Creativity, climate and health: Case studies & analysis

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Six women stand on a beach in warm coats, drawing the view
Participants from The Bellwether Project on a creative field trip with artists INSTAR to Newbiggin Beach. Image credit Jason Thompson

Case studies

The following case studies were gathered as part of the Julie's Bicycle Accerlator programme in 2021 & 2022, and focus on organisations making connections between creativity and cultural engagement, the climate and environmental crisis, and health and wellbeing. Read more about the project here.

GOSH Arts

GOSH Arts is the arts programme at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Since 2019, GOSH Arts’ artistic programming has been connected with the natural world. Its procurement processes are guided by sustainable principles, from materials to the way that work is commissioned, from artists and organisations who have similar values that put the environment at the centre of their work.

Museums Northumberland bait & the Bellwether Project

Museums Northumberland bait works in partnership to support more people in South East Northumberland to create and take part in inspiring and high-quality arts experiences. At the end of 2019 we ran public consultation sessions to find out what themes people wanted to explore through two creative commissions, delivered from 2020–2022. Care for the environment came through strongly and there was an open invitation for people to join a ‘decision making group’ to shape the project.

May Project Gardens, London

May Project Gardens is an award-winning, London-based grassroots organisation. During our conversation, we discussed connecting with nature for personal, social and economic transformation, by way of a youth programme based in MPG's Hip-Hop Garden, which includes a mixture of formal and organic learning.

The Arts Programme at University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust

The Arts and Culture Programme at UHBW exists to improve the look and feel of hospital spaces, to partner with civic, cultural and academic organisations, and to provide creative wellbeing activities for staff and patients. At UHBW, the Arts and Culture team and the Sustainability team are both managed within the department of Estates and Facilities. The teams’ strategies are aligned and staff collaborate on projects of mutual interest, including supporting the Green Champions Awards (recently including an award to an anaesthetist working on better use of gases), inviting staff to contribute to nature photography projects, mindfully repurposing resources in creative design schemes, and greening the outdoor realm as part of carbon reduction and biodiversity action plans.

North Edinburgh Arts

North Edinburgh Arts (NEA) is a purpose-built cultural centre offering local residents a place to relax, explore, learn, meet, volunteer and have fun. NEA has a purpose-built venue in one of the most deprived wards in Edinburgh with a theatre space, café, studios, offices, a community cinema, a children's play area, an early-years library and a half-acre community garden play space. NEA also works to develop placemaking on brownfield sites around the wider North Edinburgh area.

Read more examples of great practice

Follow the link to our Climate Award shortlist from 2021.

Our analysis of the case studies

The work we discussed broadly breaks down into five strands

  • Thought leadership: building connections between creativity, climate and health
  • Supporting activism in others
  • Modelling and promoting sustainable practice
  • Partnership development for climate solutions
  • Creative programming that connects nature, health and wellbeing

We have broken down our analysis into two questions:

 

What is helping creative freelancers and organisations work effectively to address community health and climate justice?

Our case studies suggest that the following are key enablers:

  • Personal commitment
  • Personal networks
  • Inspiration from others
  • Risk-taking
  • Resources
  • (Public) institutional commitment
  • Partnership

 

What would make it easier for more freelancers and organisations to do this?

Our case studies suggest the following.

  • Funding
    • Peer-to-peer relationship between funders and grantees
    • Guaranteed long-term funding support
    • Funding to develop capacity (for partnerships, networks, policy influence)
    • Supporting embedded programmes (not one-off public events)
  • Thinking
    • Welcoming complexity and interconnectedness
    • Building on post-pandemic social and political goodwill
    • Better understanding of policy and rights in the third sector
  • Influence
    • Getting community arts organisations around decision-making tables
    • Removing 'false divisions' between arts and wider community sector
    • Providing more public information about what's already sustainable in cultural work
  • Structures
    • Better infrastructure for community orgs to cluster and share responsibility, resources and skills
    • Collaboration within institutions (e.g. arts and sustainability teams)

 

Breaking down our position statement

We believe that a creative, holistic approach to health in relation to community and environment will help us

  • imagine new futures
  • empower changemakers
  • demonstrate sustainable organisational practices
  • reduce demand on polluting and energy-hungry health services

(Quotes below are taken from our case study conversations)

Taking a holistic approach

Climate, health and creativity are not separate in people’s experiences. But they are separated by our funding and organisational structures.

life is [a] holistic experience … [we] draw upon multiple things in order to be human … funders compartmentalise poverty alleviation, arts etc. [At May Project Gardens] we don't see these things as compartmentalised.”

For Bait the work had arisen through organic consultative process with Bait’s “decision-makers” in southeast Northumberland, whose own artworks “visually, symbolis[ed] a link between environment within climate, culture and their personal wellbeing”.

Imagining new futures

Culture is not “other” – it is us. Museum collections, for example, “tell us a lot about the creation of our environment and human interaction with it” (geology, extraction of natural resources, remaking and reusing). Just as our (Western) culture has created climate change, so culture and creativity have the power to make new futures.

“the nature of the arts means that we can tell stories and develop narratives with our young people around climate change around ideas for the future”

"We need to be able to imagine, test and develop new ways of being and doing. New forms of culture."

Reducing demand on polluting and energy-hungry health services

A greater focus on nature and creativity is part of an asset-based, prevention-oriented approach to health, which will reduce demand on energy-hungry services. It is likely also to speed up recovery times and reduce dependence on pharmacology, both key drivers of environmental impact in health services (see evidence available here).

"Our health services are not conducive to the health of the planet [….] we work primarily in treatment rather than prevention. It is absolutely essential that the health services engage creatively with new ways of operating and become more sustainable, in every sense of the word.”

Empowering changemakers

Creativity can help develop people's confidence as activists. This is an overt aspect of May Project Gardens’ work; but is also inherent in the coproduction approach taken by GOSH Arts and bait – an approach that has led to the programmes’ environmental focus.

“it's lots of overlaying things, like a bit of a Venn diagram, where you've got a green space, …creativity and individual skills and the joyfulness of art, but also a space within a community where people feel ownership and autonomy”

“Only by creating experiences — imaginative, affective and creative experiences — can we impart knowledge and effect change”

Demonstrating sustainable organisational practices

Much of the attention in current conversations about climate and culture (at least within the cultural sector) is focused on larger organisations who are working hard to change their procurement practises, to reduce travel and consider new touring models, and to render their buildings as sustainable as possible. The organisations we spoke to here are typical of a different part of the cultural sector; they are either very small independent organisations, or small programmes embedded in larger organisations. Either way they work with limited resources. Waste is almost non-existent; these are organisations without buildings, whose travel footprint is extremely limited; they are locally led and often work with local freelancers. Again and again these organisations demonstrate a capacity to flex and innovate to accommodate social change, and have led the way in cross-sectoral, socially engaged work. They are inherently sustainable, so we believe there is merit in looking more closely at their organisational models in a future study that could provide leadership for the wider sector.  

A few notes towards this study might be that the arts programmes in the NHS are most usually funded through NHS Charities, but often receive ‘back-office’ support from the NHS itself. This relatively tiny investment in providing for example storage, office space and access to NHS co-workers makes the work possible. The independent organisations are used to adapting extremely limited resources to multiple uses. May Project Gardens is based in a council house and works with music, horticulture and activism, amongst other things. A number of initiatives have been established already by the small infrastructure organisations working in this area to support for example shared marketing for small organisations, including events like the annual Creative Lives Awards, or Creativity & Wellbeing Week. There are many more back-office services that could be shared, making the best possible use of existing buildings as civic hubs or anchors, and of existing investment into larger organisations.