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Homely and magical: The Southbank Centre's Festival of Neighbourhood / 2 June 2013

colourful wheelbarrows at the southbank

The Festival of Neighbourhood is in full bloom

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It is Friday morning at 9.20, and I’m invited to the Southbank Centre’s press preview of their Festival of Neighbourhood. The all-summer long celebration, running form the 1st of June till the end of September, is the third of a series of summer festivals that the Southbank Centre has put on together with MasterCard, after 2011’s Festival of Britain and 2012’s Festival of the World. As I am early, I have a quick stroll through the site – I know it fairly well, as I lived in a student hall across the street from Waterloo station for a year between 2010 and 2011. During that time, the Site, and especially the Royal Festival Hall, indeed was an important part of my neighbourhood where I had the first few romantic dates with my then-boyfriend, now fiancé, where I saw lots of wonderful performances from J.K. Rowling to Heston Blumenthal to the Liberty Festival, and where I wrote the best part of my MA dissertation. It seems very fitting for this place, which serves for so many people as an office, playground or pleasure garden, to celebrate its neighbourhood, and the sense of neighbourhood and belonging it radiates.
Even during this quick walkthrough, I can see that the site has been transformed: Even inside the lift, there is a joyful, comic-style map of the area which introduces the specially constructed sites like the urban beach, the London Wonderground (both have already been here last year), and the brand new Beano Town, which is where I’ll be heading for the first part of the press review. There are colourful wheelbarrows scattered everywhere on the outside spaces of the Southbank, and inside them they have flowers and vegetables growing. Considering the lack of spring we had this year, this sight makes my heart do small leap of joy.
When I enter the Festival Village, which is now Beanotown, an iconic imaginary neighbourhood, I am presented with a copy of the Beano comic magazine and invited to try cheese and bean toasties, especially created for this new space.  There is a real-life Dennis the Menace who seems up to a bit of mischief, and also an exhibition which celebrates Beano’s 75th anniversary. The schoolboy jokes that are played inside the bathrooms on endless loop startle me and make me giggle. Beanotown seems like the perfect place to take children, or to go when you’re in a bit of a waggish mood.
After exploring Beanotown, we are led into the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where the choir Voicelab gives a musical introduction to the colourful flags, covered with thought-provoking questions like ‘On it? Past it?’, that Bob and Roberta Smith have designed for the roof of the Southbank Centre, under the captivating title ‘Grow Your Own Ideas?’. Growth, bloom and levity are elements that run through every aspect of the festival.
Then Jude Kelly, Artistic Director if the Southbank Centre, Shân Maclennan, Creative Director of Learning and Participation and Paul Trueman from MasterCard reflect on the ideas behind the festival. “Festival of Neighbourhood is a space for the community as we ask what it means to live side by side harmoniously, particularly with people that differ from ourselves. Community cohesion is one of the major challenges we face today and this festival will explore how we can support community endeavours and create a much better sense of belonging and stronger cooperation with our neighbours,” Jude Kelly explains. Later on, they are joined by Wayne Hemingway, designer, author Neil Hollis and artists Bryony Kimmings and Dean Atta, who explain what neighbourhood means to them, why a sense of community is important to them and how they try to encourage others to become part of their community.
After this, I am invited to a tour of the site, and I can see with my own eyes that the Southbank Centre takes its responsibility in the community seriously: An urban garden has been created for the festival, and its produce will be used in the Southbank Centre’s kitchens and the trees will be donated to council estates after the festival has finished. Many of the decoration materials were recycled or can be put to a second use after their time on the Southbank is over, and two massive, topiary-like figures have been installed at the back of the Queen Elizabeth Hall: They are depicted sweeping, and are inspired by the many people who cleaned up after the London riots in 2011. There are also murals on the walls by London's finest street artists.
It astonishes me how the Festival of Neighbourhood feels homely and magical equally. The same evening, I take my fiancé back there to drink Pimms amongst the blooming, flowering wheelbarrows, and life feels like an urban fairy-tale, complete with a neighbourhood fit for any storybook.