How Sunderland 2021 would boost the city - and cement communities across Wearside

Sunderland's Keel Square, lit up for Christmas in 2015.
Sunderland's Keel Square, lit up for Christmas in 2015.
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Washing hung out on lines that run through in back streets in the city, miners making their way to work together, ready for a hard shift under the ground.

Memories of days gone by in Sunderland – a city once built on heavy industry.

Chinese New Year was celebrated in Keel Square for the first time this year.

Chinese New Year was celebrated in Keel Square for the first time this year.

Fast forward to 2016, and the picture of life in the city is very different. Sunderland is a Facebook capital – a place that interacts through social media. Its communities have changed. With the decline of heavy industry, which once employed streets upon streets of Wearsiders, Sunderland is no longer a city defined by one major industry.

From software to manufacturing, and contact centres to construction, the city has an increasingly diverse mix of employers. Add into the mix the fact that Sunderland only became a city in 1992 – taking in the surrounding town of Washington, and the Coalfield areas of Houghton and Hetton – and it’s easy to see why the area is still adjusting to this seismic shift.

“The very fabric of society has changed, not just in Sunderland, but nationally. Cars – allowing individuals make their way to work – have replaced trams and buses which once transported the masses. And there is no longer the social glue of the mines or the shipyards that were once the lifeblood of communities,” explains Rebecca Ball, director of Sunderland 2021, the team behind the City of Culture Bid.

“Sunderland is still a relatively young city, and the role that City of Culture status could play in connecting communities in the city, under a collective programme, could be huge.

Kam Chera, owner of the Funky Indian's new Prosecco bar.

Kam Chera, owner of the Funky Indian's new Prosecco bar.

“Sunderland has a rich history, and it is still feels like it has a stronger sense of community than many parts of the world – City of Culture status would cement that.”

One important part of the programme would be to connect different community groups across the city, like the old and young, and people of different ethnicities, faiths and backgrounds, to create a stronger, more vibrant society.

“While traditionally, Sunderland has attracted little immigration compared to larger UK cities like Birmingham and London, it is becoming an increasingly diverse place to live, and the activities that would be commissioned would assist in celebrating that – demonstrating how it is enriching the city.”

As the first city to declare a Leave vote in June’s referendum, Sunderland has attracted the world’s media for many of the wrong reasons, with claims that the city’s majority decision was driven by xenophobia . 

Rebecca Ball, bid director for Sunderland 2021.

Rebecca Ball, bid director for Sunderland 2021.

“I consider Sunderland to be a hugely welcoming and friendly city,” adds Rebecca.

“We’d really want to build on that, and bring communities together through commissions that aid understanding of different cultures, as well as celebrating Sunderland’s culture, and the things that make our city special.

“There is a huge amount of work already being done here with projects organisations like Living History North East, Sangini, Journey to Justice and All We Are Saying. We just want to shine a light on this work.”

One organisation that knows all about community is Sunderland social housing provider, Gentoo. The Doxford Park headquartered firm is building new, vibrant communities across Sunderland – both from an infrastructure point of view as well as through people-focused initiatives and activities.

John Craggs, chief executive officer at Gentoo Group, says: “Communities are about much more than bricks and mortar. They’re formed when people come together, help each other and share values.

“We see clearly how City of Culture status could bring people together and start to cement the sense of community that already exists here. It would be a huge boost for Sunderland.”

But how strong is the sense of community in Sunderland? Figures in 2009 suggested that just 67.2% of the population felt that people from different backgrounds get along well, against an average of 75.4% in England. Bid bosses believe Sunderland could move this figure to more like 80% by 2025, with a successful bid.

This might be achieved by, for example, enabling the city to host more culturally diverse events or festivals, that would become firmly established within the city’s calendar.

“Events like Diwali, Chinese New Year, Ramadan, and Mela can help different community groups to learn more about each other,” explains Harry Collinson, founder of Rough Diamond Entertainment, which is already delivering a number of major cultural events in the city.

“Multi-cultural societies embrace different customs and traditions. They share their unique histories and they bring colour and vibrancy.

“We delivered our first Chinese New Year earlier this year, and we want to build on that. Next month will see us host our first Diwali, which is set to be a fantastic event, and one that I think will shine a light on the richness other cultures bring to the city.”

Kam Chera, owner of Funky Indian who is working in partnership with Rough Diamond Entertainment to deliver the city’s first Diwali celebration, says: “We’re taking great strides in the city when it comes to showcasing the different cultures we have here.

“It goes without saying that the opportunity to deliver a bigger and bolder cultural programme would be infinitely enhanced with City of Culture status and the investment that would attract. And, as a result, I think we will see a society that is more connected, more cohesive and ultimately, one that is ready to welcome the world.”

As Sunderland attracts an increasingly diverse community of students from around the world, embracing different customs and traditions is something that bid bosses believe will be critical in helping the city to retain talent.

Rebecca Ball adds: “We have an increasingly multi-cultural society and that is something that brings so much vibrancy to the city. However, we need to ensure that – through events like Diwali, Chinese New Year and other cultural celebrations, we make Sunderland feel like home for everyone who comes into the city.”

Age friendliness is another area in which a successful bid is expected to add value. With an aging population, the bid will seek to re-engage the elderly, as well as make the city more attractive to young people.

Alan Patchett, director of Age UK Sunderland, explains: “Being the UK’s City of Culture in 2021 could really help to reconnect the older generation to the world around them.

“Older people are often the most isolated in society, and whilst charities such as ours are doing a great deal to enrich the lives of older people in the city, regretfully, there is a limit to our capacity. 

“Through cultural programmes, we can inspire stronger friendships between young and old, we can mobilise people to do more, and we can create joined-up, enlightened communities that treat older people with empathy and respect.”

He adds: “Isolation as we get older is not something we should accept as a reality. People are living longer, and with that, we have an obligation to do more to care for our older generation. I am heartened to see that the bid is very much focused on this aim, and Age UK Sunderland is right behind it.

“Through a more supportive, more cohesive society, we can achieve more – and we can tackle head on many of the social challenges we face as a city – being age-friendly is chief amongst them.”

Rebecca Ball echoed this. “Sunderland is a great city, but not a perfect one. We face our own unique challenges, like every other city. The beauty of this competition is its ability to find creative solutions to these challenges, and by working with partners across the city – from AUKS, to organisations like the Sunderland Bangladeshi International Centre – we are already helping to improve connectedness in the city. A successful bid would take this to the next level.”

To find out more about Sunderland’s bid to become a City of Culture and what it could mean for the area, visit or follow @Sunderland2021 on social media.