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Manchester's improvement story

Edited on

25 June 2021
Read time: 5 minutes

Playing our full part in Manchester and taking it on the road

How sharing our approach with other European cities has helped Manchester take its cultural collaboration on climate action and engagement to a whole new level.

By Simon Curtis, Chair, Manchester Arts Sustainability Team (MAST)

As I travelled to Tallin in October 2017 with Jonny Sadler of the Manchester Climate Change Agency I must admit I was nervous. We were on our way to the URBACT city festival, an annual gathering to celebrate and share innovative and successful initiatives to drive change for better cities. While familiar territory for Jonny, the same could not be said for me. You see I worked in theatre production…

We were going to Tallinn because something rather special had happened in Manchester. Our cultural sector had developed a collective response to climate change and was directly involved in developing city climate policy. This unique approach had been recognised as a good practice by URBACT, a European cities programme, and we were there to tell this story and to inspire other cities to do the same

10 years ago, there was an idea, to bring together Manchester’s cultural leaders to address the environmental performance of the city’s cultural organisations, in line with the ambitions of the city’s first climate change strategy – Since 2011, the city’s cultural community has been working together through the Manchester Arts Sustainability Team (MAST) to understand its impact and act on climate. We mobilise climate action and we also play an active role in city climate change strategy as part of the

Our network of cultural organisations had grown organically. Our activities had often been under the radar in the city, that was until I met Jonny who saw that our sector could contribute to the wider city conversation. When I attended the first few MACF steering group meetings, I sometimes found it hard to keep up. The language was new. I did not know anyone around the table. I was not a politician, scientist or an activist. Then at one meeting we discussed how we might engage with our citizens to share the city’s latest climate change report. Suddenly I found myself talking and confidently about what we could do. I knew what culture could bring that had so far been missing. 

‘Our partnership with the city's arts and culture sector is central to our strategy; working together to develop creative new ways to get people on board …ensuring we reach every corner of the city's diverse communities, working in ways that are exciting and meaningful to our citizens, especially in those places that stand to benefit most from ambitious climate action.’ Jonny Sadler, Manchester Climate Change Agency

The combination of MAST’s collaborative approach in a city which recognises the value of culture and is itself demonstrating climate change leadership, has firmly established Manchester as a leading example of cultural collaboration on climate action and engagement.

The meeting in Tallinn was the beginning of a journey to take our city’s ‘production’ of cultural collaboration on climate on the road. We set out to find new partners in European cities, who would take what we had learnt and go on to produce their own versions.

In theatre terms URBACT is our producer, a role that brings people together to share ideas, provides resource and a framework within which to work. Our URBACT Lead Expert Claire Buckley from the environmental arts charity Julie’s Bicycle, a long-standing MAST partner, was our dramaturg bringing knowledge, context and most importantly challenge. Manchester City Council took the production role through Grainne Bradley and her team. Together we created a script and a network of cities under the banner of C-Change: Arts and Culture Leading Climate Action in Cities.

In Manchester we had taken a bottom-up approach. MAST hadn’t received any city funding or support. We did not have close ties with the city council and only a loose relationship with the city’s cultural leaders’ group. Now, through C-Change, the city council and MAST were going to have to work closely together for the first time. This was something new.

C-Change was to become our biggest production yet involving many players. From the beginning we understood the value this model could bring to other cities. What we hadn’t understood was how much we would gain, strengthening city and sector collaboration, more closely aligning culture and climate change policy and programmes and framing MAST’s zero carbon culture work.

At the start, Grainne, Claire and I visited five cities - Águeda (Portugal), Gelsenkirchen (Germany), Mantova (Italy), Šibenik (Croatia) and Wrocław (Poland) - during the heatwave summer of 2018. With each visit we told the Manchester story and made the case for ‘what on earth the arts and culture had to do with climate change’, a new concept for all. These visits were the first time culture and climate had really come together in the five cities and it was already a powerful moment.

“For Manchester, those first city visits were the beginning of building a close working relationship with MAST and realising the importance of reconnecting city and sector.” Grainne Bradley, Manchester City Council

By November 2018, the C-Change network was ready to go with five partner cities, all cities which clearly recognised the arts and culture sector’s contribution to city life, well-being and prosperity and were experiencing the consequences of climate change. We had a working script and, with Claire’s help, a clear outline of the Manchester model and roadmap for the partner cities to follow in adopting a similar model. In making us stop and reflect on Manchester’s approach, C-Change helped us identify opportunities to take it further.

We set up a small group bringing together Manchester City Council, MAST and the Manchester Climate Change Agency to come up with our own plan. At times it felt it like we were pulling in different directions and speaking different languages. This process was however key to building understanding and trust in each other’s roles. In the end, we came up with a plan to bring city and sector closer together on culture and climate, build sector capacity to act and lead on climate and develop a zero carbon culture plan in line with Manchester’s new zero carbon 2038 ambition.

The C-Change network players came together, on and off stage. Through transnational meetings our production really began to take shape. A pivotal moment was our study visit in October 2019. Two years after that auspicious trip to Tallinn, all six cities and their cultural sectors came together, met their peers and saw MAST’s work in action. It was hosted at the theatre where I worked, in rehearsal rooms and on stage as well as other cultural places across the city. We explored ideas, opportunities and along the way everyone became Carbon Literate.

*C-Change city and MAST representatives on the set of Coronation Street to see ITV studio’s environmental work in action, Manchester March 2019*

This was also an important turning point for Manchester as the city council began to explore how it could align cultural funding with city climate change ambition, in line with its zero carbon action plan.

Of course, with a production you never know what you have until you share it with your audience. For us this is our citizens, the people we must engage in responding to the climate and ecological crisis. By activating the cultural sector and encouraging creative responses we start a conversation with our citizens. With seed funding through our C-Change Pilot Action Programme we aimed to do just that. This was not a usual part of an URBACT project, but our producer supported this, and MAST matched the funding from its membership fees. The pilot actions have been a brilliant way in which to explore what people respond to and there is rich learning for our network.

When the Covid pandemic hit, our cities were plunged into crisis and of course our cultural places and events had to close. This great challenge redefined our C-Change production , extending it by six months, giving us time to regroup and adapt, and find new ways of collaborating online. The network remained robust, committed and our early investment paid off as, against all the odds, we saw a remarkable amount happening in each city. Although it has been sad not to revisit cities and see people face-to-face, at least we know we avoided a lot of carbon.

The cultural sector has been hard hit by the pandemic. In the UK, government support for the arts and culture took a long time to arrive and was for some too late. In Manchester we felt this and hard. Our sector is however rather resourceful and very quickly work went digital and support systems were set up. The way we access culture has changed but culture has continued to bring people together for shared experiences. We revisited Manchester’s C-Change plan and decided to focus more on sector capacity-building and developing our relationship with the city’s cultural leaders, who in February 2020, had agreed that addressing the climate and ecological emergency would be a priority for the sector. In November 2020, we brought over 70 cultural workers and leaders together to begin the process of exploring what a new model of cultural climate leadership in the city could look like, working to a just and green recovery.

“NOW is the moment to forge a new model of collaborative creative climate leadership in the city – as part of a generational shift that ensures culture and creativity fully contributes to and is at the heart of zero carbon Manchester.” Esme Ward, Director, Manchester Museum

To help MAST grow and develop further into the Greater Manchester city-region, C-Change helped us take our Carbon Literacy Training online and create 100 free places for our sector. We are also creating a digital learning resource to help those at the beginning of their journey. This in turn will help our sector respond to changes that will come when city cultural funding and climate change ambition are aligned.