A few thoughts on the cultural value of place

Andrew Ormston, Director and Lead Consultant at Drew Wylie Projects, discusses the cultural value of land in relation to recent events on landscape and communities.

Photo taken at the Argentinian pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2018 -the work of Javier Mendiondo, Pablo Anzilutti, Francisco Garrido and Federico Cairol

An interesting week for discussions in Edinburgh that link to the cultural value of land. This prompted me to ask a group of human geographers for advice on a seminal text. Cue gentle laughter and a reminder that there are scores to choose from. And of course, there are. Cultural value and land (or property, regeneration etc.) has been everywhere for a long time, particularly in relation to environmental debates. So why does it not pop up more often in policy debate and strategic discussion?

An interesting debate on the recent ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’ report (organised by BEFS) had presentations by many of the key players. It was clear that community involvement/empowerment as a driver for policy development in Scotland has been embraced across a wide spectrum of interests. There are also a growing number of success stories emerging from policies in community empowerment and community asset transfers. The ‘social’ is taking its place alongside the ‘economic’. Furthermore, as Dr Kirsteen Shields of Edinburgh University argued, this is framed by a concern for human rights as embedded in the European Convention of Human Rights (CRAE), and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

However, while culture also forms part of this framing it doesn’t make its way through to policy. Despite some great practice, such as the Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries or Moniave festival village down the road, you will mostly find cultural value and the land described in terms of cultural tourism in Scotland. A vibrant cultural community is easily translated as a visitor destination. Similarly, Scotland’s spectacular heritage sites and buildings can dominate what is considered to be culturally valuable in the places where they are situated.

It is also relatively easy to articulate cultural value around its instrumental use in tackling some of the challenges of empowering communities and land. Sally Reynolds of the Carloway Estate Trust contrasted her childhood, growing up in a village in Lewis with 100 other kids to the situation now, the same community but one child. Depopulation haunts Scotland and it isn’t just the economy that will struggle with the Brexit end of free movement. Sally was optimistic for the future seeing community ownership as stimulating a rural renaissance, but we also know that culture is a fundamental element of what attracts people to live in an area.

Community empowerment doesn’t equal democracy and it can reinforce the hierarchies of communities of interest that make up a community of place. It can be tough for a minority voice to speak in a smaller community. Culture can give voice to those marginalised in communities, whether by age, status, sexuality, ethnicity or geography in a way that more decision orientated mechanisms can’t.

The discussion in Edinburgh queried the ‘stickability’ of valuable pilot projects and I, for one, lament the absence of culture in projects that are exploring a more holistic approach to place based planning. The land use strategy pilots in the Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire being one example. The importance of the way people feel about a place or the land came up, and some took this into the spiritual or theological domain. There is an interesting body of work and practice that considers this, particularly in relation to environmental concerns. However, at a more practical level, involving cultural professionals directly in the processes of planning and regeneration connects people and re-imagines places and does not require metaphysical explanation. I still have positive memories of a project that situated a culture team in the planning department of a town and seconded a planner in the culture department. The results were impressive, even if it was in an era of overheated growth.

But it is the actual cultural value of land or place that needs to be considered here. Should we not be thinking about what the cultural entitlement is for residents of a particular place? Should it include something like the culture houses of Soviet era Poland, the maker spaces of Scandinavia, reinvented libraries, night time transport, or broadband speeds that work for everyone? Culture is not like the air we breath, it doesn’t just happen. It needs facilities, access, skilled people, and some money. Yes, lots of people in lots of places do creative work, but when it comes to developing that work people in rural areas and poorer areas are not as well served.

The point was made that there is much to learn from international examples of good practice. Work from Switzerland, Bolivia, Chile and Wales was quoted and I made a mental note to brush up on good international cultural practice in relation to place and the land. The issue of cultural strategy in countries where cities are home to most of the assets and austerity has diminished rural access has come up during my work in various countries, from Poland to Jordan.

I thought the discussion at the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Towns and Town Centres a couple of days later made the point again. Here we had a real sense of purpose, in some cases campaigning zeal from institutions you would expect to be more bureaucratic in approach, from Scottish Natural Heritage to Scottish Land Commission. The work under discussion was mostly funded with ‘new; money (even though some of this was EU funding, which, of course, may become extinct). The overall impression of the various presentations was a determination to progress by making the most of opportunities that policy developments have created. There are questions about the coherence and coalescing of this developmental drive, but there is no doubt it is changing the ‘environmental environment’. In contrast the drive and energy of progressive cultural organisations is not always matched by external policy ambition. Cultural debate in Scotland can become locked in unhelpful polemics: elite arts versus popular culture; middle class versus working class; tangible heritage versus intangible heritage; the existing cultural estate versus new and emerging practice. A growing interest in data and metrics hasn’t always helped this. Rather than a SMART culture, an understanding of what we mean by the cultural value of land and place is needed. Cultural empowerment is as important as the economic and social aspects of community empowerment. We need to have an approach that is understood by, and meaningful across the full spectrum of Scotland’s progressive policy developers.

Originally published by Andrew Ormston on LinkedIn on 5th December 2018, here.