Something extraordinary is happening on our canals. An exciting new venture, called the National Street Art project, is helping to restore and reimagine some of the more neglected spaces on our network. From a mechanical fish in Walsall to a watchful eye in Brent, original artwork is bringing communities together and transforming our towns and cities.
A blank canvas
Graffiti has long been an issue on our canals, particularly in urban areas, where bridges, buildings and boundary walls are regularly targeted. The clean-up can cost upwards of £1m a year, but the price of this anti-social ‘tagging' goes far beyond simple pounds and pence. Towpaths become unused and unloved, littering increases, and fewer and fewer people visit the canals. To combat this growing problem, we came up with a creative, colourful solution. Rather than simply cleaning up the mess, we decided to replace it with something inspiring. The National Street Art project was born.
Thanks to the support of players of People's Postcode Lottery, the project was quickly rolled out across the country. Today, As Laura Chow, head of charities at People's Postcode Lottery, explains: “Art is a wonderful way to bring colour to the canals, and a chance for community groups to feel ownership of their local waterway.”
Since its inception, the project has had an enormous impact, uniting communities, promoting health and wellbeing, and fostering a renewed sense of pride in our local canals. That's certainly true of two of our more recent projects, in Brent and Walsall.
Drawing a crowd
In Brent, new artwork was unveiled on the banks of the Grand Union Canal in July. The difference is striking. As one of our local community roots coordinators, Martha Michelson tells us: “It transforms the space completely, and it really makes it a welcoming area … Hopefully, it's something that towpath users, cyclists, walkers and boat enthusiasts will be able to enjoy.”
It's a similar story in Walsall, where a stunning mural was installed earlier this year. The area's local community roots coordinator, Lutfur Rahman, believes the art is changing people's perceptions of their local canal: “People are really proud of the artwork,” he says, “and it's definitely attracting more people to the towpath. The canal is a precious resource and we need people to take care of it. Hopefully, projects like this will help.”
This is very much a collaborative effort, bringing people and communities together to create beautiful, clean spaces on our canals. As Martha explains: “The project in Brent was all community-driven. We facilitated it and provided the funding, but really everything was done by the community. They cleaned the walls, prepped it and designed it, got others involved – everything.”
That spirit of togetherness is evident in the artwork itself. It's part of the fabric of the city, reflecting the history, the community and the stories of the people that live there. It's the same across the country.
The big picture
Thanks to the ingenuity of local artists and the hard work and enthusiasm of community members, canals in London, Yorkshire and the Midlands now have original artwork adorning their banks. And with new projects planned for later this year, this is only the beginning. So watch this space. Your local canal could be getting a splash of colour in the not-too-distant future.