Hull’s £77m preparations for 2017 City of Culture
- Credit: not Archant
Work is underway to prepare Hull to be the City of Culture and to get it ready for the years beyond. Words by Paul Mackenzie
There were audible gasps of surprise from the London press when Hull was announced as the 2017 City of Culture, followed by the patter of feet as journalists from all the national papers scurried to trains and headed north. In the days and weeks that followed the announcement, patronising features appeared accompanied by pictures of pound shops, chippies and market stalls, none of which they have in the capital, apparently.
Many column inches were given over to expressing astonishment that a city they assumed was a byword for all that was grim up north had been given the honour – and to compound the irritation their features caused, almost all of them used the excruciating ‘To Hull and Back’ headline.
But when they do come back they’ll find a city much changed. Work is now underway on a £77m project which will create a new public square, artworks and water features in time for the start of Hull’s year as the City of Culture. The first phase of the improvements carry a £20m price tag and will make the city easier to navigate and will encourage visitors to stay longer and spend more money, according to the landscape architects who came up with the designs.
Andrew Price, the director of Leeds-based firm Re-form told local press: ‘It is a massive opportunity to completely change how the city centre feels and how people engage with it. People don’t spend time in the city – they come, shop and go. We want to glue them to the city.’
The first phase of the work will also include new seating, improved paving and clearer routes through the city centre. Landmark buildings will be illuminated at night and the excavated site of the Beverley Gate – where gatekeepers refused to let King Charles I into the city – will be transformed into a public garden housing a 10m tall sculpture. The artwork, which has been provisionally named Word Gate, will project poetry onto the pavement as sunlight passes through it. Phase two will be followed by a second phase which will include a new cruise terminal and a venue for concerts and conferences.
Garry Taylor is Hull’s grandly-titled city manager, major projects and infrastructure. Originally from Huddersfield, he is overseeing the project and is confident it will help change perceptions of the city. He has been involved with the project since last year and seems well qualified for the job. A former planner, he worked in housing in Liverpool before taking on a similar role in Hull and said: ‘I love urban areas. This job’s brilliant.’
‘The reality of Hull is nowhere near the perception,’ he added. ‘If they come to the city, people always say they had no idea what’s here. We want those perceptions to change.
‘The city centre has seen decades of under investment so we have a backlog of work to complete. We are not too dissimilar to Liverpool – both cities have been knocked – but people have more of an idea about Liverpool. Hull has featured in the crap towns book but people know very little about the place.’
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Hull’s bid for the City of Culture title grew out of a city-wide plan and Garry, who lived in former City of Culture Liverpool for 13 years, added: ‘2017 will be the seed for the growth but we have to make sure the city continues to grow and that we improve the quality and attract more people to live and work in the city.
‘We are laying the stage for 2017 but the after show party has to be as good. What cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham have done well is in attracting events and that’s where our arena will come in post-17.
‘We want what we are creating to be of Hull and for Hull. Liverpool was a city that was down on its knees but it’s something completely different now. We have looked at what other cities have done well and what has failed – in this country and across Europe – and how they have changed perceptions.
‘The first thing all of them have done is to improve their public realm. That’s the first thing you see and there’s no point having a new cruise terminal if people will come off into a confused and dated city.
‘There are beautiful parts of the city but it is difficult to navigate and some of the street furniture is from the 1970s and 80s. Tying it altogether is really important. We want to draw people through the city and for them to spend more time here and to spend more money here and that in turn will lead to more jobs being created and will bring more companies to Hull. Rather than staying for an afternoon, we want people to stay for the day and instead of staying for a day, we want them to stay for a couple of days.’
The city centre streets are now a building site and resound to the sound of drills, bangs and that traditional part of any town centre redevelopment, grumbling shoppers. But, Garry added: ‘There hasn’t been as much grumbling as we were expecting, but there has also been a huge amount of support. People seem quite excited about the project. Some people have said they don’t like the artworks, but they are like Marmite and that’s what they’re for – they’re designed to make you think and to think about important parts of the city.
‘There will be significant disruption – we can’t avoid that – but we are moving incredibly quickly because of the time frame but the city is still open but the ling term outcomes will be of significant benefit for the city. The time frame is very tight but we will get there.
‘If we don’t make these decisions now cities like Hull will only be moving in one direction: down. 2017 provides added impetus and it brings in external money which is essential as we build for the future.’