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So much for sustainability, I seem to have spent a lot of time recently in transit, one way or another.

In March I was fortunate enough to travel to Cape Town with one of SURF’s other streams of work – the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform for Sustainability. Organised by the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, the meeting brought together partners in Sweden, Kenya, UK and South Africa who are all working towards greater collaboration for sustainable cities as part of the Mistra Urban Futures centre. Unlike the usual conference, where you are locked in airless rooms for days on end, our hosts had thought to locate the meetings in different places around the Cape – including the spectacular Kirstenbosch Gardens and a visit to Phillipi, one of the largest townships in Cape Town.

Phillipi was a sobering place – a township of up to 500,000 people, many living in poverty, in cramped and crowded conditions, where deaths from unstable electricity supplies and summer fires rampaging through the densely packed dwellings are unimaginably high. A far cry from the kinds of poverty that we see in the U.K. Nonetheless – as became apparent during the panel debate I participated in “Fair Cities for International Poverty Reduction” – the generic issue of who holds the ‘right to the city’ cuts across both very different contexts. During my talk, I was able to draw on our Greater Manchester work. I highlighted how little deprived communities are engaged with formal governance structures and how poverty is only selectively prioritised within different policy frameworks. The failure of service-sector led economic growth in the 1990s and the parallel creative boom in addressing these issues is a key starting point for our project.

Fresh from Cape Town and the scorching heat (experienced only fleetingly in-between some serious work), a few days later I forced my way across the Pennines in the snow to Leeds. There, I attended a seminar held by the Sustainable Practices Research Group on the Uses and Abuses of Community for Sustainable Development. Not directly about the creative urban economy. Nor specifically about cities. But what was interesting was how the common issues surrounding the lack of connectivity – between formal and informal governing and how communities are conceptualised as targets rather than participants in policy formulation and implementation – cut across policy areas.

Onwards then the next week to Birmingham for the Project Continuity Day. Phil has already blogged about the day as a whole and what’s going on in the different workpackages. We did have a particularly fruitful discussion about different governance questions with a few themes reoccurring:
• The relative importance and value of formal structures and policy frameworks and informal or ‘organic’ forms of organisation
• The extent to which creative industries/culture are given priority in the new Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), the relative power of the LEPs and the impact of the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies
• The confidence of the two cities in articulating their distinctiveness – and the impact that rhetoric has on practice and vice versa
• The different ways in which the city-regional agenda are impacting on questions of territoriality – and questions of political stability
• The role of infrastructure and ‘nodes’ for creative industries to come together to collaborate or otherwise share ideas and how non-formal and non-traditional spaces may provide alternatives
• The extent to which creative urban policies and regeneration policies are merged and blurred – and whether and how this is problematic, for whom?
• The differences in the stories we tell about the development of the creative urban economy in each city – and whose interests those stories serve?

A very brief overview of a short, but packed set of discussions which we will take back into our respective cities to continue to inform the research.

And so to London to meet with Yvette Vaughan-Jones, Visiting Arts, one of our main partners on the project. Yvette has been with the team since the start – attending the sandpit back in December 2011 and we were delighted to have her batting on our side in the highly competitive process that followed. As one of the co-commissions in workpackage 5, Visiting Arts will be developing a project, drawing on their tried and tested Square Mile framework. 1mile² has inspired communities to explore the cultural and ecological diversity of their neighbourhoods through artistic engagement. Artists and ecologists collaborate and lead activity that enables vital dialogue and knowledge sharing within and between cultural and geographic communities. Launched in 2009, the programme has so far involved 42 artists, 18 ecologists, 14 creative organizations and reached over 13 500 people in 10 countries.

To take this forward into the Cultural Intermediation project we have decided to work with Visiting Arts on a pre-commissioning study to look at best practice for artist residencies and socially engaged artistic practice. Combined with a proposed seminar in the CIRCUS and some preliminary work in Greater Manchester, the partnership promises an exciting test-bed to cut across the work packages on governance, community, evaluation and co-commissioning. More information to follow…