“What a City of Culture could and should be” — in conversation with the people of Coventry

Guest post by Artist Lauren Heywood.

I was lucky enough to be invited to use ‘Read the Future of the City’ at The Cart (a Talking Birds project), parked up outside Theatre Absolute for Shoot Festival 2017. The three of us (Janet Vaughan, Mark Hancock and me) coaxed members of the public into talking about their experiences of the city by offering them three cards, each with a word relating to the city and our relationship with the places we live. These cards provided themes to prompt and frame conversation about people’s experiences of Coventry and what they think a City of Culture should be.

HMS Cupcake provided free tea and cake to those who spoke to us. People sat down with cake and cards in hand at The Cart to discuss one-on-one or in groups what they thought the future of the city could be. The day had a great sense of positivity and feeling for others, with lots of conversation around the big issues that the city and its people currently face, how to strengthen community relations, how to create an inclusive arts offer in the city, and the strengths and opportunities already existing in Coventry that need to be championed in a City of Culture.As we spoke we wrote down notes of the stories and ideas offered up through conversation. Below are a few of the responses from members of the public who generously gave their time and voiced their thoughts and experiences.

Direction, Closeness, Community >> Where are we going and who is leading us? We need direction and to bring everyone with us! I am sure the City of Culture would help with that! There is a fabulous book called ‘Coventry: The making of a modern city 1939–73’ that shows the development of the city and talks about the ideas behind why different parts were built the way they were — it’s definitely worth a look!

I take “closeness” to mean the relationship between people, not proximity. Sense of community is important and needs to be all encompassing. Homeless and people currently left behind need to be included in any developments within the city.

There are a lot of rough sleepers and beggars at the moment. Most people are friendly enough. The other day I saw one man sat knitting himself a scarf. But some beggars can get quite aggressive — I’m usually fine walking around by myself but the other day a man got right in my face and was very aggressive and persistent. It makes you think twice about coming into the city centre if you think you might have encounters like that.

Provision, Paths, Mutualism >> Provision of housing and support for homeless people — this needs much more funding. People come out of hospital with no home and have to go to a night shelter. And shelters are being closed in the city. Budget cuts, benefit cuts, with lack of crisis support have made people’s situations much much worse.

People go out of the city to shop as there is not a broad enough range of shops. Solihull etc. have more options (types and brands of retail outlets), so money goes out of the city elsewhere — and it’s getting worse. Wouldn’t it be much better for Coventry if people wanted to shop and spend their time in the city centre? It would create jobs and a greater sense of community.

Art, Community, Opportunity >> Coventry is a good hub. There is opportunity in this city but there needs to be more. It’s awful that the Cathedral now charges entry. People need to have access to their history and historical sites. I used to be a teacher in the city and took many classes to see the Cathedral.

When my pupils came back to school after the summer holidays I would ask them “where did you go on holiday?” and many of the children would say that they went to the city centre — this was their holiday, the only place that they went to during their holidays. I’m sure this is the same situation now. There needs to be accessible activities, opportunities and places to go in the city so that people living here have things to do, especially young people.

There is a good offer of old and current arts. Lots of strong local communities, but there is not always a strong sense of community across areas.

Wellbeing, Community, Accessibility >> There are more rough sleepers in door ways and less support for vulnerable people and smaller communities. The city moves to stop begging but there needs to be more support for people driven to begging. And more information about how to give charity in a constructive way. “Normalise” the city — make it more inclusive for families, people with special needs etc. It happens everywhere, but theatre and arts audiences rarely reflect the population of a place, usually only white, able-bodied… Arts in the city needs to be made more inclusive and accessible. Shoot Festival and [named production] at the Belgrade Theatre had a diverse audience, with a broad range of ages and people of different backgrounds, which felt a lot more inclusive.

Opportunity, Transportation, Shelter >> We need more job opportunities. There are lots of jobs in some industries but others have very few. There should be opportunities for specialist learning and skills to allow young people to realise what they are good at and what they enjoy. There needs to be more arts education in primary and secondary schools. It’s hard for parents to find and access private tutoring or arts groups.

Buses are late, expensive and the drivers are rude. They increase the fares every year but nothing improves.

People cannot afford to buy houses. Something needs to be done to help people find housing.

Health, Accessibility, Mutualism >> Encourage people to use the city centre more. How about a local rewards card to encourage local spending at independent businesses. It would be good to have more vegan and vegetarian restaurants. There are too many beggars in the city centre.

I love the music in the city, both venues and artists. It would be great if we had a symphony hall.

The city has a ‘live and let live’ kind of attitude. There doesn’t seem to be as much bigotry as the last city I lived in. People just seem to get on with each other, and are friendly. I haven’t had any issues walking around the city. I like the idea of reconciliation that seems to be a theme in Coventry.

Sustainability, Bridges, Bread >> We need to create sustainable growth and job opportunities. The city has a history of boom and bust. We need to make sure current industries are sustainable.

Help young people stay engaged with education longer by applying subjects to the real world and working environments. Young people lack confidence and don’t know how to work in a real working environment. If they could build experience before they leave school I think this would help.

Building bridges. Budget cuts from central government are having a huge impact on public services provided by local government. There are threats to close the last remaining youth centres in the city. Vulnerable young people will have little to no contact with people who can provide interventionary support before point of crisis happens. There needs to be more investment in people and support services.

Bread — the rise in need for food banks. People should not be put into a position where they need food banks to survive.

Learning, Freedom, Transportation >> It would be great if there were more free things to do: museums, learning centres, ways to learn about history. We are going to the Herbert later to see a 14th century house. We like learning about the history of Coventry. We would like more hands-on learning at museums. There is lots of stuff to do in Birmingham but not much in Coventry.The price of buses is too expensive. Reduce bus fares. The buses are frequent but not on time. Improve the roads (too many potholes), rather than building new buildings. Lots of new buildings are owned or for the university and students. The city needs more investment for local people.

Accessibility, Revolution, Opportunity >> I own my own shop in the city centre. Shops close down frequently due to high rents and rates, people cannot afford to stay open. Roads are a nightmare — travelling into the city centre by car is far too difficult! Revolution — the city centre needs to be rethought and redone. It is not a nice place to be, and parking is awful.

Expression, Opportunity, Trade >> We need more farmers markets and activities in the city, not just one festival a year. We have the Godiva Festival and the Caribbean Festival but that’s it. We need more festivals and events to give people things to do, and make the city interesting. We need a carnival, a parade, with floats to celebrate the city and the people in it. Leamington Food Festival and the Peace Festival are great, well policed and organised with free entry. People in Coventry should not have to go to Leamington to go to a local festival. Use the Memorial Park and Hearsall Common to host more festivals. The city needs a wider variety of shops. We need more than just beauty shops and phone shops. And they should not have knocked down Coventry Theatre — both that and the Belgrade Theatre were diverse enough too coexist. We need more children’s theatre, and events and activities aimed at kids.I have a younger relative that used to go to a weekly theatre workshop, but that’s stopped because the venue shut down and they had nowhere else to go. We need more theatre and arts spaces for workshops, for people to practice performances, for young people to have something to do.Do more stuff like this! In the city centre on a Saturday when people can go to it.

Art, Community, Sustainability >> We need to protect and build new green spaces. All the old green spaces in the city centre have been concreted over or built on. Like Broadgate and the bit by the Transport Museum. Even small planters (like by IKEA) can make a huge difference to the feeling of a place. But we also need grass and trees to encourage wildlife, and to make the city centre more visually appealing. I like when the council and local people plant wild flowers on spare land.We boast that we have a recycling plant but if you do not have a car you cannot use it. And there are no public recycling bins in the city centre.I like local arts, but there needs to be more art events in the city. There are strong communities across the city, but more needs to be done to bring the whole city together.

Transportation, Bridges, Representation >> Old people are left behind. The cost of living has gone up but pensions have not. The roads have too many potholes. Repairs are not made regularly or quick enough. There are more and more homeless people on the streets. We need more housing and investment in public services.The history of the city is not protected. Buildings are knocked down for student accommodation. I collect stuff about the history of Coventry in my house, my living room is like a museum. I am very invested in the history of the city and would like to see more done to protect buildings and spaces in Coventry.

The Cart, a Talking Birds project, is a mobile social space, “a kind of flexible kit we can set up anywhere to create a special space for social interactions, engagement, workshops, play and conversation.”. The Cart is a programmed space that travels around Coventry collecting stories and conversation about how people in the city think about ‘culture’ and what it means to them.The Cart is going out and about in Coventry in conjunction with the bid for the City of Culture 2021 to find out about the ordinary and extraordinary art and culture the people of the city get up to, and what they feel a City of Culture could and should look like. Find out more about The Cart here: thecart.blog

‘Read the Future of the City’, by Lauren Heywood, is a deck of playing cards originally created for the City Arcadia programme 2015 / 2016. The art project draws upon the long history of playing cards as a tool for conversation, strategy and play; and tarot reading as a means to gain insight about future situations by posing questions. Here, ‘the City’ is both a physical and an imagined place.The cards are a social tool, brokering conversation between players to discuss how the city works, and could work. The cards can be used just like traditional playing cards to play games: four suits with thirteen cards in each suit, and two joker cards. Players can play traditional card games known to them or make up their own games.‘Read the Future of the City’ repurposes our enduring relationship with stars as way points from which we can measure and understand the world around us. Each of the 52 cards show an existing star constellation, with a map of the stars and it’s newly assigned name. The constellation names relate to: physical elements of the city, the movement of people and ideas, and the ways in which the relationships between people form civic infrastructure.

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