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Online Link - Social Cohesion through Sustainability in Arts, Play and Health

Blog post written by Geraldine Montgomerie (Leeds Arts Health Wellbeing Network) and Emma Goodway (Space2)


This blog follows an interactive discussion on 25th November, led by Geraldine Montgomerie from Leeds Arts Health and Wellbeing Network and network member Emma Goodway from Space2, about responding to the climate emergency through different perspectives and through social cohesion and collaboration.


Geraldine opened the discussion, reflecting on the release of the Green Arts Initiative Report in March this year outlining what had been achieved in Scotland in 2019 and ambitions such as reducing travel within the creative sector. Across the country the pandemic has led to a real change to people’s habits and routines – not just in how we travel but our consumption and relationship with our locality and this presents an opportunity. In Yorkshire the recent launch of SAIL (Sustainable Arts in Leeds) where the climate commitment, undertaken by health care and local government, is now inspiring arts and culture organisations to commit to a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. The theme for this discussion was inspired by a SAIL meeting looking at community readiness in preparing Leeds' creative sector for net zero and considering whether our wider community currently supports us to make a net zero ambition.


Emma introduced community arts organisation Space2, now situated in a former fire station, and described the ability of arts organisations to make creative use of resources available to them. She described her organisation’s shift to sustainable activities such as willow weaving, growing herbs, taking steps towards creating a local circular economy and developing long-lasting, supportive relationships within the locality such as through intergenerational work. Part of developing relationships involves meeting people where they are at, with the ambition of creating a space that people can feel safe; building spaces to have conversations about what the future could be like and what could be in our future.


As a group we reflected on urgent actions we need to commit to with our communities to respond to the climate emergency. We recognised that whilst individually some might not feel they can make a difference we are still able to commit to little actions such as avoiding single use plastic. In our organisations however we noted that travelling for events has been significantly reduced and the development of online meetings and events may have a long lasting impact on festivals and conferences (although we also expressed concern about the potentially adverse environmental impact of creating digital spaces). We discussed that individually and collectively key considerations were our use of travel, energy, food and 'stuff’.


We considered how taking sustainable actions related to who we are and what we value. During the pandemic we recognised a changing relationship with food including increasing confidence in growing vegetables, where we were able to see changes from small actions, and linked this to a wider interest in the outdoors and developing routine group activities.


We described being inspired by practice across the UK such as the development of outdoors play, such as forest school and outdoors nurseries and other play settings like This Green Moon, where there was a focus on social relationships with humans and nature. We noted the development of art walks, incorporating walking and locality into our experience of arts and culture, highlighting the Art Walk Porty Festival which has celebrated the local community and creative spirit of Portobello (Edinburgh’s seaside) over the last 5 years.


As well as place based work we explored digital and touring productions such as Unlimited theatre’s Space Shed, where live interviews with some of the UK’s leading climate scientists and activists about what we can all do to help save our planet have been turned into a podcast. They have also featured Carbon Conversations as part of their shows encouraging families and wider community to reach a shared understanding and commitment to making changes through interactive activities. We explored the potential of technology and engineering to reduce energy use with an example given of Reaction Systems’ peddle-powered cinema, bringing arts and culture to remote locations as well as reducing energy use. We also talked about The Immortal Bloom Collective in West Yorkshire as an example of how art practice can incorporate recycling and upcycling materials.


We explored how sustainability and climate change is not a single issue that we can look at in isolation to other issues facing our communities. Emma described how economic inequalities in society - with high levels of mental health issues, isolation, lifestyle health issues - is in part driven by the way our society works and is itself driving climate change. We discussed how arts, culture and play could support telling stories of connection - to community, to nature, to exercise, to healthy local food, to music and fun.


We discussed the release this year of The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us and a growing recognition of the ways the UK has been divided culturally as well as geographically and that 92% of the country is not accessible to the general public. During the pandemic there has been increased recognition of ownership, of the invisible barriers that we face in public spaces whether due to disability or discrimination or otherwise not feeling we belong or are in a safe space. We engaged in dialogue on whether the idea that land can be owned is part of the narrative we need to challenge as we explore how we are interrelated to each other and our dependence on nature.


We identified the potential of Libraries of Things and free Little Libraries to question our roles as consumers, share creative tools such as sewing machines and create accessible circular economies. More broadly we discussed how existing systems may not promote sustainability at community level. But we can push for local, city, regional national change through taking a co-creation perspective, allowing us to develop plans and manifestos with actions that break down complex issues into manageable chunks, creating an imaginative space. When we invest in an activity – the ownership, makes us care, makes us feel attachment.


We then made a manageable commitment to involve other people in taking sustainable action. This blog is our next step and we hope it inspires you to take your next step.


Thanks so much to Geraldine and Emma for writing this blog post. If you have attended an arts and health-related event and want to write for the blog, please get in touch!

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