THE WORD Edge city

Croydon used to be a byword for suburban drabness, but no longer, says Paula Murray, creative director at Croydon Council, which is using the arts to give the town a multi-billion pound new profile, beginning with a £30m shakedown of its Fairfield Halls

Rick Mather Architects and the London Borough of Croydon have revealed designs for a new underground art gallery in Croydon.

The 2,000sq m gallery, part of the wider College Green and Fairfield Halls regeneration, will be accessed via the new glazed cloister of the re- furbished Fairfield Halls and will be located in the existing underused sub- terranean car park structure beneath College Green. Once upon a time planners and urban designers were seen to be a breed apart from the artistic and cultural communities that inhabit our towns and cities.

But that was a long, long time ago in a place far, far away – certainly a million miles from Croydon, the “edge city” on the southernmost fringe of London where cultural regeneration complements and supports a multi- billion pound series of development projects.

Today’s urban landscapes are measured and rated as much in terms of the range of cultural activities that take place there as they are in how un- cluttered the streetscape is.

The way that communities interact and engage with each other within ur- ban spaces is just as critical as the qual- ity of available office space and the efficiency of transport networks. This shouldn’t be news to any-one. It’s been a common theme in professional debates and discus- sions for many years. But, that said, it is still an issue that it is critical we continually remind our- selves of – because it’s undeniably  important. But at the same time it’s also not always that easy to deliver.

Croydon’s leaders certainly under- stand this, and they are investing and planning accordingly.

Here, where there are cranes and concrete, towering buildings and ne- glected corners, is a place where 30s meets 60s meets 80s meets 21st century architecture and the trams rumble and clang through it all. The heritage is so eclectic and colourful it can actually be bewildering.

Everyone I’ve met here has a particular passion, and looking back there is a history worth remembering and celebrating – this place was the Roman centre of the saffron trade (and community activists are once again harvesting this valuable spice in the town centre); this is the place where punk was embraced and nurtured; this is the place where dubstep was invented and released onto the world, and where grime has put down roots.

The cross-cultural mix here is wonderful and vibrant – and there are so  many histories that contemporary cul- tural projects can grow from and be based on.

And indeed, that’s why we believe here that culture isn’t just window dressing to make a place look more attractive – it’s the very foundation of what makes a place somewhere people want to be, rather than just a place they find themselves.

Culture improves self-esteem, gives a sense of belonging, helps de- velop creativity and brings new jobs as part of a healthy mixed economy.

So as Croydon’s already huge population (the same as the whole of Iceland) gets set to grow steadily over coming years, we can’t just build homes, offices and shops in isolation from considering what people do on their days off, in the mornings before work, in the long summer evenings, or at the weekends.

And we can’t just focus on providing monolithic offices for huge corporations.

Which is why we’re exploring ways to attract and support the artists, designers, tech start-ups, and other creative industries that bring with them the kind of buzz that enlivens the overall cultural offer.

What can a local authority actually do to achieve these goals?

Well, when the money and the will is there they can invest in the infra- structure that creative groups need to exist and thrive.

Croydon’s major offer right now on this front is the Fairfield Halls restoration project. We’re about to start the two-year countdown to a re-opening in 2018, when after £30m of investment the 1,800 and 755-seat concert hall and theatre, and associated halls, rehearsal spaces, community rooms, bars, restaurants and cafés, will once again be the cultural heart of the region.

And out in the streets we’re looking at everything from how the major new retail redevelopment (led, uniquely, in a partnership by Westfield and Hammersons) will include facilities like power and water supplies in and around potential performance spaces, to how our parks can become welcoming places for anyone looking to stage an event.

We’re looking at licensing policies and rules that impact on our night time economy to see if restrictions can be relaxed or other changes can be made to encourage a wider range of activities and avoid a drinking mono-culture.

We’re looking at permanent and temporary works of art – from vibrant and extensive permitted street art zones to organised and commissioned pieces, such as a planned punk retro- spective as part of this year’s Punk London celebrations.

And most importantly we are working with the people who live here. The people who are proud of their town and who have the talent, the creativity, the drive and the passion to help us make Croydon a desti- nation of choice.

We know we are competing with towns and cities across the UK and Europe who have similar aspirations, but we also know the next few years will be fun. And with culture at the very heart of our regeneration drive it’s also going to change the way that people look at Croydon in years to come.


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