Summer in the Park with …

At Associates we often find ourselves discussing the intersection of culture and public space. Much of the cultural strategy work we do for local authorities concerns finding new approaches that connect people, arts and culture, and the spaces in which they meet.

We have therefore observed with interest the issues arising out of the recent trend for music events in public parks. Until last year Victoria Park in East London was home to a string of high-profile music events, including Love Box, Field Day and Mighty Hoopla. However, in a development that reflects the blurring of lines between private enterprise and publicly owned, free-to-enter space designed for community use, international events behemoth AEG has struck a deal with Tower Hamlets Borough Council in which it secures the rights to hold events in the park for the next five years.

The deal is not without benefit to the local community. This summer, between the two long weekends of AEG’s All Points East Festival, the facilities, stages, lighting and food offers created to host the likes of Bjork, The XX and Lorde are being offered to local artists for four days, and entry to the site is free. It would seem a balance has been reached: the Glasto experience is available in a London location (to those who can afford it); and budding musicians, their fans and local people get free access to high-level event infrastructure.

There is a bit more to the story, though.

The three music events ousted from Vicky Park have found a new home in Lambeth Council’s Brockwell Park – and the move seems for some to have been an unhappy one. Field Day in particular has been beset by overcrowding problems, which led, in one case, to a set (by electronic artist Four Tet) being shut down after twenty minutes. And issues around noise and the agreed end to the festival meant that the plug was unceremoniously pulled on Erykah Badu’s performance.

These kind of problems aren’t reserved for the latest dance and pop acts, though. The grounds of Kenwood House in north London have long been used for classical concerts. But when Kenwood’s owners, English Heritage, brought in professional event organisers, in order to increase revenues, the new programming included such luminaries as Tom Jones and Liza Minelli. The resulting battle over noise and disruption saw the well-heeled locals getting the long-running summer concert season put on hold for five years.

It is yet to be seen how the local community around Victoria Park judge the success, or otherwise, of the AEG deal. Will the offer of free access for local artists and local audiences to the kind of lights, sound systems and staging only big names and full pockets can usually afford mean it will be easier to stomach the unavoidable disruption open-air gigs create?

Most importantly, is the Vicky Park four-day free programme – which in fact includes open-air cinema, family and schools activities, live music workshops and provision for local businesses – a sop? Or will it become a valuable community cultural resource, located in a valuable community-owned space. The jury is still out.

Photo by Dan Weill