Swansea artist Owen Griffiths has led several regeneration projects in the city, including Vetch Veg – a gardening project on the former Swans football ground, GRAFT – a horticultural project at the National Waterfront Museum, the station planters project, which has transformed the approach to Swansea Station, and Thinking Green, which centres on the green regeneration of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery grounds.
Now his community enterprise Ways of Working has taken on a new, large-scale project focused on the regeneration of St Helen’s Road in Swansea. St Helen’s Road links the suburb of Brynmill to the centre of the city. It’s a richly multicultural street that’s home to the city mosque and a range of international food shops and restaurants. It’s also long overdue a facelift.
Issues faced by people living and working on the street go beyond aesthetics, however, encompassing the growing impact of climate change. Ways of Working’s new project seeks to address these problems.
“We know that on average 1,360.8mm (53 inches) of rain falls on Swansea in a year, and all that water goes onto the street,” says Owen. “We are developing downpipe gardens – planted beds that connect to drainpipes. These interventions make the street into a sponge – in a rainy city with climate rising we need to be thinking about Green Infrastructure, biophilic
streets, to make cooler and greener streets that capture carbon.”
The project, Street Matters, is delivered by Ways of Working, a new emerging community enterprise in collaboration with creative producer Isabel Griffin, and is funded with £160,000 from the Arts Council of Wales. The task is to begin an ambitious long term community neighbourhood plan for St Helens Road and the surrounding area. The project is a partnership bid working with EYST, YMCA, Glynn Vivian and Caredig Housing Association.
As well as creating downpipe garden kits, leading community training, mapping workshops and a school programme, Ways of Working hopes to create tree pit gardens, which will turn the areas around the base of trees on the street into vibrant mini gardens.
“We are working with consultants to reactivate the tree pits as green spaces, maybe even with benches added,” says Owen, who firmly believes that artists make a unique and valuable contribution to urban regeneration projects, combining creative vision with community engagement and empowerment.
“The critical awareness that activists and artists can bring to regeneration agendas is not to remake the old problems, not to further marginalise or alienate communities. Artists can open a space where we can think about the process on a deeper level. What are we trying to achieve and who are we doing it for? How does this work impact on the next generation that are going to live and work here? Also, how does it speak to the broader realities of climate emergency with considerations like a shifting tide line, which will be a significant issue for Swansea?”
He adds that artists can help to empower the communities at the heart of regeneration initiatives.
“I am specifically interested in the political empowerment of communities, generating methods of co-design and this helps them advocate for themselves in the longer term too, but this is critical when regen projects don’t take into consideration communities’ wants and needs and can actively work against them. The way forward is not through ‘capital led
regeneration’ alone; it has to be about co-design and collaboration – what we are trying to do is anti-gentrification work!”
Next time you’re involved in a regeneration project – whether you’re a local council, a community organisation, or a developer, consider adding a bit of artistic energy to the conversation. Done right, art provokes ideas and discussion, and can create visionary solutions.
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