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Intervention – ‘The Southbank and the Skaters: The Cultural Politics of Subversion’

Oli Mould, Royal Holloway, University of London

The language of cultural development, and its insertion into contemporary urban politics, has been the source of much academic and public scrutiny of late. Put crudely, urban governments and private developers (and the Jacobsian ‘monstrous hybrid’ they create[1]) have increasingly been using artistic, creative, and cultural production and consumption in their development proposals, but in doing so, they are reducing the richness of ‘culture’ to mere economics. In other words, cities are now using culture as a means to make more profit. In a process known as ‘culture-led development’, cities fund large-scale developments (such as museums and theatres, cinemas and galleries, ‘cultural quarters’ and ‘media cities’) as they represent the latest form of economic viability, namely culture and creativity[2]. However, given the involvement of private interests (as local urban councils either lack the funds themselves, or form part of the public-private relationship that is involved in the construction), these culture-led developments will have highly ‘corporatised’ aesthetic and governmental characteristics, and, of course, require a certain amount of financial return on the initial investment (see, for example, Zimmerman 2008; Evans 2009; Mould 2013; Sacco et al. 2013).

The perceived problem with this type of development is that it not only reduces the notion of culture to a set of mainstream and homogeneous consumption practices, but that it also, more pragmatically, engenders a rise in the land and rent value of the surrounding area. The displacement of those workers and inhabitants who cannot afford the new high rents is often the result; moreover, culture-led developments can often include large-scale demolition of low-income housing and the redirection of public funds from social services to the needs of the investors (McCann 2007). Another criticism of such plans is that they almost always fail to address key social and cultural issues around engagement, value, education, and social services (Pratt 2008). The local communities in which these cultural developments are embedded are rarely consulted to any great extent, and only lip-service is paid to their needs through bolt-on policies of local education provision and employment quotas, or rather loosely defined (and thereby easily circumvented) ‘social housing’ (Christophers 2008). In sum, these culture-led developments, while using the politically ‘current’ language of cultural engagement and local sensitivity, are first and foremost real estate development schemes that have the financial interests of the stakeholders as their primary concern.

The latest culture-led development in London is the Southbank Centre’s Festival Wing plan[3]. Part of the redevelopment of the Royal Festival Hall area includes “the under-used spaces from the undercrofts” (Southbank Centre 2013) being turned into retail outlets, and the creation of a “new riverside area for urban arts” (ibid.). The ‘under-used’ space they refer to here is in fact one of the world’s most iconic skateboarding spots, which is regularly frequented by skaters, and has been since the 1970s. The popularity of the undercroft as a skateboarding mecca is precisely because it was ‘naturally’ taken over by skateboarders: once a handful of skaters started to use its perfect curves and bowls and irregular, grindable concrete surfaces it gradually, over time, became a place in which skaters could congregate to practice their skills – and its reputation spread through word of mouth.

Oli Mould - fig1

Figure 1: The undercroft area of the Southbank

The Festival Wing plan, as well as turning this site into a row of retail outlets, also includes the creation of a new site in which the skateboarders, bmx-ers, and graffiti artists can go, situated a few hundred metres further west, under the Hungerford Bridge[4]. This plan sadly exemplifies many of the problems associated with current ‘creativity’-inspired, urban redevelopment policies. In reaction to the Southbank Centre’s plans, the skateboarding community of the undercroft have launched a prolonged campaign under the banner of Long Live Southbank (LLSB). Currently, the campaign has over 75,000 signatures and represents skaters, local residents, politicians, academics, and businesses. The campaign is fighting for the preservation of the undercroft skate park, and has gone about engaging in political activity such as attending planning meetings, submitting objections, and creating a range of creative material (videos, art work, music, and so on). The main justification for the campaign, and the intellectual reasoning for the resistance, I would like to explore here in two main themes[5].

First, the Festival Wing plan is a clear case of a consumerist articulation of culture trumping an ‘alternative’ and sometimes subversive subcultural community that has built up over a long period of time. The Southbank Centre in London is no doubt one of the country’s most famous and important cultural ‘centres’, but the expansion into the Festival Wing (and associated eradication of the skate spot) is reducing the current cultural provisions on offer in the area. The Festival Wing is to be part of what the promotional literature calls the “South Bank and Bankside Cultural Quarter – the largest, liveliest cultural area in the world” (Southbank Centre 2013). The phrase ‘Cultural Quarter’ has spread virus-like across the UK of late, with scores of towns and cities trying to develop them in various ways. Each case is different, of course, but they all have similar characteristics, because they’re all designed to do the same thing – encourage consumption and spending on what the narrative labels as ‘culture’, a specific type of culture, one that makes money for the investors. Anything that doesn’t form part of that narrative, such as the skate park in its current guise, is being displaced. As such, the cultural provision that the Festival Wing plan foretells seems to narrow the provision of culture, rather than the ‘culture for all’ that their tagline suggests. If the Southbank Centre really is committed to broadening the cultural offerings, then the preservation of the undercroft, and the (sub)cultural community it represents, is paramount. The skate park already attracts marginalised young people; it already allows them to form diverse communities around a shared common interest; it already promotes social interaction, healthy living, and cultural engagement. The desire for saleable retail space is simply not reason enough to destroy a place-based community that already performs the benefits the plans are attempting to promote.

Oli Mould - fig2

Figure 2: The undercroft area in use

Second is the notion that skating (and associated activities) can be ‘rehoused’ in a designated area. This goes against how such activities work and proliferate, and, perhaps more importantly, is a way of compartmentalising, and therefore profiting from, these activities (Daskalaki and Mould 2013). The ‘organic’ growth of the undercroft skate park as something so popular is precisely because it’s a spot that has been ‘won’. Since the 1970s, skaters have been chased away by officials, the undercroft has been used as a dumping ground, the lighting has been turned off, but still the skaters continued to defy these marginalisation tactics and use the space to skate. The fact that the Southbank Centre initially tried to stop them is outweighed by its commendable decision to let them continue. One suspects, though, that once the Southbank Centre realised that spectators flocked to the area to see the skaters and bmx-ers in action, and then emptied their pockets in the surrounding bars and amenities, it was more than happy to let them continue. The area became iconic – it was represented in the ‘Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4’ video game, tourists flocked to it, and from nothing it became one of the most recognisable skate spots in the world.

The use of the area speaks to creativity that is inherently urban, in that it was (and still is) people using the existing city to express their own cultures. Cities all over the world are tightening up on how they are used – signs that prohibit activities ranging from skating to parkour, rollerblading to picnicking, are increasingly common. So when people use city spaces creativity to express themselves, this is the essence of what urban life is about – being an active citizen, rather than a passive consumer. More damagingly, if a particular subculture (such as skateboarding, or street art, or parkour, etc.) is forced into specific areas (such as a purpose-built skate parks) they lose this civic urbanism and become more like the spoon-fed cultural spaces that are part of the development plans in the first instance. In other words, saying “You lot, go and play over there where we have fenced-off a space for you”, is unproductive, patronising, and runs counter to the anti-hegemonic essence of such activities. And calling it a “new riverside area for urban arts” smacks of an attempt to rebrand and collectivise very disparate and socially-different subcultural practices that go on at the undercroft into a marketable commodity. The success of the undercroft area is precisely because it started out as subversive and a reaction to ‘the city’ and all the economic and political powers it represents. In attempting to relocate the skaters, the designers of the Festival Wing are effectively killing off the subculture of the area, and creating a commoditised spectacle.

The recent submission of over 27,000 planning objections to Lambeth Council (see here), and the Mayor of London suggesting that the undercroft should be maintained (BBC News 2014), speaks to the groundswell of support that the undercroft has received. Whatever the outcome, whether it is preservation or relocation (as even political action and mayoral rhetoric can sometimes not stop the over-bearing forces of privately-led urban development), the campaign to save the skate park has engendered urban activism in an otherwise apolitical community. It has encouraged people from very diverse backgrounds (in terms of age, race, and class) to come together and form a commons – a body of political action. There are, of course, tensions, disagreements, and schisms, but the campaign has stirred many people to actively fight for the city they care for. Urban scholars remind us of our duty to champion sites of creative expression and communities of practice that are forming a contemporary urban commons that counters the prevailing urban hegemony (see Lefebvre 2003; Gibson-Graham 2006; Harvey 2012; Purcell 2013). The fight for the undercroft is just that – it exemplifies the fact that there are pockets of activism in the contemporary Global City; it highlights that if the stakes are high enough, then places are worth fighting for.

Endnotes

[1] See Jacobs (1992).

[2] See Peck (2005) for perhaps the most (in)famous critique.

[3] The Southbank Centre is a an arts centre on the south bank of the Thames (see http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/about-us). The Festival Wing is a new development, all about “…remodelling hidden corners of our site into useable space; updating and restoring…; building new state-of-the-art venues; and creating new gardens on rooftops” (see http://www.thefestivalwing.co.uk/).

[4] See the plans here – http://www.thefestivalwing.co.uk/explore/the-skateable-space/

[5] I expand upon these in this video, created by LLSB, ‘Long Live Southbank: The Bigger Picture’ – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFaKN98Xg3E

References

BBC News (2014) London mayor calls for Southbank skatepark to remain. 16 January http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-25759700 (last accessed 23 January 2014)

Christophers B (2008) The BBC, the creative class, and neoliberal urbanism in the north of England. Environment and Planning A 40(10):2313-2329

Daskalaki M and Mould O (2013) Beyond urban subcultures: Urban subversions as rhizomatic social formations. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37(1):1-18

Evans G (2009) Creative cities, creative spaces, and urban policy. Urban Studies 46(5/6):1003-1040

Gibson-Graham J K (2006) A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Harvey D (2012) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso

Jacobs J (1992) Systems of Survival. New York: Vintage

Lefebvre H (2003[1970]) The Urban Revolution. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

McCann E (2007) Inequality and politics in the creative city‐region: Questions of livability and state strategy. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 31(1):188-196

Mould O (2013) The cultural dimension. In M Acuto and W Steele (eds) Global City Challenges: Debating a Concept, Improving the Practice (pp140-154). Basingstoke: Palgrave

Peck J (2005) Struggling with the creative class. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29(4):740-770

Pratt A (2008) Creative cities: The cultural industries and the creative class. Geografiska Annaler B 90(2):107-117

Purcell M (2013) The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Sacco P, Ferilli G and Blessi G T (2013) Understanding culture-led local development: A critique of alternative theoretical explanations. Urban Studies doi: 10.1177/0042098013512876

Southbank Centre (2013) Press release, 6 March – Southbank Centre unveils plans to transform Festival Wing and create world-class cultural centre in London. http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/sites/default/files/press_releases/southbank_centre_unveils_plans_for_festival_wing_transformation_press_release.pdf (last accessed 20 January 2014)

Zimmerman J (2008) From brew town to cool town: Neoliberalism and the creative city development strategy in Milwaukee. Cities 25(4):230-242

Oli Mould is a lecturer in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His work on the creative practices of cities, those that contribute to capitalist accumulation, and those that seek to resist it has appeared in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Economic Geography, Area, and Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, among other places. You can read Oli’s blog, taCity, here – http://tacity.co.uk/

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