Public works- (19.06.05)

Those responsible for regeneration projects often seem to spend a significant amount of money on public works of art of landmark public buildings with novel architecture rather than spending it more directly on economic development. Why is this and does it do any good?

It does appear likely that the Angel of the North played a key role in symbolising the regeneration of Gateshead. After all, the work of art itself has no utility value and Gateshead doesn't really need something that makes passers by think "I'm in Gateshead" rather than "I'm nearlly in Newcastle" but there is some evidence that this has been the effect, attracting investment that would have otherwise gone to the near neighbours across the River Tyne as a result. It would seem most likely that expenditure on something with no more than aesthetic purposes is a sign to locals and potential investors that something significant is happening in an area and that support is available through grants to make it happen. This probably works better than a large billboard with a cheesy slogan on it and is probably more aesthetically pleasing, except to real haters of modern art.

Sometimes if you are doing something novel the architecture and art surrounding it do need to be spectacular so people know its there. The Eden project in Cornwall is an example where there would probably be a fraction of the visitors to see a traditional greenhouse even with the same plants that are under spectacular glass biospheres.

So clearly there is a value in beauty to get people talking about an area and as a landmark on the map. However, I could equally have used other examples of similar landmark projects that have been less successful. One of the key requirements is probably the same as for natural beauty, that it has some element of scarcity. The less common the particular style of architecture or piece of installation art, the higher the value if the impact is likely to be. For instance, now that every region has at least two or three sea life centres with sharks swimming around the visitors, their impact on economic development is likely to be little for new sites, and of declining benefit to the existing areas regenerated with the sharks as the centrepiece.