Dual inspiration

February 2, 2007

A new model for collaboration united Oxford's two universities and two local authorities to help the community reclaim public spaces and allow cultural life to blossom. Robert Hutchison reports

Broad Street in Oxford is one of Europe's great public spaces, but it remains underappreciated - much of the time it is more of a car park than a majestic meeting place. However, for one evening in December 2005, it came into its own. Several thousand people poured in to see the Ice Garden in the Clarendon Quad - a memorable mix of artworks telling the story of the disappearance of the Artic's ice - and the magical promenade performance called If on a Winter's Night staged by the French company Quidams. They were the closing events of a wide-ranging programme called Evolving City, which involved almost 30,000 participants of all ages and backgrounds in imagining and debating the future of their city, in developing local festivals, engaging more fully with scientific issues and making more imaginative use of public spaces.

Oxford is a city of paradox: a renowned centre of learning in which many thousands of citizens struggle with basic literacy and numeracy; a European city full of parochial attitudes; a city of cultural gems, most of them unknown to the majority who live there; a city with a great river whose pleasures few enjoy; a city with the best school of urban design in England in a county with a remarkable array of undistinguished public spaces.

For many people, Oxford is still less than the sum of its parts. But Oxford and Oxfordshire are changing fast, and it is the cultural life of Oxford that has seen some of the most positive changes in recent years. In 2002, Oxford was shortlisted in the UK competition to become the European Capital of Culture 2008. Using the impetus provided by that competition, a new cultural development agency for Oxfordshire, Oxford Inspires, was formed as a partnership between Oxford University, Oxford Brookes University and the Oxford City and Oxfordshire County councils.

The broad aim of Oxford Inspires is to make two plus two equal five - to generate the added value and public benefit that can be realised through more intense collaboration between two local authorities and two universities.

Evolving City, promoted by Oxford Inspires, worked well because of its collaborative nature. The independent evaluators of the 36 projects described it as "hugely successful overall". In the Evolving City programme, it was possible to discern many of the vital points in Oxford's cultural life: the need and opportunities for more intelligent public engagement with science and technology; the energy, as well as the tensions, of multiculturalism; the further blossoming of musical life; the increasing self-confidence and national role of the city's major cultural institutions, in particular the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums, and Modern Art Oxford; and the growing recognition of the importance of attractive and animated public spaces in any shared culture.

These cultural developments are helping to shift Oxford's image away from the clichés of Brideshead Revisited and dreaming spires and towards the reality of a modern, diverse science-based city with learning at its heart, a great European centre of culture. The work of Oxford Inspires bears more fruit this year: Oxfordshire is celebrating its 1,000th birthday with a year of festivals and special events, Oxfordshire 2007.

Part of the unique strength of Oxford Inspires derives from the broad definition of culture with which it works, which includes public engagement with science and environmental issues. Climate change provides an unprecedented set of challenges to universities and local authorities. In 2003, Oxford Inspires initiated the Sustainable Institutions Group, which has identified many areas for more effective collaborative action between universities and local authorities on environmental issues - for example, more concerted efforts on recycling and the promotion of renewable energy technologies. Indeed, the swelling ranks of environmental scientists and high-profile environmental activists in Oxfordshire could help make the county a leader in confronting human-induced climate change.

The prime duties of universities are to their students, but they also have local roles and responsibilities and a vested interest in enhancing the special qualities of the cities in which they are based. Much of the work of Oxford's two universities has a global reach. Not enough of the learning and insights generated by these universities is applied locally, and many Oxford students continue to live absurdly sheltered lives. What is happening in Oxford and Oxfordshire has much wider relevance, too. There is nothing new about collaborative activity between universities and local authorities on cultural and environmental issues. But Oxford Inspires provides a new model for such collaborative work - it is a small agency with multidisciplinary expertise that is capable of providing more consistency of approach, tenacity of application and continuity of evaluation than the epidemic of one-off initiatives permit.

This model is applicable in other cities. But, if they themselves are not to fall victim to the disease of short-termism in public policy, agencies such as Oxford Inspires require sustained commitment from local authorities and universities. Many of the big problems facing the British Government and institutions are those facing the rest of the affluent world: poverty of aspiration, degraded environments, unsustainable lifestyles, social exclusion, blinkered institutions, cultural tribalism and illiteracy of many kinds. Tackling these problems provides an agenda for a generation.

The government's local strategic partnerships have proved to be insipid, and local area agreements are mired in central, regional and local government bureaucracy. More sustained and imaginative approaches need to be fully tested.

And this is why what happened in Broad Street in December 2005 remains important. In some UK cities, an exciting new pattern of imaginative activities in public spaces is beginning to emerge, reclaiming the public realm for new manifestations of community celebration and large-scale public engagement, transcending barriers of social class and education. In the next few years, some of the most interesting work in public spaces may well come through new collaborations between artists, scientists and environmentalists, leading to wider public involvement in issues of concern to all. When it comes to public benefit, two plus two can equal five.

Robert Hutchison was chief executive of Oxford Inspires from 2002 to August 2006.

www.oxfordshire2007.co.uk

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