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Exeter awarded UNESCO City of Literature status

22 November 2019

3 minutes to read

Exeter awarded UNESCO City of Literature status

The UNESCO Creative Cities Network was created in 2004 to promote cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development. The 180 cities that currently make up this network work together towards a common objective: placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans at the local level and cooperating actively at the international level.

Exeter City Council – which spends £28.28 per capita on culture and heritage, third only to London and Middlesborough – wanted to apply for City of Literature status, but lacked the capacity and specialist experience in making an application of this size. This was exacerbated by the quick turnaround demanded by the application process.


Culture Innovation Consultancy team members responded quickly to the brief to create and manage a steering group to strategise effectively. They then applied for a small grant – with Professor Mark Jackson from the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health providing the rigorous research underpinning the connections between access to literature and wellbeing – that successfully enabled them to commission literature specialists Literature Works to feed into the application process.

The bid, led by Exeter City Council, is a partnership between Exeter City Council, Exeter Culture, The University of Exeter, Devon County Council, Libraries Unlimited, Literature Works, Exeter Cathedral and Exeter Canal and Quay Trust.


Jon-Paul Hedge, Director of Communications and Marketing at Exeter City Council, said: “Working with the University of Exeter and Exeter Culture – which is hosted by the University – on the UNESCO City of Literature bid for the city was a very positive experience. The University managed the overall process, which included planning, consultation, funding preparation, application and tendering. This was done with the utmost professionalism, knowledge and experience, and resulted in an excellent outcome. I can highly recommend the University of Exeter in a consultancy capacity and would absolutely have no hesitation working with them again.”

As a result of this impressive multi-stakeholder management and working, Exeter’s application was successful, and the city has been awarded City of Literature status – becoming the fifth UK city with the designation alongside Edinburgh, Norwich, Nottingham and Manchester.


The vision for the programme is for Exeter and the wider region to be a destination for writers and a city of readers. The programme aims to engage a range of communities in the creation and appreciation of wide-ranging works, both existing and new, and develop a love of reading.

At the heart of the application is a major focus on how reading, stories and activities connected to storytelling can have an impact upon wellbeing. Exeter’s UNESCO City of Literature will draw on the power of literature and words to pursue a set of wellbeing goals for Exeter, Devon and the surrounding region:

1. Starting well

We want all children in Devon to have the best start in life and the opportunity to thrive.  There is a strong evidence base that reading can improve health and wellbeing. Exeter will be a city of readers. Devon’s inspired, ground-breaking library service, Libraries Unlimited, will be at the heart of this.

2. Ageing well

Supporting people to remain well and independent for as long as possible. Devon has an ageing population and the older population will increase significantly over the next 30 years. There are many unknown carers who may need support.

3. Creating together

Using literature and words to help combat loneliness. 20% of the older population are mildly lonely, 8-10% of the older population are intensely lonely and 57% of social care users do not have as much social contact as they would like. Our highest risk groups are lone pensioners, older carers, people over 75, the recently bereaved and older people in deprived areas.

4. Looking outward

Exeter has a great, internationally significant trading past. We will use this and other distinguishing characteristics to help shape an inclusive, forward-looking and ambitious focus founded on the city’s great heritage: looking both to the past and the future. For example, identifying former international trading partners and linking to the contemporary networks of European Literature Houses to open up routes to world literature and re-connect Exeter to the world’s greatest cities.

Exeter and literature

Sir Michael Morpurgo, endorsing the bid, describes literature in Exeter as ‘a vital part of a vibrant city with its roots in living literature’. Literary heritage continues to enrich through festivals, research, and new writing. Alongside Michael, best-selling authors linked to county and city are Hilary Mantel and University of Exeter alumna J K Rowling. Alice Oswald leads a strong poetry field bolstered by poets with a youth following, Chris White and Jack Dean.

Exeter also boasts The Exeter Book at Exeter Cathedral. The Exeter Book is one of the oldest and best-preserved collections of old English verse in the world, and is older than famous texts such as Beowulf. The University of Exeter also hosts the archives of works connected to famous writers such as William Golding, Ted Hughes, Agatha Christie, Daphne DuMaurier and Sir John Betjeman. The aim within the city’s bid for City of Literature is to use these amazing literary assets and make them relevant, accessible and engaging to people in new and exciting ways. They will also hopefully be inspiration for new work, activity and events to develop across the city and beyond.



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