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Author Amy Finch
Head of Learning and Impact
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Blue Cagoules and Golden Noses: Did the City of Culture make Hull Happier?

Spirit of 2012 was very proud to be one of the principle partners of Hull City of Culture 2017. Spirit was formed as part of the legacy of the summer of 2012: a period that brought home the transformational potential of events of all kinds, from international sports competitions to national royal anniversaries to local street parties. All were special because they brought people together and instilled a sense of pride and occasion.

People still want to tell us their stories of 2012 – not about the elite sport they saw, but about what happened in their street when the torch came through, or when an athlete came to their school. That’s why events are, or can be, powerful catalysts. They challenge us to think differently about the spaces and the people around us, and they create powerful emotional touchstones – for individuals and for the national psyche.

That’s exactly what has happened in Hull, too. A year of programming everything from fireworks to floating theatre has inspired loyalty, raised aspirations, provoked fun and brought happiness. Participation is linked to better wellbeing, and from our earliest discussions in Hull we focussed on the impact that City of Culture could – and would – have on the health and happiness of the city’s residents.

At the Cultural Transformations evaluation conference held in March 2018, the University of Hull and partners Regeneris presented their initial findings from the City of Culture year – a set of stats and stories that left delegates in no doubt that it had been a success. The report provides considerable ammunition for those lobbying local and national governments on the value of culture-led regeneration: there is something there for teachers concerned about how creative arts is taking a back seat in their schools, community activists looking to bring people from different backgrounds together around shared interests, and entrepreneurs who need to make the business case for investment.

The qualitative experience of both participants and volunteers points to the City of Culture’s significant contribution to making Hull happier, and healthier. ONS data prior to Hull’s successful bid for City of Culture showed lower than average scores across the wellbeing indicators – life satisfaction, feeling life is worthwhile, happiness and levels of anxiety. Between 2013-17 there have been improvements in all wellbeing domains, and if you compare wellbeing measures in Hull with those in Swansea, Leicester and Dundee – cities that didn’t get the City of Culture designation for 2017 – Hull residents have reported a greater increase.

Understanding this means understanding the connections between participation and happiness. Feeling part of something maps onto feeling, simply, better. It creates a sense of pride, and this has been palpable in Hull throughout the year – as evidenced in particular in the Hull volunteer programme, which was funded by Spirit. In total, 2,400 volunteers were trained, who between them completed 84,000 volunteering shifts – 337,000 volunteering hours in total. 98% of volunteers said the overall experience was good or excellent, and the same number felt proud of their contribution. What’s significant is that 9 out of 10 volunteers agreed that they felt like ‘part of the story’. Connecting people to others and to places has a direct impact on wellbeing, which helps explain why our Hull volunteers reported a mean score of 8.2 for both happiness and life satisfaction – higher than for Hull residents and indeed higher than the national average.

Little wonder, then, that outgoing Chief Executive Martin Green brandished the Cultural Transformations report and urged: “This is a weapon: use it!” Hull’s example now provides vital evidence for those seeking cultural funding. But the real strength of Hull’s commitment to evaluation over the course of the City of Culture year is the potential it offers for improving future programming. Sometimes, asking challenging questions can be the equivalent of putting a pin in a balloon: who are the 1 in 20 Hull residents who didn’t engage with the cultural offer in 2017? Does this tell us something about how the programme could have better reached out to underserved audiences? Which activities create sustainable increases in happiness, rather than temporary boosts? Did our volunteers start off happy, or did their volunteering experience make them happier?

In Hull, the commitment to evaluation means these questions, and more, need to be asked as part of a process of improving (rather than simply ‘proving’). And this work will begin now that we have the first round of findings. The data should be the starting point for deeper reflections by practitioners, project teams and directors setting strategy. It is a challenge we have set ourselves as we invest a further £600,000 over the next two years to support the Volunteering Programme established for City of Culture and now under the management of the new Absolutely Cultured company.

The Hull 2017 team have given us this starting point. The University will publish a more comprehensive report in January 2019 and we should take notice of its findings. This is not just the responsibility of Absolutely Cultured or the team picking up the mantle in Coventry, but of funders like Spirit of 2012, the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund. And if DCMS aren’t poring over it and coming up with tough questions of their own, are they missing a trick? Against a bleak national wellbeing picture – rates of depression and anxiety among young people have increased 70% in the last 25 years, lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than people with good social networks, and the NHS is struggling to cope with the demand on both physical and mental health services – rigorous analysis can help us find desperately-needed solutions.

That’s why we’ve given a further £24,000 to continue our monitoring and evaluation as part of our extended impact grant, encouraging Hull to reach new volunteers with lower wellbeing indicators. There is still plenty of work to do to embed health and wellbeing improvements on the city and beyond, and we’re already looking to integrate what we’ve learned from Hull across our other programmes. The challenge in Hull is to maintain the City of Culture’s impact now that the stardust has settled – it’s not an easy task, but we’re glad we’re still part of the picture.