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How Cultural Action Zones are reimagining our town centres - A blog by GBSLEP Interim Chair, Anita Bhalla

10 Dec 2021


With the Government’s Plan B now being rolled out the distant memory of various lockdowns is no doubt being resurrected. For those of us who could work from home, and will have to again, living spaces became places of work and our local neighbourhoods a much-needed escape from the blurred line between home and work. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Staying at home was the trigger for getting to know our local areas much better. Yes shops, restaurants and local community amenities were all closed, but if like me you embraced your trainers and reconnected with the outdoors - a whole new exploration of our, villages, neighbourhoods, towns and cities began.

With lockdown easing, it became clear that there was an appetite to keep this new relationship going especially by investing in our ‘local’ high streets, central areas and squares. Interestingly this wasn’t just a geographical desire to stay local, it was more than that, we retuned with our deep-rooted need to create a community around us.

Past generations have always had a greater affinity with their local communities, with many growing up, working, living and growing old in the same town, village or city.? Over the last 25 years our city centres have become the magnet for workers, entertainment and leisure –post-pandemic we are taking this a step further by reanimating and reimagining our town centres and local neighbourhoods. 

This is at the heart of Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership’s (GBSLEP) work in creative, culture and placemaking. We’ve been delivering a Cultural Action Zone pilot programme in nine places across out patch. CAZs are a way of bringing together multiple agencies, funding and organisations to re-animate high streets and neighbourhoods. ?Our whole ethos is about bringing public, private and academic sectors to create interventions, allocate investment and deliver projects that create inclusive economic growth and improve the life of our residents. We’ve provided grants between £22K to £70K which, along with other funding, are supporting the recovery of local businesses, cultural organisations and communities.

Activities have included pop-up markets, street and public art trails, exhibitions, arts and craft workshops, engaging volunteers in green projects and much more. It’s not just been about delivering a cultural offer but also about rerouting traffic, pedestrianising areas, reconfiguring unused retail units into ‘meanwhile use’ spaces and developing tourism brands using artificial intelligence and virtual reality. It’s all about bringing footfall and opportunity back into our local communities.

In Northfield in Birmingham, the Making Spaces CAZ has been bringing people to their High Street through storytelling sessions, music, sewing crafts and dancing. Organisers have collaborated with Great Big Green Week and are now rolling out Christmas activities. Young people have developed their own programme of activities and work is also being done to test new ways of using empty high street retail spaces. There really is a great deal of excitement but also pride in contributing at such a local level. This, I believe has been turbo boosted by the pandemic and our realisation that we need to improve our local offerings.

This is just one example! In all, the Cultural Action Zone Programme has engaged hundreds of partners across multiple neighbourhoods and energised individuals and organisations, working together to create local areas that are appreciated and more importantly used by the people who live and work in them.

There’s been so much talk about ‘20min neighbourhood’ or ‘15min city’ which state that local places should offer more to all their residents. Our Cultural Action Zone Project is just one way in which we’re already delivering on this new way of reconnecting with people and places on our doorstep. It would be amazing if we could roll out such projects in every locality because quite clearly, they have an impact. 


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