Local History – place-making for the future
Tom Campbell, KTN
Despite claims made over the last 20 years about the death of distance, the rise of teleworking and the coming of the virtual corporation, geography remains embedded in economic development. Indeed, the lexicon of economic geography has arguably never been so prevalent: when it comes to the British government’s industrial strategy, few speeches or papers don’t reference place-making, business clusters, industrial gateways, geographical hubs or economic corridors. But the emphasis on geography often comes at the expense of its fellow humanities discipline, history. In particular, it is local history, a subject all too overlooked by academia, that is key to understanding not just a city’s economic characteristics, but also informing its future strategy.
Economic and cultural history
A city and its local industrial footprint or impact are not simply the result of geographic circumstance or transport connectivity but more usually reflect an extensive and complex history. The workforce, firms, owners and investors have shaped the city’s character and built environment and, in turn, been shaped by it.
Such histories can stretch back a long way: Coventry’s automobile industry is still a significant employer 120 years after the first car in Britain was made there, ceramics has dominated Stoke-on-Trent for more than three centuries , while a reference to Sheffield’s manufacturing of cutlery can be found in the works of Chaucer.
The importance of local history is especially relevant to the creative industries. As a sector recognised by national government, it is little more than twenty years old and invariably associated with discussions around the ‘new’, post-industrial economy. But this shouldn’t blind us to the rich local histories and cultural ties which bind the creative economy to cities and localities. Four hundred years ago, Oxford was one of Europe’s centres for the printing of prayer books and scholarly works, and educational publishing remains a major industry there to this day. The visual arts scene in St Ives dates back to the founding of an artist colony in the nineteenth century, while the Bristol Old Vic built in the 1760s is responsible for nurturing contemporary talents such as Olivia Coleman and Jeremy Irons.
The newer industries display a similar continuity – the film industry has been synonymous with Soho since its beginning, while video games production has been rooted in the West Midlands for more than thirty years. As these industries have grown, so public institutions have grown with them – Oxford Brookes University is a renowned centre for teaching and research in publishing, just as the University of Coventry’s courses in automotive design attract students from around the world.
For city leaders, there is an understandable tendency to look to ‘industries of the future’. The language of economic geography, fused with technological jargon, is seductive and cities and regions across Europe and the US have striven to become innovation corridors, test-bed cities, technology hubs and advanced industry clusters. This is especially tempting for smaller cities and towns always seeking the big ‘foreign investment win’ and to pin their hopes on an emerging technology that can secure a prosperous future.
But foregoing a town’s industrial heritage could be a mistake. While very large cities might be able to accommodate this kind of churn and creative destruction, the relentless pursuit of the new risks not only ripping apart the cultural fabric and identity of a town, but also its economic assets. A particular industry’s workforce, skills, culture, infrastructure, public institutions and specialist suppliers are not things that can simply be repurposed. These dense ecologies will often have grown up over many decades, and become embedded in a way that transcends their physical presence or spatial relation. Nor should the value and durability of external perceptions be ignored – three hundred years after Josiah Wedgwood, pottery made in Stoke still means something, as does a suit from a Savile Row tailor, 150 years after Henry Poole opened his premises there.
Looking back to look forward
Geography matters and the study of economic geography, will always inform city planning and economic strategy. But so too does history. When it comes to economic strategy, planners will always want to survey the cityscape, chart connections and produce heatmaps of activity. But they should also spend some time at their local library or archive and devote some time to thinking about not just what they want their city to be in the future, but how it got to be what it is today.