Written in 2013 during my time working on the Wasteland Twinning project. Published on the WT website, and given as a talk (of various lengths) in Nottingham (CSSGJ Seminar Series and UoN School of Geography research seminar), Amsterdam (W139 Gallery) and Toronto (Historical Materialism 2014). Much of wasteland in question has been turned into a rough-and-ready car park while work is carried out on Nottingham’s Broadmarsh Centre.

Creativity, Capital and Commons in the Contemporary City: Nottingham’s Eastside Island

First as farce…

Just to the north-east of Nottingham’s railway station lies a 34 acre site known locally as ‘The Island’. Presumably named because a section of it was once squeezed in between two long-filled in arms of the Nottingham canal (the section where ‘Island Street’ is on this map), it has been home to lace factories, gas works, the Great Northern Railway’s line to Grantham, railway warehouses (one of which was designed by T.C. Hine – the architect and planner of the city’s upmarket Park Estate), workers’ cottages, pubs, a bank and a church – but is best known as home to a number of Boots factories for almost the whole of the twentieth century.

An aerial view taken from 1927, from Picture the Past. For those who know Nottingham, the road running across the top of the picture is Manvers Street and the warehouses top left are still there, albeit minus a storey.

In 1923, the Prince of Wales (and future King Edward VII) visited, greeted by lines of cheering Boot’s employees.

Prior to the establishment of manufacturing on the site it had been used by locals to graze animals, and was traversed by the River Leen – culverted with the building of the Poplar Arm of the nottingham canal in 1793.

The canal attracted businesses – independent lace traders at first – and around 1886 Jesse Boot made the decision to shift production of pharmaceuticals there. He bought up properties as they came on the market and by 1912 owned a considerable portion of the site.

Now the space is largely derelict and is populated by masses of buddleia thicket; sporadic identikit business park buildings; and the gutted shells of those aformentioned warehouses, spectres of an altogether more productive time for British capitalism and appealing fetishes for ruins porn fanatics, the ‘disasterbators’ whose idea of a time after capitalism is also a time after people.

Former Great Northern Railway warehouse. Pic: Toby Price

In an economy that talks the language of flux, dynamism and growth, then, The Island remains stubbornly stagnant: the ghostly scar of an industrial past caught strangely out of time. On the surface, little has happened there in the 22 years since Boots’ closed their operations and now one of Britain’s ‘core cities’ is left with an unproductive blot just a mile from the city centre. The Island is a wasteland.

But what does it mean to say that a space is a ‘wasteland’? From whose perspective is it going to waste? Or, more accurately, ‘from what perspective is this land going to waste?’. The answer – I want to suggest – is capital’s.  A wasteland does not lend itself to the production of (enough) surplus value, either materially (in the form of things) or immaterially (in the form of ideas, creativity, affects). It is, therefore, land going to waste (the origins of the term ‘wasteland’ can actually be traced back to feudalism: it referred to the unproductive land of a manor).

To understand why this land is currently being ‘wasted’, it’s important to look at the changes in the forms of production in British society over the last few decades. This is a change that’s ongoing, and I think has been overstated by certain commentators (on both the left and the right), but as an ongoing tendency it’s an argument that I think has a certain amount of mileage to it – and which is born out in the geographies and cityscapes of Britain today.  Anyway, the argument is that we’ve switched from a predominantly Fordist form of production in which we produce ‘things’, to a post-Fordist form of production in which we produce knowledge. The former provided near full employment but was environmentally destructive and work was horribly monotonous, with a strict division of labour and products that were more than the sum of their parts.  As Steve Wright notes, it was an approach to work that decreed ‘you are not paid to think‘. In the latter, however, that’s precisely what you are paid to do: work becomes the production of knowledge and the circulation of affects (or, perhaps, what you aren’t paid to do). For Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘the activity that produces the “cultural content” of the commodity…a series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work” – in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion…since the end of the 1970s [these activities] have become the domain of what we have come to define as “mass intellectuality”’. Here, the city – in fact the entire social terrain – replaces the factory as the site of value production. In this light, activities such as spending time on facebook constitute work (Ian Bogost’s cow clicker makes this point wonderfully), but there are some profound effects on the geographies and ecologies of meat space too.

The Island is one such space. It’s ‘wasted’ because of the failure of post-fordism to really establish itself – particularly in light of the fluctuations of global finance: not only does it not need all the people that fordism did, leaving thousands unemployed – it doesn’t need the land either (of the remaining Boots buildings, all are now employed in classic post-fordist/biopolitical ways: there’s an art gallery and studios, and a ‘bioscience business incubator‘).

Of course, there’s also the usual sorry tale of poor local governance, bickering, nepotism, competing interests and economic downturn to contend with on The Island – all of which remind us that although this space has largely been produced by the actions of the bourgeoise, they don’t act as a single homogenous class but are themselves riddled with conflict. The upshot of this is that since Boots left the site in 1990, the history of The Island is less one of ‘first as farce and then as tragedy’ – more one as ‘first as farce, then as farce. Then as farce again’.

The first plan to redevelop was announced in 1990 and was Boot’s own.  At the time, they had a property arm, and they sought to redevelop the site at a cost of £150m. According to an Evening Post article from the time, this redevelopment was going to feature ‘a hotel, luxury apartments, a series of offices, a World Trade Centre and an industrial heritage museum. About 2,500 people will eventually work on the site…If [planning] is approved, construction will start in 1992…The redevelopment includes redigging the canal for leisure use’ and its commercial hub ‘will be the World Trade Centre’. The early 90s recession put paid to that plan, however, and the site was bought by the City Council for £2m in 1992.

Boots’ proposed redevelopment. Image from the Nottingham Evening Post, November 1990
The council then put in a successful bid for regeneration funding from Michael Hesletine’s City Challenge scheme (I’ve not seen the bid, but I’ve been told it was ‘genuinely quite grassroots oriented’). In 1994, a partnership between the council and Lincoln based developer called Simons was announced.  On the 22nd March of that year, the Nottingham Evening Post wrote that ‘with the development comes an initial promise of 1,300 jobs.  And that may rise to 2,000 when the site is fully occupied in 1998-9…For St Ann’s welfare rights officer Wullie Kirkwood, the number of jobs created is the yardstick by which City Challenge must measure its success…”When it was first mooted, we thought we were going to get plenty of jobs, but they seemed to go on hold when private sector money wasn’t forthcoming. Now something seems to have been struct up to get it back on course”, he said…Councillor Jon Collins, chairman of the City Challenge board, believes the plans…will create the number of jobs claimed. “I think they are realistic predictions if you look at the balance of the development…”…John Taylor, leader of Nottingham City Council said he would judge the success of Island Street and City Challenge on his “so what” test. He explained: “If in five years we ask a youth in St. Ann’s or Sneinton about City Challenge and he says “so what” then we have failed”. He is confident the scheme will ensure that the answer is not a negative one.’

Suffice to say that the optimism of Collins and Taylor was misplaced: the development never came to fruition and at some point the land was bought by the mysterious Guernsey based Heathcote Holdings. In 2004 they announced a ‘mixed use’ redevelopment. They opened a sales office in the Hockley area of Nottingham and installed a countdown clock until work began.

It got to zero and nothing happened.

The sales office, meanwhile, was shut for a couple of years with this still emblazoned across its window:

…then as farce

Skip forwards to 2013. According to the recently released Nottingham Growth Plan, Nottingham ‘stands at the threshold of a new era in its economic history, facing opportunity and challenge in equal measure’. Acknowledging the shift away from Fordist realms of production, it states that ‘the traditional industries that made the city one of the 20th century’s truly world-renowned manufacturing centres – led by companies like Raleigh and Player’s – have been replaced by businessess in the service sector. Nearly nine out of 10 jobs in the city are now in services, a figure significantly higher than the national average’. Instead of bikes, fags and lace, Nottingham now has specialisms in ‘digital content, lifesciences and clean technology’, yet ‘does not currently make the most out its intellectual capital.

The council seeks to address this in a document entitled Connected, Creative, Competetive, which outlines the development of a ‘Creative Quarter’ for Nottingham, using money obtained from the government’s City Deal fund (a re-enactment of City Challenge with Eric Pickles as Michael Hesletine). Tellingly, the document boasts that Nottingham can offer ‘[s]alary savings…up to 7% on the national average’, and quotes Vince Cable saying that ‘Nottingham is clearly a place for innovative businesses and individuals to thrive.’ With this, he implicitly labels a divide that will re-occur repeatedly below: what about those who aren’t innovative? And what about communities?

Create! Generate content!

Geographically, the Creative Quarter encompasses the south-eastern section of Nottingham city centre (Hockley, the Lace Market, Sneinton Market and the Island site). The development will ‘encompass a wide ranging economic stimulus package to support the creation and growth of businesses, the retention and maximisation of talent, property occupancy and consumer spend.’ The Creative Quarter – an ‘incubator without walls‘ [!] – will create a unique enterprise environment to lead the development of Nottingham’s new economy and as an emblem of our long term aspirations for the city.’ Elsewhere, Eric Pickles has announced it will offer businesses ‘new freedoms and powers‘, and what this means becomes horribly clear when the Creative Quarter’s Chairman states that the Creative Quarter board is there to ‘sort it out’ if ‘politics gets in the way’.

Not that politics seems to want to get in the way: Jon Collins (now City Council Leader) claims that the Creative Quarter ‘is a significant step forward and a bold statement that Nottingham is prepared to think differently to effect change’. It is a deal that ‘provides a platform for the next generation of Nottingham entrepreneurs to carve out their future, create opportunity and jobs, and lead Nottingham to an exciting new future.’ The City Council also claim that the Creative Quarter could create ‘up to 10,000 jobs’ (‘could’ and ‘up to’ being the operative words here – though it’s certainly created one already – a ‘Chief Operations Officer’ for the Creative Quarter at £50,000 a year).

Now I’m not sure when (or by whom) it was decided that ‘creativity’ was the long term aspiration for the city (and, incidentally, I’ve recently noticed a rise in local bars and events branding themselves as for ‘like-minded creatives’. What if one isn’t ‘a creative’, or ‘like-minded’?); and quite what these ‘aspirations’ mean for those who don’t fit the bill remains to be seen. It looks ominous, though: the ‘detailed summary of the Nottingham City Deal’ states that it seeks to generate ‘new entrants that displace incumbents, forcing out those who are unable to compete. This is a feature of high-performing economies.’

These incumbents can clearly go to hell, though – and the City Council has been very pleased with itself for the Creative Quarter, particularly since the Vice-President of the European Commission Antonio Tajani announced that it would serve as a model for the ‘third industrial revolution’. But this is ridiculous PR guff that’s all-too-easily swallowed-up by a gullible local press – the Creative Quarter is actually a rather tenth-rate application of American sociologist Richard Florida’s work. Writing in the boom years of the early naughties, Florida argued that to survive in a post-Fordist climate cities needed to shift their emphasis to ‘creativity’, looking to attract the ‘high bohemian’ creative class, which consists of technology workers, artists, musicians and – I kid you not – lesbians and gay men. Thus, cities should offer tax breaks, incentives to those looking to start up ‘creative businesses’ and make some low level infrastructural changes in order to attract ‘the right kind of people’.

Far from Nottingham being a pioneer in this field, Florida’s ideas have been implemented in numerous cities across the globe as they try to come to terms with the fact that capitalism doesn’t need their workers or their land anymore. The London Development Authority tried something almost identical back in 2003 after it cottoned on to how a burgeoning arts scene in Shoreditch resulted in a sudden ‘regeneration’ a few years earlier, and numerous British cities have ‘creative quarters’ (hey, even Hebden Bridge has one!).

If it’s a little unfair of me to gripe at the lack of originality of the council, it’s certainly of vital importance to ask what happens to ‘the wrong kind of people’: those who aren’t ‘like-minded’ or ‘creative’. As Joel Kotkin at The Daily Beast notes, Richard Florida himself offers some answers, admitting ‘what his critics, including myself, have said for a decade: that the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members—and do little to make anyone else any better off. The rewards of the “creative class” strategy, he notes, “flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers,” since the wage increases that blue-collar and lower-skilled workers see “disappear when their higher housing costs are taken into account.” His reasonable and fairly brave, if belated, takeaway: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”’

The article’s well-worth reading in full, as is this Mute editorial by David Panos, which notes that in London the ‘actual effect has been to escalate property prices out of the reach of all but a privileged minority, and drive up the overall cost of living.’ With increasingly vicious attacks on social security and welfare since then, the effects of promoting creativity today could be even more damaging.

Which isn’t to say that such programmes are particularly good for all these ‘creatives’ either. At least not for all of them. Richard Florida might claim that they constitute a ‘class’ (his old tutor David Harvey would no doubt be quite dismayed by such a claim), but the truth (which he half acknowledges) is that there’s an enormous difference between the artist eking out a living as an artist in the face of massive cuts and the advertising executive or bioscientist. Indeed, as a number of people have pointed out, the artist surviving on part-time work and occasional grants provides a model for the ideal worker for contemporary capital: they’re naturally critical, used to making the best out of a bad situation, don’t draw a steady wage and have to creatively create their own solutions to a lack of infrastructural and budgeting problems. The artist’s role in the Creative Quarter, then, is to take part in what Hardt and Negri would term ‘affective labour’: to work across the ‘social terrain’ to produce ‘feelings’ and ‘affects’ that generate value for capital. Or we might call it ‘biopolitical production’: they ‘produce’ a lifeworld – a vibrant, cool, ‘happening’ social terrain. In other words, they make a place seem ‘creative’ by doing what they do – putting on shows in DIY spaces, organising talks, etc etc (and it’s worth noting – contra much of the rhetoric of the Creative Quarter – that this stuff has been going on for years in Nottingham). But of course this isn’t recognised as ‘work’ as such, and so they’re poorly remunerated for it. The surplus value their work generates goes to estate agents, landlords and the companies who take advantage of an area’s atmosphere of ‘creativity’. And you don’t  have to be a marxist to see this – a flyer for the creative quarter lays bare this class dynamic by talking separately of the creative people who ‘make the city’ and the ‘captains of industry’. In other words, the people who do the work and those who reap the rewards.

One of the driving forces behind the Creative Quarter is BioCity – a ‘BioScience Business Incubator’, and an interview with their Director (and Creative Quarter committee member) Toby Reid in Nottingham’s culture magazine Left Lion offered a rare glimpse behind the ideological curtain.  “What’s the catch?”, Reid is asked. One has to admire his honesty, but the answer really is staggering:

‘The downside is – if all of this is successful – is that in the long term rents might go up and the creatives will be forced out to cheaper areas. But if that means somewhere like Sneinton suddenly has a creative community that does interesting things that attracts attention, surely that’s better than what we have at the moment.’

What we have in Sneinton at the moment, of course, is a lot of pretty poor people: many of whom are black, Asian or from Eastern Europe, as well as a lot of ‘creatives’ who already find wherever it is we’re supposed to live too expensive (me, for one, I suppose – though I rather like Sneinton as it is, thanks). Now I don’t want to suggest for a minute that Reid explicitly thinks that creative people are better than these increasingly unproductive and expendable groups (though of course they’re still needed to clean up for the creatives, to build the buildings for the creatives, to service the telecommunications of the creatives…), but that’s precisely the point – this language of ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ quite simply doesn’t think about them at all. Benedict Seymour’s scathing essay ‘Shoreditch and the Creative Destruction of the Inner City‘ is pretty spot-on here:

‘If one abandons the quaint notion that regeneration’s real aim is to produce a mixed and balanced community with ‘social housing’ and (‘good’) jobs etc, then it doesn’t seem so perverse and ineffectual after all…Increased social polarisation and the (re)imposition of work through intensified economic pressure combined with private capital’s pillaging of former public resources (as well as existing communities, bodies, knowledges, etc) in a desperate scramble to suck up every last drop of surplus value from increasingly unproductive first world cities. Regeneration is not so much the rebirth of the dormant industrial city but its undeath, bled dry by a vampiric regime of inflation and austerity.’

The Creative Quarter, then, is post-fordist capitalism spatialized. It’s a vampiric appendage to already-existing creativity and an expansion of inequality. It shows a staggering disregard for most of the city’s population.

For a common creativity

Quite where The Island fits into all of this isn’t entirely clear, and I’ve been told that its owners Heathcote Holdings aren’t particularly keen on BioCity’s plans to expand onto the site (I can’t vouch for the reliability of that claim, though) – emphasizing, as ever, that the bourgeoisie aren’t a homogenous class. Whilst the consequences of a ‘successful’ Creative Quarter would, I believe, be bad for the city of Nottingham, it’s far more likely that the project will join the rather sorry list of failed developments I detailed in Part 1. The wasteland, it seems, is destined to go to waste for longer.

Yet to claim that the wasteland will continue to be wasted is to stick with a top-down view that ascribes capital agency in the production of urban space and little else. I’ve already hinted how artists establish autonomous, DIY communities regardless of capitalism’s attempts to generate ‘quarters’; and that capitalism is parasitic upon these commons (here I’m invoking Tronti’s ‘copernican revolution’ of traditional marxist understandings of the relationship between capital and labour, and the Midnight Notes Collectives’ work on capitalism’s ongoing ‘enclosure’ of the commons) – and when you look at how The Island site is used (that is, how it is not simply going ‘to waste’) one can already see the fabric of a commons in the heart of Nottingham. The Island may be privately owned, but it is commonly used.

Julian Hughes – Image from ‘The Island Site’
Back in 2007, the Nottingham photographer Julian Hughes drew attention to this with a  project entitled The Island Site, which documented people who traverse or use the space – a group which, he notes, includes ‘dog walkers, botanists and drunks.’ We might also consider the ways in which flora and fauna treat The Island – as they treat anywhere – as a commons, and Hughes also organised a walk around the site with a botanist. Buddleia, bee orchids and elderberry trees don’t respect private property rights, of course.

Wasteland Rounders. Picture: Julian Hughes

Our work as part of Wasteland Twinning has also sought to amplify the ‘common’ nature of the land and its potential for common, recreational use. Our Wasteland Rounders Tournament took place there and utilised materials we’d collected on site – buddleia wood for bats, elderberry and buddleia leaves for bib dies, and we’ve hosted a series of discussions at Nottingham Contemporary that have considered how the space and could be has been used. Though relatively modest, these all point to what could be achieved for The Island. It’s such a wonderful, rich space that’s begging to be put to the common use for the city. Had any of the proposed redevelopments occurred, it would simply be another space for the extraction of surplus value by capital. The failure isn’t that they haven’t occurred, it’s that we still have capitalism.

So when people ask me what I would like to see on The Island, I can’t really answer. The question isn’t so much ‘what I would like to see’, as ‘how I would like it to be owned’: it’s not so much ‘what do you want there?’ as ‘why can’t it be something better?’. The crux of the matter is that the Island might be part of a social commons in Nottingham but it’s not legally common land. The commons exists – to put a quote from Colin Ward to new use – as ‘seeds beneath the snow‘: the task must be to encourage those seeds to grow. Only if we have common ownership can we release the potential of all – creative, innovative or otherwise. Why an ‘incubator without walls’ and not a common factory in which all take turns at the 3-D printer to make what they need, or where they can attend workshops on repairing bicycles? Why a ‘mixed use quarter’ and not common permaculture allotments in which all can grow vegetables, or an autonomous social centre?  And of course we shouldn’t be too flippant – perhaps some of the work at BioCity might help cure cancer. But imagine if that were free of patent: how many lives could the commons save then?

But we also have to beware the dangers of the commons. As David Eden notes, creating new social commons without the common ownership of land can be dangerous for precisely the reasons outlined above: capitalism is parasitic upon them. We (as Wasteland Twinning Nottingham, as artists, as ‘creatives’) can protest this all we like, but capital doesn’t really care and ultimately the content of what we do is irrelevant, just so long as we’re ‘creating’. (Nils Norman has offered some interesting thoughts on how artists can resist regeneration through ‘de-gentrification’, though I think the discussion on the issue at the end is illuminating too, not least because he calls Richard Florida ‘Darth Vader’). So I do worry that in amplifying the commons we help to enclose it; and I do worry that as artists we function as ‘the shock troops of gentrification’, to quote Ben Seymour. What I think this means is that our protestations must be as loud as our creativity; our critical content needs to function more profoundly than the social affects of creativity we produce. I don’t agree with Jodi Dean’s Leninism, but I do agree with her that the term ‘communism‘ should be used to name the incompatibility between the commons we’re for and the enclosure we’re against.

So in that spirit I’ll finish by saying that we don’t need creative quarters. We don’t need a division between ‘the creative class’ and a seemingly expendable surplus population. With Full Communism comes Full Creativity, and until then a lot more than just the Island will go to waste.