Developing a Culture Strategy

“A song, a dance, a recipe passed down through the ages – these are the things that define cultures, make us who we are. And this week more such treasures were added to Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list, among them Hungarian folk music, the French baguette and Cuba’s rum knowledge.” I read this with delight in this week’s Positive News.

Finding out about this list comes during this week, of end November, when I’ve been asked to outline a culture strategy for the area I live in, and also answer, for a permaculture assignment, the questions, ‘What does a healthy social landscape look like?  What are 3 ways that you can contribute to the creation of healthy social landscapes?’

The information about intangible cultures helps with both tasks.  UNESCO defines cultural heritage as ‘traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.’   There I have a start-point on what elements could be included in an arts and culture strategy.

Etienne Wenger defines a social landscape as ‘the texture of the social world. It is constituted by social practices, social systems, and social relationships, as well as the boundaries between them. It is the raw material of social learning, shaping, and in turn being shaped by, our learning.

Wenger talks about three interrelated types of structuring forces that configure the social landscape:

  • Systems: sets of interacting systems, including natural environmental systems, political systems, human-designed and built systems (e.g. road, cities, waterways) etc.
  • Practices: what people actually do and the competences and approaches they have developed to do what they do within the systems they find themselves
  • Relationships: people or groups of people who are bound by commitments, friendships, similar experiences, labels, or other ties

It is easy to see how intangible cultural heritages are shaped by (and, in turn, shape) social landscapes. For example, the Alheda’a, oral traditions of calling camel flocks, has just been added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.  This practice has arisen from the specific desert environment where camels thrive, where they are herded, where herders need to control the herd, where community members help each other with their herds.  The description notes that ‘the practice creates a strong bond between the camels and their herders, as well as among the herders themselves. It is transmitted within families and communities.’

In this, example, you can see aspects of what constitutes a healthy social landscape.  And it is explained in the guide ‘Cultural Strategy in a Box’.  A healthy social landscape is one that, ‘builds upon the heritage of the area; that builds a shared vision and identity for the area that is steeped in history and has a wealth of cultural assets; that builds the local economy particularly in the context of tourism and creative industries; that improves the local quality of life and encourages engagement in community activities; and that provides new ways of tackling challenges around health and well-being.’

Although I don’t live in the desert, I’ve also now got a start-point on a healthy social landscape.  The next step is to consider how to use these start points in the context of my local authority area (ward).  It’s a busy urban/city environment, with considerable construction work going on.

The ward currently has a population of about 20k.  The demographic profile (from Local Insight) of the ward hints at the breadth of cultural heritages – 59% of the population was born outside the UK, 53% of households in the ward have English as the main language.  Of those born outside of the UK 24% are from Middle East/Asia, 10% African countries, 12% EU countries and the remainder other geographic locations.  Religions represented are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and a small number of ‘other’.

The ward is bisected by a main road that has lower income house on one side, and higher income on the other.  Other aspects of the demographic profile of each side speaks to the way built systems impact the social landscape.   The construction work mentioned earlier – predominantly blocks of high-rise flats, in the currently lower-income neighbourhood, will increase the ward population considerably, and will likely change the income distribution too as several of the constructions are ‘luxury’, albeit with a bit of social housing in the mix.

The challenges in developing a culture strategy for the ward are several.  They include:

  • Identifying the different intangible cultural heritages of the different constituents of the ward.  (Including the people who have lived in the ward all their lives, and remember a very different look and feel to it now compared with when they were growing up 50 years ago).   
  • Valuing, maintaining, and sustaining the wards current cultural diversity, in order to foster intercultural dialogue between the different micro-communities and encourage mutual respect for other ways of life.  As UNESCO reports, ‘The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next.’  
  • Integrating incoming cultures and cultural heritages as the high-rise flats are populated in the next few years.
  • Observing/assessing the current health of the social landscape and building into the strategy paths for developing or maintaining a good level of health.
  • Ensuring that the cultural strategy recognises traditional, contemporary, and emerging cultures representative of all constituents of the ward.
  • Remembering that having a culture strategy is not the end point. The desired outcome is its on-going operation and renewal.
  • Finding the ‘guiding coalition’ who will mobilise the energy, resources, commitment, motivation, and will power to keep the ward’s cultural heritage and emerging culture healthy and obvious in the daily lives of constituents.

Reading the above I wonder what the next steps are.  I’ve reminded myself of two of Herb Shepard’s rules, ‘Start where the system is’, and ‘light many fires’.   In terms of strategy, by the first rule, he meant don’t try and graft on or impose top-down stuff, and by the second rule he meant do lots of experiments to see what works and build a strategy from the ground up.   

With this in mind, I think I’m going to propose that rather than write a strategy we a) assess what intangible cultural assets are already within the ward and how they manifest, possibly using the UNESCO domains as a template   b) do several smallish things within the next 6 months that will test the ground for writing an ambitious and longer-term strategy, e.g. hold some seasonal events that recognise the different ways people celebrate winter,  or organise a food festival with dishes from the various cultures and geographies we have represented in the ward.   

Image:  Michael James

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