Investing in Places and Communities – Lantern Parades, Light Design and Benefits Street

As a child, I was always aware of the ‘Ulverston Lantern Parade’, a festival that takes place annually in a town called Ulverston a few miles from where I grew up. I’d never really reflected on it and always supposed that it was a long-running traditional event – the sort of thing that might have been happening in the small market town for centuries. That, in fact, it dated back to only the early 1980s was just one of the many fascinating revelations that I discovered during the ‘Lantern Parade Conversation‘ held in Durham jointly by the Wolfson Research Institute, the Centre for Medical Humanities and the Institute of Advance Studies last week.

The event brought together academics, artists, school-teachers and various others who were interested in exploring how lantern parades might be researched. The Ulverston event was apparently the original lantern parade in the UK, launched by the arts group Welfare State International in the 1980s. Many of the people attending this event had links to WSI and Ulverston, having spread the parades to various towns and cities across the UK. They are a fascinating group, whose work in community arts projects dates back to the 1970s and a philosophy of art, education and community which very much runs contrary to the top-down regeneration projects which dominate art and community policy at the moment. I was particularly impressed with the geography of this movement, whose members have worked in diverse locations across the UK: Ulverston, Wrekenton, Bentham, Newham, Slaithwaite – small towns or boroughs which would normally be overlooked by central government arts spending.

Lantern festivals themselves help create community in these locations, by building up an annual ritual in which multiple people and institutions are brought and work together to produce objects and an event which temporarily transform their town: it’s a simple but effective idea. Its theme chimed nicely with some of the presentations at the Conceptualising Spaces of Light and Dark event that Ankit Kumar and I ran last week, which emphasised the ways in which both light and dark alter our experience of spaces. In particular, Casper Ebbensgaard’s paper on the work of the Social Light Movement (see some of this here) explored how creative lighting design has been used to transform urban space on a more day-to-day basis.

Of course, we can’t put too much expectation into the ability of a single annual event or changes in urban infrastructure to alter deep-lying inequalities, but equally such activities can be surprisingly successful in contributing to wider community formation and can help raise the esteem, safety and sociability of an area. In the current debate about geographically concentrated poverty raised by the TV show ‘Benefits Street’, it is worth reflecting on the high cost-benefit ratio of such simple and small-scale urban interventions. Welfare debate is rarely connected to arts or design spending in communities, but perhaps one positive effect of Benefits Street should be to emphasize that poverty and inequality have strong geographical connections, and that investment in places and communities is a key element in tackling these issues.

Both the Lantern Parade Conversation and Conceptualising Spaces of Light and Dark were supported by the Institute of Advance Studies at Durham, as part of their annual research theme which this year is ‘light’. There’s another 8 months of events still to occur across the university: so far it’s proving very productive and provocative of ideas!

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