Time for some street life

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The iconic fashion designer/activist Katharine Hamnett gave an inspiring and entertaining talk at the University of Dundee today in an event hosted by Design In Action. Her talk laid down the gauntlett for Scotland to value its textiles industry and use it to build a distinctive sustainable fashion industry. Her 300 strong audience included many of tomorrow’s fashion designers, and it is hoped that they will take up her challenge. But to do this they need to be encouraged and actively supported.

In answer to a question about how Dundee can use the V&A’s presence to build a vibrant sustainable fashion industry and market, she called on the City Council to give the City’s designers access to empty shops – she was calling for a design-led pop-up retail renaissance in the city. Who could disagree with this? We have some great designers and would-be designers in the city – why not give them a chance to give the city a bit of street life?

Cities – all cities – are in the fashion business. And if Dundee does not appreciate this and address its specific challenges, then the V&A is unlikely to succeed as the magnet for tourism and other growth that the City’s economic future depends on.

The highly influential American economist Richard Florida makes the compelling but controversial case that cities need to attract specific types of people to succeed and develop in the future. These he terms “the creative class” – “people in design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or creative content”. They are attracted to cities that have talent, technological infrastructure and are tolerant. All good news to Dundee then.

But this mobile and highly independent creative class expect something else too. They are attracted to experiential activities, described as Street Level Culture: a “teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between participant and observer, or between creativity and its creators.”

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We are attracted to places like Brixton Food Village, or Bergen’s fish market, or the Union Square farmers’ market in New York, or the Edinburgh Festival precisely because of the spectacle, surprise and shifting character of the street. Dundee needs to encourage and enable vibrancy on its streets. A tired and low key farmers’ market merely underlines the challenge that faces the city.

We have empty properties and some great streets. We have a hugely talented aspirational creative community who would be willing to set up pop-up fashion shops, street food fairs, street performance and much else besides.

The City Council should work to strip back regulation, work with other bodies in the City Centre to identify and make available properties and locations, and invite the people of Dundee to literally reclaim their streets for vibrant enterprises and cultural activities. Because civic regeneration is not about iconic architecture and ambitious town planning. It is about giving the people who live in a city the opportunity to bring their street to life. With their life – their ambitions, their talent, their distinctive character; to design their future city. Design is not an activity done to people, it is done by them to give form to their values and dreams.

Dundee is a city of design. UNESCO says so.

Time to prove it.

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