Multi-Story Water is a community-focused arts research project, celebrating the waterways in the Shipley area – the River Aire, Bradford Beck, and the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. It explores local people’s connections with the water environment — the pleasures water brings, the memories it holds, the risks it poses, and our responsibilities for it. A range of issues from flooding to local heritage have been explored through conversations with and among local communities, and then translated into creative forms including theatre, film, visual art, walking tours, etc., in order to share our findings locally in a kind of continuing ‘feedback loop’.
The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), in two main stages:
1. Multi-Story Water (2012-13) This initial, one-year project involved surveying local residents, by going door to door in residential areas close to the River Aire. Further research work included consulting archives, and talking with representatives from local clubs, businesses, and government bodies. The major public outcome of this work was the development of a 3-part, site-specific performance tour of the area (see Performances tab on menu bar), which bore the same title as the overall project . First presented in September 2012, these tours were revived and updated in July 2013 – with a slightly different cast, and in very different weather conditions!
Related activities in 2012-13 included: hosting a community party on the Higher Coach Road estate (September 2012); working with students from Shipley College on a 3-D digital imaging project (2012-13), and working with Kirkgate Community Centre to present Shipley River Day (July 2013). We made a short film, Wading to Shipley, and worked with Bradford Council to create Blue Mirror – a performance with primary school children about Bradford Beck, staged at the city centre’s Mirror Pool to mark the opening of a Europe-wide conference about Flood Resilient Cities. A full, printed report on the initial, 2012-13 research project can be accessed here.
In 2014, we began a new phase of the project, with our activities in Shipley and the Aire valley becoming one of four ‘case study’ areas in a wider AHRC initiative called “Towards Hydro-Citizenship” (which also has teams working in Bristol, London, and mid-Wales). The longer time-frame of this project enabled us to attempt extended engagement with certain communities. In Shipley we have partnered with Kirkgate Centre (a voluntary-sector organisation with Council-mandated responsibility for community development work in the vicinity) in working closely with several neighbourhoods.
We have been particularly active in the Higher Coach Road area, where we have built on work previously initiated during the 2012-13 project. We have mounted a number of events such as our Meadow Meander (2015) and Welcome to Our Airedale Home (2016), and conversations with residents have led, in part, to the establishment of the Higher Coach Road Residents Group, which now actively advocates for this distinctive riverside community.
Engagement with the Dockfield area — sandwiched between the river and canal, to the east of Bradford Beck — also began in 2015 but was then hampered by a series of personal and logistical issues (including Kirkgate having its mandate for this area taken away by Bradford Council… don’t ask). But we’ve built up lots of knowledge about the area, and some good relationships with residents, which we’re developing this year (2017) with events such as our new play This Island’s Mine.
We’ve also engaged extensively with residents in Crosley Wood, a canalside estate consisting of three concrete tower blocks just to the west of Shipley, in Bingley. Unfortunately, the day-to-day housing difficulties faced by residents here are so pronounced that it has proved difficult to engender much by way of community pride in the estate (the proximity of the canal being seen by most as the single positive thing about it). In 2016, however, we worked with one family to make High Rise Damp, a short film documenting some of the difficulties they face. As a result of this, we are now looking at developing a campaign to raise wider awareness of the unacceptable damp and mould conditions faced by many of Bradford’s social housing tenants. Living with water comes in many guises.
Throughout the duration of the project, we have also been working not only in particular neighbourhoods but also to highlight the connectedness between waterside communities in the Shipley area. Working in conjunction with larger events such as Saltaire Festival, Shipley Street Arts Festival, and World Heritage Weekend, we have made walking tour performances such as Seven Bridges (2015) and Pleasant Valley Saltaire (2015). In 2016, following the devastating floods of Boxing Day 2015, we interviewed people up and down the Shipley stretch of the River Aire to explore how they were impacted on by – and responded to – the floods. This resulted in (among other things) the storytelling performance Too Much of Water (2016), which premiered at Saltaire Festival and has since been presented all over the country in a variety of contexts.
Yet another aspect of our ongoing ‘community’ engagement has been with members of what we might call the ‘professional stakeholder’ community. We have used various methods to engage with representatives from responsible organisations such as the Environment Agency, Bradford Council, the Canal and River Trust, and Yorkshire Water, as well as with voluntary sector groups like the Aire Rivers Trust and the Friends of Bradford’s Becks. These conversations have resulted in a number of outcomes, some more public than others. We’ve found ourselves drawn downstream to Leeds quite a bit (since that is where a lot of the key players are based), and so have also made performances for the Leeds Waterfront Festival – such as After the Flood (2016), also now an exhibition film. This was an attempt to communicate to festival-goers in an entertaining and engaging way some of what we’d learned — from the ‘experts’ — about local flood risk management strategies.
Our original Multi-Story Water project began as an attempt to respond to a challenge from the Environment Agency: can site-specific arts practices be used as a means to engage people in a creative conversation around questions of river awareness and potential flood risk in their local area? Our research among Shipley people living close to the river, however, brought up a wide range of concerns around not only flooding, but water quality, wildlife diversity, flood plain management, development planning. It became clear that Shipley’s rivers and canal are thought of from a wide variety of perspectives, and also – crucially – that people tend to be much better informed about them than responsible agencies often assume. Any attempt at public engagement on “water issues”, we concluded, needs to address people’s concerns holistically — reflecting the value of different memories, experiences and concerns — rather than simply attempting to foreground single issues. So it turned out that our project title, Multi-Story Water, was even more apt than we had intended! These findings also informed the framing of the extended project in terms of “hydro-citizenship” (although we’re still deciding what that means…).
Multi-Story Water represents a collaboration between researchers in the arts and sciences. Stephen Bottoms (Professor of Contemporary Theatre at the University of Manchester) has led the project at the Shipley end, while Lindsey McEwen (Professor of Environmental Management at the University of the West of England) headed up a parallel project in the Eastville area of Bristol during 2012-13. During the Hydro-Citizenship phase of the project, Steve and Lindsey have been working with a consortium of partners based around the UK, led by Owain Jones (Professor of Environmental Humanities, Bath Spa University).
Our funders, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, are strongly committed to the idea that the arts as well as the sciences have an important role to play in both understanding and communicating the human dimensions of environmental questions. How do we feel about the landscapes and environments around us, whether built or natural? How have they changed over time, and how might they change in the future – in an era of climate change and other ‘known unknowns’? What are the opportunities as well as the risks presented by our current moment of uncertainty?
Please do get in touch with us if you’d like to share your own thoughts, reflections and memories. We would love to hear from you!
Contact us by leaving a comment on this site or by calling Steve on 07504 417323.