The New Cultural Geography of Smaller Places

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The ABC Culture Conference, a new annual meeting of minds, took place in February 2023 in Armagh and examined The New Cultural Geography of Smaller Places. 

What We Do Now Project Lead Katharine Wheeler, joined a range of speakers who are working in inspirational ways across the UK, Ireland and Europe to explore the relationship between creative process and place in small cities and rural.

It was great to attend this conference and meet up with some of the leading thinkers and voices connected to the concept of creative placemaking.

The event coincided with Imbolc – the first day of the Celtic spring calendar, which brings the promise of renewal and rebirth after the long winter and really a great time to showcase some of the magic that can happen when you work creatively and collaboratively with communities and across sectors. Bringing creative people into spaces with researchers, policymakers, local authority and community organistions provided an opportunity to discuss the value of our work and the role culture can play in developing and growing our rural places.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Cara Courage, co-author of Creative Placemaking, gave an inspiring speech that really validated our ethos and approach to placemaking at The Stove. Often people hear the word placemaking, they think urban development. They don’t think ‘community-led grassroots practice’. They don’t think about power that comes from communities to identify their own needs and come up with their own solutions to those needs. They think about things that are done to places. Often we feel at The Stove that we are trying to reclaim this work and reposition it back where it feels it belongs, with the community it plans to serve.

Cara spoke about the originality of creative placemaking and how it is at its heart, a grassroots and holistic practice. The experience should be experiential and people-oriented. Ideas formed through activities that bring people together in a community to have experiences and explore ideas. It’s not supposed to be a top-down process.

It was really valuable to be able to talk about this practice with others and see and hear about the huge variety of ways that people work in this field of creative placemaking, or what ever they choose to call it. It was also really interesting to see the impact this work is having in other places and for other communities, particularly when thinking about rural locations and smaller places.

Though the projects are different, those doing effective and impactful work, have the same core values at the heart of what they do. They are looking at long-term change in places where solutions and ideas are able to evolve from a conversation with the community alongside what’s already happening. There was a shared understanding of the value in working with people with lots of different experiences, and being able to bring that different experience into the work we all do. It was a great opportunity to come together, share experiences and be honest about what works and what doesn’t work.

As a practitioner it is important to be able to step outside of the work that you’re doing and see it from somebody else’s eyes or from another perspective.

These learning exchanges provide an opportunity to hear about the challenges that other people have faced, how they’ve dealt with expectations, built up expectations within their communities and made held themselves accountable to that.

What is maybe different about our work from many other approaches we have often seen described as placemaking, or creative placemaking within that, is that this is not just about bricks and mortar, but about collaborative and community-led visioning and problem solving, it could be a transport plan or a wellbeing strategy. Fundamentally in our approach, it is not only the ideas but also the initial identification of the need that come from the creative engagement and a structure of working and decision-making is embedded in the community, building on the capacity and skills already present, to take that forward.

I was proud to be able to share the story of the work that we’ve been doing here in Dumfries and Galloway with What We Do Now and through The Stove Network as well as what our ambitions are to advocate for creative placemaking across the South of Scotland. We have momentum here and I can’t wait to build on this and continue to communicate and collaborate with the wider creative placemaking community.

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