Arts and the City: A Response

Nicolas Whybrow
03 Nov 2020

Nicolas Whybrow is Professor of Urban Performance Studies in the School of Creative Arts, Performance and Visual Cultures at the University of Warwick. He was PI on the practice-based AHRC-funded Sensing the City research project (2017–2020) while recent books include Contemporary Art Biennials in Europe: the Work of Art in the Complex City (Bloomsbury, 2020) and, as editor, Performing Cities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Urban Sensographies (Routledge, 2021).

Reading the ‘Arts and the City’ issue of Built Environment (Volume 46, no 2) edited by Martin Crookston, which appeared earlier this year, just as the world is engulfed by the next wave of Covid-19 in autumn 2020, one cannot help but reflect on how things have changed.

    All the articles – which typically identify such KEYWORDS as creative cities, artist-led regeneration, urban infrastructure, just city – evoke a sense of a ‘prelapsarian’ era as they knit together for readers a global patchwork of urban arts-based initiatives, steering them from London to Dubai to Seoul and beyond as they go. It’s not so much that the projected ideas relating to the past, present and future of these urban engagements have been rendered obsolete as that one cannot help but read them through the unforeseen lens of a lethal global pandemic that doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. Essentially one is left asking: how on earth will this work in cities now? Can, for example, the convivial spaces referred to by Brandellero and Kloosterman – in which ‘abstract agglomeration economies touched down’ in The Hague, producing ‘a micro-geography of innovative relational spaces’ (p. 298) ( – still arise in the impromptu ways they did? And if, as Wray maintains, the ‘extraordinary burst of urban creativity’ (p. 313) ( in the music scene in Liverpool from the 1960s onwards occurred as a result of ‘geographical proximity increas[ing] the opportunity for personal contact’ (p. 329), what hope for the arts in a vision of city futures dependent on such an assumption?

Surprisingly, the implicit sense of loss evoked by these questions can, in fact, be turned into an upbeat perspective; if there has been one unexpected consequence of the various Covid-19 lockdowns, it is that they have magnified operational failings in cities across the world and thereby raised hopes that radical improvements may be implemented in the future. The role for the arts in this hypothetical process is one thing that interests me here.

So, while the effects of the pandemic provide one frame through which to respond to this issue of Built Environment, another is presented to me personally by the city in which I reside, namely Coventry, which assumes the mantle of UK City of Culture in 2021. Inevitably, together the various articles lead one to ponder how ‘arts and the city’ agendas may play out within the terms of staging such a monumental event whose very existence is dependent on forging meaningful relationships with the city and its various constituencies. What understanding of culture will drive it? What forms of citizen involvement will it offer? How will the city be affected long term? And, in the last instance: how will the present circumstances of the coronavirus inflect the answers to all of those questions in turn?   

One of the initiatives already underway as a part of City of Culture is to establish an ‘urban room’ in the city. The Urban Room Network (URN), part of the UK Place Alliance, is a national campaigning movement whose aim is to set up urban rooms in every city and town of the UK: Taking its cue from the Farrell Review (2015), URN proposes that:

… every town and city should have a physical space where people can go to understand, debate and get involved in the past, present and future of where they live, work and play. The purpose of these Urban Rooms is to foster meaningful connections between people and place, using creative methods of engagement to encourage active participation in the future of our buildings, streets and neighbourhoods.

In related vein, the 2016 UN-Habitat World Cities Report called for ‘the greater participation of citizens in the development of sustainable, inclusive, safe and resilient cities’, which would seem implicitly to recognize the value of the Urban Room initiative. In the meantime, there are some fourteen of them spread in various forms across the UK from Folkestone to Sheffield to Blackburn.

Customs House: Urban Room Folkestone, Diane Dever and The Decorators, Folkestone Triennial 2017. Photo: N. Whybrow.

Against this backdrop, I also filter my response to the ‘Arts and the City’ issue through a Coventry-based arts research initiative entitled ‘Conjunctions: Some Road Maps’, which I personally developed as part of a three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project called Sensing the City: an Embodied Documentation and Mapping of the Changing Uses and Tempers of Urban Place:

As the present narrative proceeds, then, I feed in quotations and keywords (in italic) from articles in ‘Arts and the City’ as their pertinence struck me in reading (with authors being similarly highlighted in italic). Thus, I make use of the journal issue as a form of Baedeker guide or A–Z of urban arts practice. One of the by-products of doing so is to reveal how kindred challenges arise in markedly different cities across the globe. These interjections or asides are woven into the fabric of the text (between dashes), producing a form of integrated response that seeks to relay by implication a sense of what is at stake in the intersection of arts-based and urban practices respectively in a new post-Coronavirus age.


To get the ball rolling what better way to proceed than to draw attention to the potential synergies between the ambition of an urban room as cited above and Landry’s keyword definition of a creative city in the overview he gives of arts, culture and the city at the start of the journal: ‘At its simplest a creative city or region provides opportunities for people, organizations and the place as an amalgam of entities to think, plan and act with imagination in solving problems and creating opportunities’ (p. 174) (


Sensing the City

The Sensing the City research project, a collaboration between Warwick and Coventry Universities and a range of freelance artists, undertook a series of site-specific studies of urban rhythms, atmospheres, textures, practices, and patterns of behaviour in the city of Coventry over a three-year period, beginning in April 2017. It aimed to make use of the sensate human body effectively as an in situ data-gathering sensor in the first instance, proceeding to apply technologies of sound/oral recording, photography, dance, performance and film in the second instance, to process and document this fieldwork activity. But it also entertained the notion of sensing as a form of hunch about the future – a sixth sense, indeed. The third and final phase of the research programme culminated in an integrated exhibition of artwork entitled ‘Sensing the City: an Urban Room’, incorporating a catalogue and one-day symposium entitled ‘Sensing Coventry: An Urban Salon’, both events taking place at the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry in January 2020:   

The exhibition’s designation as an ‘urban room’ represented a conscious attempt to strengthen an ongoing public debate in the city about the desirability of establishing such a facility in advance of and during Coventry’s year as UK City of Culture in 2021, whose organizing team, Coventry City of Culture Trust, sponsored the exhibition and symposium. The urban room exhibition and symposium presented the findings of the project in a form that was, and is, accessible not only to a wide range of academic disciplines – including cultural and human geographies, (landscape) architecture, environmental studies, sociology, as well as arts-based ones – but also to a broader public and to professional specialists in fields related to the design and planning of urban futures.

SARS-Cov-2/ARTS-Cov-21: An Opportunity

In the meantime, questions of sensing and moving in the city have acquired a very particular resonance, above all perhaps in how they relate to such basic senses of touch, smell and hearing and to the dynamic of social proxemics in urban space: how people move in relation to one another within the space of the city. With the SARS-Cov-2 strain of the virus all of a sudden rampant on a global scale, particularly in concentrated urban conurbations, venturing close to other human beings, let alone touching them, or simply coming into contact with urban surfaces, has become deeply problematic. In fact, it is to be avoided as far as possible, ultimately for the sake of ‘herd survival’. This is, moreover, a matter of ethical and social responsibility: not to engage in appropriate social distancing would be frankly immoral in the circumstances.

The situation is unprecedented in this form and evidently has wide-reaching practical implications for human and socio-cultural behaviours in the locked-down city (including the matter of the gradual re-emergence from that state). As such, the incursion of SARS-Cov-2 is instructive in itself when it comes to matters of urban habitability and resilience, throwing into relief as it does questions around the viability and durability of customary urban living practices pre-virus, not to say structures of governance and governability.

Interestingly this cuts both ways. On the one hand one can argue, for example, that the comprehensive and humanly counterintuitive denial of the sense of touch and intimate proximity in this situation of extraordinary emergency has had profoundly adverse effects on the inhabitants of the city. The full extent of this we have yet to discover, not least in terms of its toll on mental and emotional health. On the other hand there is no doubt that an absence of the customary sources of pollution (the profoundly damaging carbon emissions of road, track and sky traffic, for example) have had a thoroughly purging effect on such aspects of urban life as air quality and noise. This gives pause for thought.   

Many global cities, from Athens to Seoul to Bogotá, have seized the moment to institute pop-up measures for pedestrians and cyclists in largely abandoned city centre streets. The potential transition of these towards a liberating state of permanence post-virus remains to be seen but is certainly being actively promoted by many mayors and city councils who sense the imperative of a step-change in how city centres manage mobility. Wildlife in the city, meantime, could be said to be having a ball: not only do unforeseen or enhanced opportunities present themselves to it in the uncanny absence of ‘pesky humans’ but the quietening produced by reduced vehicular activity all of a sudden permits a ‘new hearing’ to emerge: how marked now the soundscape of birdsong and buzzing insect life.


In their delineation of Seoul as a ‘just city’, promoting civic values and action based on ‘an inclusive process of participation and dialogue’ (p. 280), Choo and Currid-Halkett, analyse the case of Gwanghwamun Plaza which, prompted by the one-off circumstances of the 2002 World Cup, was turned temporarily from a 14-lane urban highway in the centre of the city to ‘recognizing the plaza’s potential as a “positive” public space – one that is more pedestrian-friendly, environmentally-friendly and culturally vibrant’ (p. 288) ( The temporary incursion of the World Cup, which initially witnessed the plaza return to ‘dead space’ after the event, paved the way over time and via ‘various socializing events, debates, performances, artworks, etc. co-created by socially-engaged artists, cultural producers/groups, and citizens’ for the residents of Seoul to assert their ‘right to the plaza’ (p. 289). Not only was Gwanghwamun Plaza itself transformed by this process but it served as a paradigm for future urban and cultural policy and planning decisions in the city.


Coming so late in the day for the Sensing the City project (it formally ended in March 2020), and at a still early stage of the global outbreak itself, a full integration of SARS-Cov-2’s projected effects as they relate to the research has not been feasible. It is certainly striking, however, that many of the perceived challenges to urban habitability implicitly highlighted by the research prior to the arrival of the virus have been confirmed by the exceptional circumstances of the lockdown. In other words, the incursion of a deadly virus, that radically threatens human interaction within the space of the city, has paradoxically revealed shortcomings of the existing urban order in Coventry and in historical processes of urban planning and design per se. This could provide a unique opportunity when it comes to the reconfiguration of the city centre’s infrastructure, something that could feasibly be viewed as sitting squarely within the scope of what Coventry’s City of Culture (or ARTS-Cov-21 as I refer to it) should be engaging with in the run up to and during 2021, to say nothing of a City Council preoccupied with implementing a ten-year cultural strategy (Dixon et al., 2017).


As Kim explains, ‘London is one of two cities (the other is Amsterdam) that is prominently championing the infrastructural approach, as a means to both safeguard and foster the central role of the arts and culture in the city… Critically the foundation and vibrancy of this economy has been envisioned in terms of a larger creative ecology encompassing multiple layers and functions within the city… This envisions the city in its entirety as a kind of cultural district’ (p. 202) ( Moreover, drawing attention to the welcome publication in 2019 of a Cultural Infrastructure Plan for London, Green is hopeful in his analysis of the hapless role of artists in gentrification processes, which are driven by an ethos of consumption, that the plan signals ‘a shift in emphasis, and a recognition that a healthy infrastructure is founded on production, on artistic creation’ (p. 245) ( Rather than plundering the city, as developers often do, for what it may yield in financial gain, a focus on cultural infrastructure sees the arts as being engaged in processes of social building that are not only figuratively akin to the practices of public architecture but also literally involve the design of the urban environment.


People, Walking

Having pleaded thus for infrastructure to be seen as integral to culture, a conceptual elaboration of that would be to take into account the following: one of the perceived shortcomings of urban planning is the failure to put the sensitized human body first ahead of the concerns of design, developers, architecture, commerce and vehicular traffic. Instead of starting a ‘future city’ design and planning conversation with blueprints for buildings, streets, shops and so on, often primarily preoccupied with notions of how to generate profits from urban space, what about starting it with ‘life between buildings’, as the architect and urban planner Jan Gehl (2011) famously put it? In other words, an approach that is preoccupied with the rhythmical and arrhythmical movements, desires and behaviours of people and, for that matter, with the air of the unbuilt environment that we all breathe. As Henri Lefebvre (1991) showed a long time ago, urban space is not merely a container or backdrop for human activity but is produced and shaped in the first place by the actions and movements of people and other non-human phenomena.   

This is what the coronavirus brake/break has thrown into relief via the imposition of a situation of denied mobility. In other words, the manner in which human bodies are permitted to move in urban space is essential in determining the quality of the life that goes on in the city: its standards and its particular character. Similarly, the absence of fossil-fuel-based polluting factors has revealed how clean and wholesome the air that we are bound to breathe can become, while the reduction of noise allows us to hear unforeseen things. As Matthew Beaumont recently put it in a Guardian newspaper article:

During the national lockdown, as we took to the streets on our feet, we, too, thrilled to the presence of nature in our cities. We noticed things we’d long forgotten to see – intriguing buildings that had always been obscured by buses or the press of commuters; songbirds in trees blackened by decades of pollution; wildflowers and weeds in the grass verge beside roads that had until recently been choked with commuter traffic… For a brief moment, back in the spring, we stopped walking in the state of distraction to which, because of our relentless reliance on smartphones, we’ve become habituated. When we went for a walk, we actually looked at the city, processing its fascinating kaleidoscopic forms. (Beaumont 2020)

To co-opt another of Gehl’s mantras, then, how about proceeding from the notion that ‘cities are for people’ (2010)? More significantly perhaps, that cities are for the people that live in them, not the privileged tourists – so often seen as the point of departure of City of Culture-type planning – that may or may not visit. And that consideration would include the integration of arts and culture, whose purpose should be to generate a sense of local ownership and participation. The assumption of ‘people first’ should be self-evident really, but it is easy to lose sight of it. One of its main strategies is to create city centres in which people are moved to linger (paradoxical as that may sound). And that means centres where a wide range of constituencies naturally intersect. Thus, impromptu, variegated communities are created over and over amid a general urban paradigm of feeling safe and sensing opportunities to walk, sit, chat, witness, listen, play and relax.




In his analysis of Gulf Arab cities, Elsheshtawy warns of the key challenge of art washing as cities strive to become cultural hubs for the region: ‘Avoiding this issue relegates all their efforts to a vain attempt at dressing up their urban development through the veneer of culture. The term itself is akin to “white washing” or “green washing”, suggesting that some sort of lip service is paid to address issues of concern without substantively addressing them. It is a matter of image enhancement. Within the context of Gulf Arab cities culture is sometimes being used to mask various human rights transgressions, inequitable access to various spaces and sites in the city, segregation of people and more’ (p. 258) ( Thus, ‘constructing a few spectacular museums … or promoting art fairs’ is a distraction designed not only to satisfy tourists but also to detract from inherent local injustices (p. 258).


‘Conjunctions: Some Road Maps’

Via a methodology of sensitized walking (as invoked to a degree by Beaumont above), the ‘Conjunctions’ project (one part of Sensing the City) set out to show how the twin post-war predominance of vehicular traffic and commercial activity has effectively reached a point of exhaustion and entropy in the twenty-first century (Whybrow, 2021, pp. 18–59). Medium-size cities in the UK struggle to reinvent themselves since citizens no longer see any reason to make use of city centres (particularly for retail purposes). Arguably, the planning of city centres around the needs of car traffic has had its day in so many ways, but not least in terms of pollution and the health and wellbeing of citizens. And, by the way, introducing electric cars is all very well but still implies retaining an urban infrastructure predominantly designed around the needs of vehicles, to say nothing of pollutions that are caused by factors other than fossil-fuel exhausts (braking, for instance, is known to release its own toxicities into the urban air).

In placing the figure of the human being spatially at the centre of its enquiry, ‘Conjunctions’ has touched on many of the most urgent issues facing city centres, which pertain in Coventry to the post-war rebuilding plans for the destroyed city. It consciously stands the current state of mid-twentieth century modernist designs and utopian thinking in relation to the way they have played out in time some seventy-five years later and at a point where the scope for rethinking and innovation is timely with a global climate emergency being declared and the city being in a position via its status as UK City of Culture to address questions of cultural infrastructure.

‘Still Life 1’, Sensing the City project, Coventry ring-road

‘Still Life 2’, Sensing the City project, Coventry ring-road. Photos: Rob Batterbee.


To give one example of the project’s particular relevance to ‘real world’ issues: the ‘Conjunctions’ artwork makes the ‘preposterous proposal’ to stop car traffic on the problematic superstructure of the inner ring-road and repurpose the latter as an ‘urban wild’, with tree planting, opportunities for walking and cycling, small and large-scale pop-up events and so on. This is an issue that is being seriously discussed within the city in the meantime, as a local newspaper item from January 2020 shows:


Lovell provides a resonant instance of artist-led regeneration of urban infrastructure that takes its potency precisely from its ‘daring preposterousness’: ‘For example, Dutch artist Jeroen van Westen proposed to the City of Rotterdam the full-scale removal of 10 kilometres of raised urban motorway, leading to an investigation by the artist of the informal uses of land blighted by the motorway, following which he developed a master plan for a new urban quarter’ (p. 218) (


The ‘Conjunctions’ artwork is sub-titled ‘Some Road Maps’. Apart from the obvious, mundane sense implied by this – of it being some form of representational depiction of Coventry’s ring-road – it is also indicative of its self-appointed role as the director of a kind of ‘way forward’. These road maps may share the sentiments of a Julian Dobson, who advocates cogently for a ‘theory of change’ based on a collective stewardship of city centres, one that can be navigated effectively with ‘a plan setting out the steps along the way and what you think you’ll find when you get there’ (2015, p. 266). Or those of a Paul Chatterton with his persuasive manifesto demands for ‘real change’, involving among other things a car-free, post-carbon, commons-based sustainable city (2019, pp. 124–128). But the methodology of ‘Conjunctions’ is far less prescriptive than suggestive, paving the way for a serious debate to commence. This is a debate that must involve stake-holding citizens alongside ‘professional urbanists’ and that is where an urban room – even one that is conducted virtually in Coronavirus times – has such an important role to play in enticing Coventry’s inhabitants to a place where they may engage in the conversations they want to have about their own city.




Beaumont, M. (2020) As cities enter new lockdowns, it’s time to remember the joys of walking. Guardian, 17 October.

Chatterton, P. (2019) Unlocking Sustainable Cities: A Manifesto for Real Change. London: Pluto Press.

Dixon, A., Neelands, J., Roy, V. and Willcox, G. (2017) Coventry Cultural Strategy 2017–2027. Coventry: (Report commissioned by Arts Council England and Coventry City Council).

Dobson, J. (2015) How to Save Our Town Centres: A Radical Agenda for the Future of High Streets. Bristol: Policy Press.

Farrell, T. (2015) The Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment (Commissioned by Department for Culture, Media and Sport).

Gehl, J. (2010) Cities for People. Washington DC: Island Press.

Gehl, J. (2011) Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space. Washington DC: Island Press.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.

UN-Habitat (2016) World Cities Report: Urbanization and Development – Emerging Futures.

Whybrow, N. (2021) Ring Cycle: a Coventry convolute, in Whybrow, N. (ed.) Urban Sensographies. London: Routledge, pp.18–59.


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