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What does culture mean to the students of Leeds?

Before the term ended were able to speak with a group of students at The University of Leeds about their culture and experience of the city. Students are often overlooked when it comes to policy changes like these as they are viewed as ‘temporary residents’. Yet this could be part of the problem that sees students struggling to really immerse themselves in the real ‘Leeds culture’. We were keen to find out more from students themselves, about what they enjoy and what they wanted to see more of in their city.

Over the past few months I’ve been speaking with students and graduates about their culture and about what they enjoy doing in Leeds. I’m sure many people would assume the response from a student to involve clubs, bars or pubs, but I think you would be surprised how few actually mentioned anything to do with drinking or going on a night out. Of course this is a big part of many student experiences in Leeds – but it is important to remember that their culture can be just as rich and varied as everyone else who calls the city home. These are just some of the things the students and graduates I’ve been speaking to love about Leeds.

What does culture mean to students in Leeds?
What does culture mean to students in Leeds?

Some students from the discussion at The University of Leeds had been living here for a number of years – and for them, their culture or what they’ve enjoyed doing in the city has changed massively over this time. They have been channelled through the various cultural scenes that Leeds has to offer through their growing and changing network of friends. Naturally, this network is largely made up of other students. Many of the immediate responses to the question of ‘what is your culture’ emphasised just this – the students we spoke to felt that their culture was very much university based.

This ‘student culture bubble in Leeds becomes very hard to break free from. Hyde Park is this strange disparate community where a student house may be next to a family home. They would probably get on well if they spoke, and yet largely they don’t interact, living very separate lives. There is this accepted division in the neighbourhood that stops it feeling like a real community. Students may feel a little like they are intruding and in some ways, which may prevent them from ever really being able to see Hyde Park as a home.

Although the group we were speaking to at Leeds Universty Union knew that it wasn’t always necessarily obvious who was or wasn’t a student in the city – they didn’t like the feeling of being seen as ‘just another student’. Many couldn’t help but feel self-conscious is they went somewhere that wasn’t a ‘student event’. Some graduates, now living and working in the city, were able to reflect on how much more they have seen and done in the city since they no longer feel like a student – instead feeling like someone who really lives in Leeds. Someone who may have lived here their whole lives may not appreciate how intimidating the prospect can be of going to explore a village you’ve never heard anything about or a park you may never have been to before – especially if that was by yourself.

A big barrier for students is finding people to do things with. Again this leads to many of them relying on University societies or course friends as the people who they interact with everyday. It would be good if there were some way of building a network outside of this student bubble that could help students to feel more of a part of the city and its culture. Something one student mentioned would be if they could hear more about local community galas or fetes – if the student population were to be invited to things like this they may be more keen to explore different parts of Leeds.

Another example given of this tight student network was University sport. It was thought that university sports teams are something that can become very insular. One member of the discussion was a keen runner, she enjoyed running with the university but also did Park Run every weekend and felt this gave her an opportunity to be a part of the local community. It was felt that it would be good if we could try to replicate the strong links held between park run and the university across other university and local community sporting events.

What does culture mean to students in Leeds?
What does culture mean to students in Leeds?

There is this disconnect between local communities of Leeds and the city centre. Students aren’t necessarily aware of what there is outside of the city centre beyond Hyde Park and Headingley. The students we spoke with thought it was great that they lived in such a vibrant city – but felt as much as they enjoyed places like Belgrave or Trinity that they thought they were quite ‘Londony’ and didn’t necessarily reflect what Leeds is for so many people. They wished they could see more of a balance of cultures in some way.

It was clear from our conversation that there was this appetite from students wanting to integrate and connect more with the local communities of Leeds. They enjoyed events like the Christmas Market. The beer tent seems to have this ability to bring people together – maybe it’s the effect of the mulled wine and the oompah band, but it does seem to be one of the rare times where there is such a cross over between the student and local populations in Leeds. It was felt that it would be nice if there were more temporary things like this, or like Light Night, that were well publicised and affordable. Many students would like to get out and explore the other communities of Leeds but it is difficult to know what’s there until you go. One example given was that of Ilkley – after having been, if they’d known how easy it was to get there and how lovely it was there they would have gone a long time ago. But there doesn’t seem to be this knowledge available for students. It took me a couple of years of being a student here before I got the confidence to properly explore more of Leeds than campus and the city centre. The students we spoke to thought that maybe there could be some way of getting discounts or emails and newsletters about what is going on culturally in the local area – knowledge of what’s out there could help people to access more of Leeds than your typical ‘student experience’.

What does culture mean to students in Leeds?
What does culture mean to students in Leeds?

That assumption that there is a ‘student experience’ in Leeds probably feeds into some of the problems that students face in Leeds. The night time economy in the city is undoubtedly fuelled by alcohol and drinking. One experience shared with us was by a student who had come into the city centre and was walking down Briggate where they were surrounded by loud drunk people – as someone who rarely gets intimidated, they found that situation quite daunting and felt the city had become somewhere they didn’t really want to be unless they too were drinking. Another student found herself trying to look for a café at 8pm but struggled to find anywhere open that wasn’t a restaurant or pub. It seems that as soon as it gets dark you either have to go drink or go home. Maybe there is a demand for the night time economy in Leeds to be diversified and become accessible for all kinds of people.

Another barrier identified was for those students with disabilities. Many of the group seemed to have encountered difficulties – either personally or with friends – in knowing where is or isn’t wheelchair accessible for example. It is often assumed that disability is something that happens later in life, which leaves many students struggling to really be a part of the gigs or events they may want to go to. This stretches beyond physical disabilities – a member of the group shared with us that he suffers from sensory overload, where he can feel intimidated in big crowds. There could be more thought for alternative events and gigs that could be more accessible to those who do struggle to engage with what is currently on offer in the city. Another student who was active in LGBTQ societies said that whilst the city has good LGBTQ network it’s only for some of the population and isn’t truly reflective of Leeds. He gave examples of where the society had to stop working with some venues who refused to ask the DJs they book not to use racial slurs.

The use of space in the city was a big topic of conversation among the students at Leeds University. Places like Millennium Square or Hyde Park become a cut through rather than animated space that people want to stop and use. The students we spoke to felt it would be nice to make more use of the space we have in the city. Whether it may be installing public art pieces, weekly local markets or even just putting up temporary free stages – they felt it would help to make Leeds feel more inclusive and encourage people to stop and use the space more. The same was felt for derelict buildings and wasteland in the city. An example, very relevant to the student communities of Hyde Park, is the empty and disused land where Royal Park Road School once stood. The students we spoke with felt that was one of so many examples of the overlooked opportunities for empty spaces in the city. It was felt that we need to stop seeing empty buildings as problems and instead to find uses for them. An interesting idea was to use empty space or buildings to encourage student start-ups and events. It was agreed that many students would love the opportunity to have space available for them to develop cultural interests beyond their studies – whether it be music studios, free art space, or maybe space for foodie pop-ups. If there was some way of getting a support system in place to engage with these students, it could encourage them to extend their interests and networks in the city, whilst also bringing life to the empty spaces of Leeds.

Most students have to live their life on a budget, where loan day becomes almost as exciting as Christmas in the student calendar. So it is understandable that there is a demand for more space in the city where you don’t feel obliged to spend money. It can become quite expensive to spend the day in the city centre when there are very few places you would feel you were allowed to be without buying food or a drink. For those days where the sun does manage to come out, it is always so lovely to see people making the most of the outside space we have in Leeds. But there isn’t enough space like that. The students we were speaking to felt that the local communities could have more say over what happened with the green space in their area – maybe choosing to have an outdoor gym or more simply even just putting out some deck chairs or benches. It would give the community a sense of ownership over their local space, an opportunity to open it up and to bring people in. It could help to give the residents of Leeds a reason to stop and engage with their city that doesn’t always have to mean spending money.

What does culture mean to students in Leeds?
What does culture mean to students in Leeds?

“We have a river you know”. This was a comment that I found particularly funny. It’s so true, Leeds has the beautiful River Aire and yet there is so little made of it. It happens to be just outside of that ‘city centre comfort zone’ which means that it is so easy to come into the city and leave again without even knowing it exists. It should be something that is shouted about – somewhere to go, not somewhere you might stumble across after a night out at Beaverworks.

One final debate was that of our old friend transport. For fear of sounding like a broken record, again, transport was something that seemed to prevent those we spoke to from freely exploring Leeds. Many of these students expressed a want to go and do things outside of the city centre but felt they couldn’t necessarily get anywhere else with ease. It was felt that the situation would be different if our public transport system was more like Manchester, where you knew there was a tram every 10 minutes that would get you where you needed to be. It was as though travel just became a bit of an effort with the public transport system we have in Leeds. The bus system seemed to confuse everyone we were speaking with – none of them really knew where the buses were going to stop or which ones they would have to get to go where they wanted to go. The schedules didn’t seem very clear to them, especially for people who don’t regularly use them or aren’t originally from the area. Some thoughtful ideas would be to introduce some kind of map system, or maybe an online journey planner like Transport For London, which could help everyone make the most of the transport in the city.

It is impossible to appreciate the views of every student in Leeds and engage everyone in the debates we are having around culture in the city. Those students who did choose to come and speak with us demonstrated a clear desire to explore more of where they were living. For this group, culture was undeniably so much more than ‘the student experience’. They really seemed to want to be more included in things going on in the local communities of Leeds and to be more involved in shaping the future of their city.

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