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Superact: Happy Communities & a Healthy City – the role of nature & arts

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Netplants Calais 2015

Netplants Calais 2015

Inspired by Healthy City Week 2015, Ursula Billington – Project Manager with Superact CIC – shares how their work promotes “wellbeing that doesn’t cost the earth”.

Superact believes in the benefits creativity can bring to people, and works particularly closely with vulnerable groups to provide inclusive access to the arts. We also have a strong belief in the power of community, supporting people to build resilient, cohesive and caring local communities for the benefit of all. Our vision of happy, inclusive communities in which the energy of youth is celebrated alongside the wisdom of the elders is one shared by Bristol Green Capital Partnership and many others.

Happy Communities and a Healthy City

The Bristol Ageing Better partnership are striving to gain Age Friendly City status for Bristol, and this can only be achieved with the provision of safe neighbourhoods, inclusive and accessible activities, and – most importantly – respect for older people and the valuable contribution they make to communities. We witness this first hand in the work we do in healthcare settings across the South West. Our recent involvement with the Guinness Partnership’s Creative Times project demonstrated perfectly the confidence imbued through creative activity and the significant contribution older people can make to the arts world.

Our artists delivered willow weaving workshops to those of a ‘grand grand age,’ resulting in stunning reindeer and peacock sculptures; and enabled a group of retiring retirees to find their voices and share stories of their lives with each other, including WWII tales of Anderson shelters, bombings and machine gun fire – some of which had never been told to another person before. The session was turned in to a digital story and shared alongside professional portraits of the participants taken on the day. The activities were not only enjoyed hugely by those taking part – one stated she had “lived here [in the Guinness residential home] for 5 years and never been so happy” – but by our workshop leaders who felt the privilege of sharing these moments and receiving wisdom including to live life to the full and never compromise, from people who have seen a lot of life. It’s clear from such projects that not only does self-esteem, sense of achievement and pleasure of life grow with engaging in creative activity, but that the key to healthy, happy cities is the mixing of generations, with all the laughter, learning and shared experience that comes with it.

Intergenerational connection is a vital key to happy communities and a healthy city. In our work to strengthen community we have supported groups to organise free music festivals since 2010 with the annual Our Big Gig project, directly inspiring people across the UK to become more involved in their community, volunteering, and musical activity. Our Exe-Arts programme encourages members of the St. David’s community in Exeter to try tasters of different creative practices, with low-cost sessions run by professional artists and culminating in a celebration in December with lantern parade, exhibition and musical performances. These activities allow local people young and old, experienced artists or complete beginners, to come together, try new things, share time, celebrate their achievements and solidify community.

Tackling isolation and exclusion

Sometimes it isn’t possible for people to engage fully in everyday community life. One way that Superact has tackled the challenge of isolation, exclusion and mobility issues is by bringing arts, music and creativity in to healthcare settings. Often

Lady Nade at Fresh Arts fest 3

Lady Nade performing at the Fresh Arts Festival at Southmead Hospital

people in these environments are removed from normal day-to-day activities – staff work long hours in clinical environments, visitors spend time in an alien place outside their familiar surroundings, patients may be bed-bound, confused or long-term unwell. Music and art provide a spark which brightens these people’s days. Superact programmed music on the wards for the Fresh Arts festival at Southmead Hospital in September, and witnessed patients dancing nurses round rooms to Alice Phelps’ gypsy jazz and folk duo Belshazzar’s Feast whizzing about wards on wheeled stools, serenading patients in private rooms.

Music has such a profoundly positive impact on people in healthcare settings that Superact runs a tour of hospitals, care homes and community dementia sessions on a monthly basis: our musicians perform on the wards of Southmead, Frenchay, Cossham and the Children’s hospitals, and run participatory Music & Memories sessions for people living with dementia in partnership with Reminiscence Learning. Visit one of these groups and join in with percussion shaking, singalongs, dancing to Colombian folk, vintage swing or show tunes. It’s such a simple thing, people getting together and having a good time through music, and it does wonders for people’s wellbeing.

Reconnecting to the land and our environment

Storyteller Stu Packer reporting for Netplants UK and Superact from Calais, 2015

Storyteller Stu Packer reporting for Netplants UK and Superact from Calais, 2015

Superact are now branching out to new, green pastures (ahem!) and embracing the theme of sustainability, which goes hand in hand so naturally with wellbeing. In Netplants we’re partnering with organisations in Spain, Ireland, Romania and France to reconnect disadvantaged people with the environment. Each organisation gets hands on, working with experts to create resources that encourage local people to develop new skills related to fruit, veg and the land – which will also benefit the planet in a myriad of different ways.  Partners host a visit in which trainers/ees from each country participate in workshops, and newly-learned skills can then enhance their own organisation’s programmes or practices: in a nutshell it’s all about our reconnection to the land, our environment, to ourselves, and each other. We’ll be hosting a group of 20 people in Bristol in January 2016 and running workshops on gardening, cooking, foraging and natural crafts. It might be a bit of a challenge, but if anyone knows the secrets to wild food, growing and cooking up tasty feasts in the middle of winter it’s you Bristol folk! We’re hoping to get lots of community projects and local farms involved, so watch this space….

In mid-September our French partners held the first Netplants workshop week in Calais, on an organic farm that trains unemployed people in farming and cooking. Our willow weaver and storyteller attended, as well as Project Assistant Matilda and one of her former Ashley Community Housing learners, Farhan. They learnt the lasagne growing-bed method, built bug hotels, cooked up hedgerow meals and wove garden decorations from willow. Farhan gained skills and enthusiasm he hopes to use to develop a local gardening project for the refugees and others in his community. As well as the reports of camaraderie, inspiration, learning, big smiles and satisfaction that came back from the week, Sarah, our willow weaver and lead trainer on the Netplants project, concluded:

“For me our Netplants meeting became a week of…gems, knowing that every one of us was individually and collectively growing, nurturing, seeking and creating.”

It’s this that sums up Netplants for me, and also the simultaneous importance and simplicity of “wellbeing that doesn’t cost the earth”. If we can get together with others, in small groups or our community and across the city to sing or share a feast; get our hands dirty, cook up local veg, tell stories or make a willow lantern and parade through candle-lit streets with our new friends; play a tune for a nurse or older people in a care home, or our first gig to family and neighbours – then I think we’ll all understand each other a little bit better.  We don’t have to sacrifice anything, but we gain a lot. People and planet will be healthier and happier – and we’ll all end up having a bit more fun.

Photography at Exe-Arts 2, 2015Wellbeing the doesn’t cost the earth

Superact will continue to be inspired by the way creativity and nature can enhance people’s lives and will carry on working for people’s wellbeing, particularly those most vulnerable in our communities. I’d like to train up more young artists so they can bring music and creative practice to healthcare settings and older people, and we can get the generations enjoying each other’s company. I’d like to extend our health and wellbeing tour to include lots more residential care homes where money is squeezed and quality artistic performance isn’t accessible. I’d like to give more disadvantaged people the opportunity to get outside and learn about working on the land and all the benefits nature can provide for our health.

I hope the Healthy City Week sentiment of ‘wellbeing that doesn’t cost the earth’ is embraced by people and that its legacy will live on in a revived enthusiasm for coming together with others to share creative activity or even just a couple of life stories. I look forward to it returning in force next year: and Superact will be sure to get involved with a song, dance and tale or two.

Ursula Billington is a Project Manager with Superact CIC, an arts & wellbeing organisation based in the South West. She can mostly be seen jumping up and down with her 8-piece Balkan beats band Ushti Baba across the UK and beyond.

Health & Wellbeing, Blog, Healthy City Week
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