I was first invited over to Derry-Londonderry in 2012 to advice on the build up to their City of Culture 2013 year. A city this small (population 150,000) had been brave in bidding to become the UK’s first City of Culture (and the choice of Derry had been equally brave by the panel of judges) and in 2012 Derry was still a way from having everything in place and was clearly ambitious to deliver a special year for its residents, the wider area and for the national and international visitors who would be attracted by the concept of City of Culture. Am sure it’s the same for everyone, but on my first visit I was struck by how welcoming Derry folk are and intrigued by the myriad layers of history including the history of conflict that I had grown up watching on the news. There were still issues. Shortly before my first visit a letter bomb had damaged the Culture Company offices and forced them out to another location. There were forces at work still hell bent on making life difficult.
The City of Culture got the creative community talking, its ambition became infectious, abandoned and once bombed buildings were seen as opportunities. People talked of a renaissance of the shirt making industry (Derry once led the world in shirt making with 18,000 employed in production) and opened pop up exhibitions and artistic interpretations in the grand old shirt factories.
2013 was an unqualified success with more than 400 events delivering in excess of 1 million audience. It played host to some of the largest national events including the Turner Prize and Radio One Big Weekend. It contributed £130m investment in capital infrastructure and £20m in cultural programming. A survey of external perceptions of Derry~Lononderry showed strong agreement that the City of Culture 2013 had improved Northern Ireland’s reputation as a tourist destination. Bingo!
Returning in November 2014 I met up with the team who had worked so hard to make 2013 such a resounding success and found the city in rude health and the team energised and confidently building a real legacy. The city was looking magnificent, spotless and my run across the Peace Bridge, through Ebrington Square and along the new riverside walkways as first light lit up an eerily flat River Foyle was so uplifting that I am planning to come back and run to the beaches next time (maybe the Derry Marathon in May?)
The city was hosting its First Fashion Festival and I visited the brand new Fashion Hub that had just opened in a long term abandoned historic building. The Derry Fashion Hub is a wonderfully though out facility that is exactly what our town centres need. A space for young designers to work, be mentored and be able to access the kind of machinery and facilities (not to say visibility) that they could not hope to own in their studios. It’s a place to swap ideas and feel part of an industry rather than that lonely and often debilitating situation of working in isolation as so many young designers have to. The Fashion Hub and its incubator units is the perfect stepping stone from design education into starting a business and is just one of the wonderful legacies that City of Culture 2013 bequeathed to the good folk of Derry.
The future is not going to be easy with the increasing squeeze on public finances and the EU monies are not flowing as freely (but the EU has been a real help in aiding regeneration in places like Derry that with its recent “troubles” is so deserving of outside help) but it is clear that Derry has a group of leaders and a population who know now that they can deliver and have developed and are developing skills that will ensure an ever brighter future.
I urge you all to go and experience a city with a fascinating history and a very bright future.