Local Futures: Accelerator Insights #1

Rachel Smith
6 min readFeb 1, 2022

This is the first of four blogs sharing insights from our involvement in the Julie’s Bicycle’s Accelerator Programme, exploring the role of neighbourhood festivals, celebrations and gatherings in bringing about more regenerative futures for the places we call home.

Local Futures

We joined the Accelerator Programme as a cohort of three partners (Barbican, Artillery and London Borough of Waltham Forest), brought together through our long standing collaboration on community powered festival, Walthamstow Garden Party.

Femi Kuti playing at Walthamstow Garden Party in 2018
Artist Del Taylor leading a parade at Walthamstow Garden Party 2019

When we began the programme in early 2020, we were in the thick of planning our 7th festival due to take place in July 2020. Our Accelerator enquiry was structured around the idea of “Local Futures” and our aim was to create more space and time to explore the regenerative potential of local, place based approaches to festivals for both people and planet.

‘Festivals are not audience engagement strategies. They are critical acts of community building and can be an extraordinarily emotional platform.’
Anna Reece, The Relationship Is The Project

With Walthamstow Garden Party , we started to develop a hyper local, community-powered, place-based approach to producing a large scale, green field festival. In 2019, 72% of the programme was local, creating a platform for 2873 performers & participants and 178 local organisations to share their work with an audience of 34,989 people over the weekend.

“When you get to adulthood you just think ‘I couldn’t go and do that — I’m not a dancer’, but what’s so great about this project is the way it says to everyone — us and people watching, that anyone can do this. I really hope that more projects like this happen and people who aren’t ‘dancers’ get the chance to explore dancing in all its forms.”
Participant, MovE17 on New From Nowhere Stage, Walthamstow Garden Party 2018

Visual mapping different local organisations involved in each area of the festival
2019 line-up featuring 174 local organisations alongside 8 international bands all billed in alphabetical order

In 2019 London Borough of Waltham Forest, became London’s first ever Borough of Culture, and at the same time declared a climate emergency. That year, as part of our sustainability commitments for the festival, we commissioned a full local and global impact assessment and carbon analysis report. We knew anecdotally that working in a more hyper local way was more environmentally sustainable, but working with A Greener Festival helped us gather concrete data to start measuring this. You can read a bit more about the festival’s sustainability initiatives in this blog by Producer Lara Deffense

BUT we knew we wanted to go further. We believed in the potential of collective experiences to inspire behavioural shifts, and we wanted to delve deeper into how festivals might play a role in bringing people together to co-create tangible, interactive experiences of the future they want for the places they care about … so that they could be seen, felt, tasted, heard, experienced by their family, friends and neighbours.

“Festivals, with their creativity, entrepreneurship and temporary nature, can themselves serve as the living lab for innovation and experimentation. Within a very tight timescale, they must provide all basic needs including sanitation, food, shelter, waste disposal and more. The festival scale is ideal for providing the insights needed to further research, experiment, and improve the most promising circular interventions”
Harald Friedl CEO at Circle Economy

We also wanted to spend time thinking about the co-design process behind how and why festivals are made, interrogating more deeply who we were excluding, who was benefiting, and creating more space to be more honest about some of the degenerative outcomes and inequalities which are integrally part of most large scale festival models.

QUESTIONS:

What would a genuinely regenerative approach to creating a neighbourhood festival look like?

What unique role might community festivals, celebrations and gatherings play, in bringing about more regenerative futures for the places we call home?

Lock-down cancellations

In march 2020 a few months after beginning our Accelerator journey and with the country in lock-down, we were sadly forced to cancel the 2020 festival. Instead we readjusted and reimagined a responsive programme, delivering Walthamstow Garden Party “In The Air” (a mix of radio content, play packs for families and creative resources for people to do from their homes).

Article announcing cancellation of WGP 2020 in local paper The East London Guardian

Quite quickly in the Autumn we took a further decision not to go ahead with planning for a festival in 2021. With so many unknowns and so much risk associated with large scale gatherings, we wanted to protect our limited resources and time from the chaos of cancellations, lock-downs, changing rules and regulations, which were out of our control.

So amidst the gloom of cancellations, we were gifted a rare chance to dive more deeply into our thinking without the immediate pressure of making the festival happen.

In this series of blogs we’re going to try and share some of this journey … a journey into positive confusion, nurturing new skills and capabilities, and creating space for new ways of being, doing and working together to emerge.

Read the other blogs in this series here:

Local Futures: Accelerator Insights #1
Positive Confusion: Accelerator Insights #2
Regenerative Design: Accelerator Insights #3
New Possibilities: Accelerator Insights #4

Links and further reading:

Walthamstow Garden Party ran between 2014 and 2019. It was East London’s biggest “Community Powered Festival” made by local creatives in partnerships with Barbican, supported by London Borough of Waltham Forest and Arts Council England

Artillery Artillery is an arts development organisation based in Walthamstow, North East London, established by the creative team behind the E17 Art Trail.

Julie’s Bicycle are a not-for-profit mobilising the arts and culture sector to take action on the climate and ecological crisis.

The Accelerator Programme is a key strand of the Arts Council England Environmental Programme, working with two cohorts of up to ten organisations to advance their sustainable practice and share insights with the wider sector.

A Greener Festival (AGF)is a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving sustainability of events, tours, venues, festivals and all live sector contributors

Vision: 2025 is a growing network of over 500 outdoor events and businesses taking climate action to work towards net zero by 2025.

Waltham Forest is a London borough in north-east London, in 2019 they were London’s first Borough of Culture.

Barbican is an Arts Centre in central London hosting music, theatre, dance, film, visual arts as well as home to a public library and conservatory.

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Rachel Smith

Exploring the power of making and creativity to rekindle social and nature connectedness and spark change. Currently Creative Producer at Make/Shift