something exceptional. Seeing the wonky, self-built units, large communal work areas and industrial yard where all the neighbours were sharing a meal together outside, I said aloud “I’m going to move here.”

Now this community, known as the densest concentration of artists in Europe, is under threat of demolition. Bulldozers are replacing artist studios and cafés have signs stating “Development of luxury apartments.”

I’m one of the campaigners of Save Hackney Wick, because I want to ensure that the current developments take into consideration the existing community: local businesses, residents, artists, families and youth.

Why should anyone care where the artists go?

London, as it stands, is in crisis. According to a Just Space study, Towards a Community-Led Plan in London (2016), London has the lowest levels of well-being and life satisfaction on record, and the highest levels of income inequality – only to name a few of the city’s socio-economic crises.

London has been known as Europe’s “capital of culture” for years, with over 35,000 people graduating from Art and Design colleges every year. According to the Mayor’s Creating Artists’ Workspace (2014) case study, culture is a key driver for London’s economy, attracting tourists and contributing £21 billion to the city’s economy. According to the same study, at least 3,500 artists are to lose their studios in the next five years. Around 600 of them are based in Hackney Wick.

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is now to amend the London Plan. He has promised to celebrate London’s vibrant culture scene and to make the capital greener, healthier – and he has vowed to offer more affordable housing and highlight the positive impact of community planning development.

Save Hackney Wick is, at least in theory, in the core of Khan’s plan. The area could become a flagship example of cultural, social and community planning in London, where taxpayers’ money would go back into the community. Hopefully it’s not only wishful thinking.  

Recently, Khan released his new vision of London, which underlines the importance of creative workforce and artist spaces to London’s future:

“My plan for Creative Enterprise Zones is designed specifically to assist the artists and creative workers who may otherwise struggle to work in London, and I also want to explore innovative financial models to support small creative businesses.”

Positive regeneration?

Rapid urban changes are a threat to diverse, multi-ethnic communities and the independent art scene — qualities for which London has been known and celebrated for centuries. These are the same qualities why I, as a Finnish artist, fell in love with the city, and decided to make a life here three years ago.

This is a part of a global issue that follows the simple cycle of gentrification: first arrive the artists, then come the developers. As soon as the artists have made the area “attractive,” rents will rise and the artists will be pushed out, along with the pre-existing community. The same “hipster-led gentrification” has happened in Kreuzberg in Berlin, Williamsburg in New York and Shoreditch in London.

But could this be stopped? Could we say “no” to the constant uncertainty and “no” to the luxury development that is only affordable for investors? I’m not against regeneration, as that is the nature of cities, but these developments should value existing, vibrant communities.

Without independent culture and artists’ work spaces for artists to work, cities will become only fragile eggshells without content. London will lose its soul.

But instead of demolishing these existing communities, homes and cultural hubs, we could integrate artists as part of community development, thus strengthening the neighborhood’s well-being.

The cycle could be stopped — or even used as a positive recycle model.

Instead of treating artists as disposable waste, artists could be “problem solvers” as well as links between cities, people and communities. We should connect the dots together.

Now is the time to act.

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Sara Kärpänen is a freelance writer and artist based in London. She has a Master’s degree in Visual Culture and Art in Public Space from Aalto University, Finland. Sara has worked as a journalist, researcher and curator, and collaborated with international street artists and architect practices. Currently Sara works as an editor for the online publication Elephant Journal and writes for the Finnish culture-jamming blog Häiriköt. Sara has taken part in international festivals and seminars (Hackney WickED London, Summer School Thinking City Amsterdam, Spaces of Commoning Vienna, Culture Jam Round I, London) and exhibited both in group and solo exhibitions in Finland, London and Portugal.

Sara wants to create more community-driven urban spaces and to explore art as a tool with which to engage communities. Connect with Sara on her website www.sara-karpanen.com and Twitter.

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