Leeds 2023: Local artists open up creative toolbox to explore Meanwood commuter routes

Meanwood Road is one of the busiest commuter routes in and out of Leeds city centre.

By Alex Grant
Sunday, 20th March 2022, 11:45 am

Since October 2021 as part of the ‘My World My City My Neighbourhood’ research projects for LEEDS 2023 two local residents and artists, Lizzie Coombes and Katy Hayley, have opened up their creative toolkit to explore Meanwood Road, the paths and valley on either side and specifically the communities who live, work and commute along it.

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Between us, we’ve lived on Meanwood Road for over 20 years and we’d been looking for a creative way to engage those using the road, create an awareness that this is a place where people live, not just a thoroughfare.

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Meanwood Road is one of the busiest commuter routes in and out of Leeds city centre. Picture: Riad Salameh.

For many it’s a means of getting from A to B, where cars have priority over people. But it is also a street - people live and work here - it is our community and we’ve been exploring how a long commuter road can develop an identity, community, wellbeing, and sense of belonging.

In lockdown Meanwood Road, like many other main roads, completely transformed. Without commuters and the bustle of activity that goes with living near the city centre the road was quiet; we could hear the birds sing and we spent time in our local area; we got to know (more) our neighbours.

Something hugely important to us was that we engaged with the whole community, so we didn’t just rely on social media or word of mouth to let people know what we were doing, we delivered several postcards through every letterbox too.

We then started arranging a series of walks in and around Meanwood Road. These had a big positive impact on the physical as well as mental health and wellbeing of those involved.

Some told us they hadn’t been out walking locally for some time due to the pandemic, feeling unsafe, being uncertain of where to go or simply because they didn’t have anyone to go with.

Even our dogs benefited, they met other dogs and their owners connected with each other. By sharing experiences and talking about our common goal of helping those passing through to see Meanwood Road as a community, that there’s much more to this particular thoroughfare than just a route from A-B.

What followed was a series of pop-up portrait studios at the side of the road. We did this 15 times overall and photographed over 200 people (and their pets - they are affected by the road too), it was the perfect tool to engage passers-by, neighbours, commuters, and those who work on the road.

We have been hosted at businesses along the road and their support has been incredible, especially from Meanwood Valley Urban Farm and The Barn café.

Ultimately, we’d like to line the road with the portraits, creating a ‘street gallery’ that shows the personality of our large and diverse community.

It would be our hope that by changing perceptions of the road, that maybe we can move towards real, long term physical changes to make the road safer - new crossings or wider pavements, for example - to help people to understand that people live and work here, rather than just a public highway.

Being part of LEEDS 2023 has enabled to create work that directly impacts our lives. Through this project we have got to shine a new light on our road and get to know our neighbourhood better than ever.

There’s a lot more familiar faces and friendly smiles when out and about which let’s face it, is a big part of what being a community is all about.

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