The Westminster ward of Church Street boasts a diverse ethnic profile, a theatre, galleries, an antiques quarter, a whole range of community groups and organisations, a secondary school, two primary schools and City of Westminster College close by. In developing its Church Street regeneration masterplan, Westminster City Council realised the importance of supporting the local community throughout what is likely to be a slow and potentially very unsettling process. Involving a diverse community in consultation for this kind of change comes with its challenges - residents may feel unheard or unsure of how to express their concerns or ideas. That is why Create Church Street focused on supporting residents to tell their stories and find their voice through creative projects. The Audience Agency’s evaluation revealed that the most successful projects in the programme did not just understand or engage the community, they were ‘of’ the community. They made space for participants to shape projects, develop their skills and tell their stories on a very personal level. These successful projects were not over-ambitious, nor did they profess to be for everyone, which is why they were ultimately successful in achieving their community engagement and co-creation objectives.
Create Church Street awarded funding to a wide range of creative ventures - both the tried and tested and the entirely new. The unifying factor, though, was that all of them developed and delivered their projects through a process of community engagement. The fund recognised the unique impacts that creativity can have on individuals and their communities, as well as the potential benefits these experiences can offer at a time of change. Create Church Street aimed both to enhance the ward’s existing cultural and creative activity and to encourage more people to engage with the arts and benefit from them. The Audience Agency’s recognition of the significance that a creative project like this has in a regeneration context made us the ideal evaluation partners. The assessment was to focus on three core aspects:
- Evaluating the Create Church Street Programme to understand its impacts for residents, artists and local organisations.
- Assessing the application process from an experience point of view, as well as in terms of accessibility.
- Providing recommendations for the shape of a future programme, potential avenues of funding and advocacy documents to support the case for continuing the project.
The evaluation process took place following the end of the Create Church Street programme and so required a 360-degree approach to paint a full picture of how the process had developed. Moreover, it needed to engage thoroughly with the challenges of regeneration and the potential social and economic impacts of creativity and creative projects. The mixed methodology approach included:
- A document and assets review including reports, surveys, videos, photography and testimony.
- Interviews and conversations with Westminster City Council culture and regeneration teams, members of the Create Panel and Project Leads.
- An e-survey for Project Leads.
Two rounds of small grants applications and 29 projects later, the value of Create Church Street is clear. Participants gained confidence, skills and recognition as individuals. Their pride in their area increased because hearing their neighbours’ stories, seeing their creativity and collaborating with them made them proud to live and work alongside each other. Create Church Street was successful in demonstrating that creative projects bring people together and provide a space for conversation and communal endeavour.
The residents feel … more secure and safe to know that they are part of a group of diverse communities within Church Street and no longer feel socially isolated.
It was lovely to feel as though the workshop was an extension of the bustle of the street and lots of curious passers by came in. The atmosphere could not have been lovelier.
The programme also highlighted the importance of clarity and attention to detail and mutual respect when it comes to requests and timescales for artists and organisations working on a tight budget. The projects genuinely filled gaps in skill and perspective amongst local organisations – particularly dance and film making – and the majority of participants were enthusiastic about continuing to develop their projects and pursue cultural opportunities.
The project was a great success, although there is always a question as to whether it reached everyone in the ward who might want to contribute. To this end, The Audience Agency recommended that future programmes involve a tripartite combination of:
- A fully open programme.
- A mentored programme specifically intended to solicit and support projects from those less experienced in delivering them or applying for funding.
- A strategically commissioned programme that can more directly respond to the regeneration agenda and/or deliver larger scale cross-community activity.
The seeds have been sown, Create Church Street gave a taste of the possible as well as having tangible impacts for the participants, artists and organisations involved. Now, as the programme moves forward into its next phase, is the time to capitalise on the sum of its parts and continue to value its vital role in the regeneration of the ward.
As many of us strive to do our civic duty by sitting on the couch, the creative industries have stepped up to save us, offering a myriad of amazing, free online opportunities to keep engaging with arts, culture and heritage from home.
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