If Tony Cooper intended to put his town on the map, he has certainly achieved it. He's the Darlington builder who employed a poet before he took on a brickie to build a whole new community. Last Sunday, cultural ministers from across the globe visited West Park, Darlington, a unique pound;150 million development of housing, hospital, pub, community centre, rugby club and school - Alderman Leach primary - based around the town's first new park for 100 years. Half the land is reclaimed from a derelict chemical works.
What sets this 120-acre development apart is that public art is at its heart. Poet WN "Bill" Herbert, sculptor David Paton and blacksmith Brian Russell have worked together with Mr Cooper, head of Bussey and Armstrong Projects, a family-run firm, to ensure that texts and sculptures exploring the ecology of the site and the history of the town are placed around the park and throughout surrounding buildings. We featured the story on May 13 last year, just before the official opening.
The West Park enterprise was a popular attraction for delegates who attended the World Summit on Arts and Culture at The Sage Gateshead last week (June 14-18). Ministers from as far away as Kenya and China were intrigued to visit a development that's held together with poetic text.
Poetic rhyming couplets adorn every street, forming a narrative of the town's past.
Education is central to the project. Inspired by West Park, New Writing North has delivered a poetry-led education programme with four Darlington schools. Tony Cooper, who feels its "payback time" for the town that raised him, wants to create an environment that will help develop in young people a curiosity about the world. Now children at Alderman Leach primary, the school Mr Cooper himself attended as a child and which he relocated to West Park, use the park for their environmental projects, such as willow weaving.
The second phase of house building is about to begin. Mr Cooper believes the hard work in combining art with development is worth it. "The place has a vibrancy about it," he says, "a good feel to it. Over time the people who live here will gain a sense of history and place."
Bill Herbert, who was also poet-in-residence at the world arts summit, says: "West Park shows that artists and hard-nosed businessmen can work together to create developments that resonate with narrative. This is the way things should be done everywhere."
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