With history dating back to the 5th century, this creative UK city has continued to reinvent itself, becoming the metropolitan area that it is today. With a spirit that captures the essence of the UK, the city is the largest financial and legal center in the country, after London, and is home to over 30 national and international banks. The post-industrial vibe runs deep through its veins—the third biggest manufacturing center nationally—and holds a large public and retail sector consisting of five miles of shopping streets. Through vibrant and diverse commerce, a £62.5 billion economy has been fostered by one of the country’s leading and fastest-growing cities: Leeds.
In its ‘Investing in UK Core Cities’ report, global law firm DLA Piper states that the city of Leeds “is well-connected nationally and internationally, with journey times to London at just over two hours by rail, and Leeds Bradford International Airport connecting it to numerous destinations across Europe.” This connectivity has helped develop the city’s identity.
Leed’s population has reached three million, of which 1.37 million comprise the working force. According to the Leeds City Council, the finance and legal system accounts for 38% of total output. Other dominant sectors are manufacturing, construction, retail and digital industries.
“Leeds has one of the most diverse economies of all the UK’s main employment centers and has seen the fastest rate of private sector jobs growth of any UK city and has the highest ratio of public to private sector jobs of all the UK’s Core Cities,” the Leeds City council adds. “The city [of Leeds] has the third largest jobs total by local authority areas with 480,000 in employment and self-employment at the beginning of 2015.”
“Productivity, measured in terms of GVA per full-time-equivalent employee, is estimated at £50,207 per annum, higher than all the Core Cities, except Bristol and Glasgow. Productivity in manufacturing is forecasted to increase by 13% and in the construction sector by 39%,” the Council adds.
Private and small businesses have also marked their economic territory, employing over half of the city’s workforce in over 32,000 businesses and 6,000 small to medium-sized enterprises. This varied economy has attracted £4 billion worth of investments during the past ten years, with over £5.8 billion in the pipeline, the Council suggests. The tech scene has also witnessed a rise in activity during the past few years.
“Over 1,350 digital companies are based in Leeds with a combined workforce of around 10,000. The city has the highest number of ‘scale up’ digital companies outside the South East, and workers in the sector in Leeds are amongst the highest paid in the UK,” the Council says.
But not everything Leeds offers is manufactured. The city and its reputable art school have bestowed upon the country—and world—famous artists and sculptors such as Henry Moore, Jacob Kramer, Kenneth Armitage, Edward Wadsworth and John Atkinson Grimshaw. Since 1839, the city has held art exhibitions, with the first official municipal art gallery opening its doors in 1888. Annually, the city accommodates the West Indian Carnival and the Light Night, attracting thousands of visitors. The city also holds 9 culture venues, museums and galleries: Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds Discovery Center, Leeds City Museum, Leeds Industrial Museum at Armely Mills, Lotherton Hall, Temple Newsam and Thwaite Mills Watermill.
The city has some eight colleges, including University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds Trinity University, Leeds College of Art, University of Law, Leeds City College, among others. The schools attract over 200,000 national and international students, leading to lively culture and nightlife.
Walking Tour: A Post-Industrial City Reclaimed
In order to create a clear vision of the city’s identity, a PhD researcher at University of Leeds, Samuel Stockley, took us on a walking tour through its center, streets, alleys and bridges. Stockley founded a Masters course that focuses on the culture of entrepreneurship and the relationship between creative working, regeneration and urbanization.
“At a time when Google Maps street view can take you on a virtual tour of national parks half a world away, and mobile phones double up as navigation systems, it is hard, I think, to imagine that there is an uncharted land, brand new places, new interpretations of places or new geographical meanings to uncover,” Stockley read to us as we began the tour.
“In a hyper-mobile world, a love of place can easily be cast as passé, even reactionary. But many of those, who are researching people and their places today, subscribe to the notion that communities find their commonality in online internet spaces rather than terra firma; wanting to explore actual spaces can perhaps feel like a step backwards and nostalgic progression,” the researcher adds.
As we explore the city, Stockley describes it “as a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human.” As we pass the Opera House, Stockley mentions how the Opera is working with schools and universities to attract a younger audience. The local nightlife, currently, is dominated by bars that promote various events & performances.
In the northern quarter of the city, a great deal of development to make it less “hostile” is being witnessed. Passing by upscale houses and bars, one can easily notice how every part of the city has its own identity, while maintaining an overall harmonious spirit.
Walking by the tech hack spaces, Stockley suggests that, despite having a big reach on social media platforms, tech companies still struggle to create a presence on the street. The area, however, holds creative industries of all sectors, as it forms a throughway for the city’s cultural and creative scene, with lots of art studios and makers’ spaces, as well as tech-art collaborations.
The Culture of Creativity in Leeds
Open Data Institute (ODI) Node is one of the pioneering co-working spaces located in the city’s center. It’s aim—to encourage locals to use and rely on open data for innovation while having a working environment that promotes and encourages creativity. The idea started in November 2013, but it wasn’t until May 2014 that it became a reality.
“Before the ODI came about, there were conversations on how the city can take advantage of the technologies that are available, and how does a city deal with data and internet,” one of the founders of ODI Paul Connell says. “How do you meet the requirements of a city, and in many cases these requirements are increasing?”
Stating that ongoing conversations led to the idea of ODI, Connell highlighted that creating a physical space that combines the available data of a city, technology platforms, and calls for the collaboration of the public was the answer to the previous questions. With a grant, the council joined as a partner, and the project was kick-started with collaborations from tech companies and the Leeds University. Connell stated that with the existence of ODI, the public can identify how “public resources can be put to better use and work together better.”
“For the private sector, they want to learn new ways of selling their services,” Connell continues, adding that the university’s interest in the place is researched-based. “They came to us and said that they we doing some research on co-creation, which is what we are doing.”
Simon Brereton, acting head of Economic Policy and Sector Development at Leeds City Council, says that the council has a need to make data open (to the public), which is why it partnered with ODI.
“There is a requirement for us from the government to publish data, and then there is a will to try and publish because we hope solutions will be found from it. We [also] get freedom of information requests, many of which are included in the available data,” Brereton says. The council official adds: “There is hope that by putting data out and encouraging things like ODI to exist, solutions will appear,” Brereton adds, stressing that by supporting ODI, governmental bodies can have a place in which they can have an open dialogue with the public.
Leeds City Labs is also a project ODI is involved in, with Paul Chatterton, along with other various partners. The project led to a “big partnership across the city to try out a model for co-production.” Chatterton, a professor at the University of Leeds, has an interest in “how cities can unlock the potential for change.” This interest led him to become involved in building housing projects made from straw in Leeds. Some of his previous projects also include creating Leeds Community Homes , a project that aims to buy land and raise money from citizens and invest in community housing.
“We got partners from different sectors, and we all met here to explore what co-production means in practice from co-working to co-creation and co-delivery,” Chatterton says. “It is basically about a desire for people to work together and collaborate. ODI is the perfect place for that because if you look at the aesthetics of the place, you walk in and it doesn’t have that institutional feeling. This is what City Labs is all about, creating an approach for different forms of working and creating better solutions for cities.”
Together with ODI, City Labs is working with a technician to create a city map where any citizen can get together with other people in the neighborhood and know more about this neighborhood. The map will highlight publicly-owned properties and land.
The business model of ODI is based on running events, hackathons, general and specific data projects that generate various sources of revenue. The events include talks by government official on accessibility and diversity. Connell states that if the space just ran on co-working (profits), then there might not be enough space to do the innovation.
A space that is occupied with businesses, however, is Duke Studios. With a hipster vibe and a welcoming café, Duke Studios has become one of the city’s leading co-working spaces for animators, web developers, designer makers, interior designers, retail designers, photographers, film makers, architects, graphic designers, illustrators, and many more. The space was founded by Laura Wellington and James Abbott Donnelly in 2011 with two goals in mind.
“First, to build an inspiring, exciting and inclusive co-working space in which creative individuals across different sectors could work. Second, to turn this space into a creative hub in order to facilitate knowledge exchange, encourage networking and spark collaboration on joint projects with the aim of nurturing talent and watching it grow,” the company says on its website.
Not wanting to leave their home for a more creative scene elsewhere, Donnelly and Wellington received financial support from their friends and families after banks and other lending institutions refused to provide them with the necessary funding. They had a desire to “make something happen in Leeds.” The founders wanted to take their passion for photography and interior design to the next level. Looking at studios at the time, they either found something in the middle of the red light district in Holbeck or high-end expensive studios that they simply couldn’t afford.
“We needed that bit that was in between but it didn’t exist,” Donnelly says. Wellington adds that although they knew that “the [artistic] people were here and the talent was here [in Leeds], the city didn’t know, and there was no information on who to go to for what.”
After launching their first space, Duke Studios created a buzz in the area which led to higher rental rates. Wanting to continue growing their business, the company headed to a new location that was twice the size of the previous one and was able to develop, from having only 28 co-working companies, to 65. Wellington adds that the space was not just for the residents, but it held events to help represent the whole city.
The presence of Duke Studios changed the creative scene in the city, pushing officials to accept a new model of business and spaces that were proving to be a success. The experience with Duke Studios educated the council and kicked-off a need for change, while banks and funding groups started welcoming the new businesses.
Since Duke Studio explored studio spaces in Holbeck, the area witnessed drastic change. This change was a result of the Holbeck Urban Village redevelopment project and Round Foundary Media Centre and Marshalls Mill. The office space has turned the area into a dynamic and creative community. Paul Taylor, co-founder and director of Creative Space Management—the company which runs the Round Foundry—said that the space was created to welcome people and be open instead of sheltered and protected. However, the area redevelopment led some business to relocate, an issue which resulted in disputes.
“The community of Holbeck felt that this [redevelopment] was not for them,” Taylor says. “But equally it did involve quite a lot of private sector money and not that much public sector money, and if this development hadn’t happened, we would not have seen development like green house and things like that, so I think that with that community there is a slight caution.”
The Future of the Leading City
Michael Canning and Dan Kudla from the Economic Development Team, on behalf of the Creative Leeds Group and Leeds City Council, conducted a report in 2011 examined the economic impact of the creative sector for the Leeds economy. At the time, the research found that around 3,400 creative businesses in Leeds existed with a total of 7,330 registered employees.
“The companies and partnerships responses occupied a very broad range of turnovers, ranging from below £10,000 per annum, all the way up to £10 million or over. Most turned over less than £200,000 per year, with particularly large numbers turning over either less than £10,000,” the report read.
“I think that in five years everyone will be surprised by Leeds and wonder where did all that [creativity] come from,” Wellington says. During the past ten years, the city’s economy has grown by 37%. This flourishing economy is expected to continue over the coming decade. The city’s Council states that the economy is forecasted to grow by 25%, with financial and business services set to generate over half of GVA growth over that period.
A report written by Paul Swinney and released by the Council, “Core Strength: Supporting the growth of Leeds City Centre”, suggests that—in order for the city to continue its growth—“policy should continue to foster the benefits of agglomeration that businesses based in central Leeds profit from.”
“This includes permitting the development of office space to meet the future demands of business, improving the skills of residents to allow them to access the jobs created in the city center and improving transport links to link workers to jobs and businesses to other businesses,” Swinney continues.
The #CreativeCitiesUK Editorial Project was made possible with the support of: