Oulu feels like a special city to me. I think it has something to do with the light. When I first visited, in June last year, the sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was dazzling, and light was reflecting across every surface. In my next visit, in February of this year, the sky had darkened but the quality of light was still so strong – street lights reflected in the snow, ice shimmering where rivers otherwise flow.
This light is also present in the people. There is an energy and active ‘can do’ culture in Oulu. The people seem resourceful, attentive, curious and sprightly. People cycle, run, swim and walk at speed. They are close to nature and of the city; environmentally conscious; rooted; and digitally connected.
These qualities shape the city’s identity and its cultural landscape. The key cultural organisations are led by teams of sharp, practical and centred people who share a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of their communities. The municipality, university and businesses bristle with purpose, keen to do what is right for the city and conscious that for Oulu to thrive requires them to work very hard to support citizens to actively contribute to their city’s future.
Oulu seems like a relatively balanced city – it has a mix of industries, it is easy to navigate, and nature weaves its way through the urban landscape. It is also a city which creates and makes things and does so in a way that embraces the city’s distinctive climate and location. From tar to Nokia, digital games to polar bear pitching, Oulu is a city that creates an idea and runs with it.
But it is not clear if the city is as inclusive as it might be. For example, how open is the city to a diversity of cultures, ideas and attitudes? Can Oulu change as the population changes? Also, might Oulu be more connected? With the downtown area providing more of a hub for the civic, social, economic and of course cultural life of the city. And with the university a platform for collaboration across the city and a key connector between the city and the world.
This is where European Capital of Culture provides such an opportunity. It can help facilitate dialogue and exchange regarding the city’s identity, purpose and trajectory. It can help convene new relationships – within the city and with neighbours across Europe. It can also help to build and grow the role of the cultural sector as a progressive force that can help nurture positive change. After all, every city has to change if it is to remain relevant to its present and future communities.
European Capital of Culture puts the people to the heart of the conversation. It requires us all to imaginatively consider how a city can build from its cultural qualities to change for the better. It mobilises a fresh look at the city and its role in Europe. And it inspires us to dream, to collaborate in new ways, and to play with the light that makes the city so special.