Thursday, June 6, 2013

Eight Guidelines for Urban Design: Keeping Creativity at the Heart of Cities


The buzzword ‘creativity’ comes in handy when making top-down planning strategies sound somewhat more positive, inclusive or even alternative; making them attractive not just to cultural practitioners and publicly funded arts organisations, but also to local residents and businesses who associate creativity with notions of change and innovation. However, this often ignores the fact that creativity cannot be used interchangeably in different contexts. What creativity signifies in some cultures is very different from others. Whereas in Europe creativity stands for originality, in other parts of the world it signifies how well someone can replicate ideas. There is no common ground in defining what “applied” creativity is. In cultural strategy, creativity is often used as a proxy for how much cultural consumption infrastructure a city offers. Planning creativity in favour of consumption is a risky undertaking that often gentrifies original clusters of cultural production.

In this post I will explain the reasons for this and will conclude with a toolkit on how to sustain the field of cultural production.

Cities were extremely important for the emergence of contemporary cultural production as they are places with extreme spatial and social density, access to infrastructure and with labour specialisation and cultural emancipation. In the UK this led to the emergence of what was first called cultural industries, now known as the creative industries to allow an expansion into technology and innovation markets.

Cultural production

Cultural production requires a complex contextual setting to access both cultural content and cultural audiences. Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (The Field of Cultural Production) describes this as a process of artistic position taking within a distinct field of forces and power relations in an urban ecosystem. With forces he means the different interconnected ‘scapes’ of cultural flow, for example ethnoscapes, financescapes and technoscapes (see Appandurai) that form part of the socio-cultural-economic relations triangle. Power relations are determined by the position we hold as either cultural producers or consumers.

At the development stage of a specific culture-led urban regeneration project, cultural production is often sidelined by extensive investment in cultural consumption infrastructure and venue-based activities that are costly and need to be subsidised over a long term. Culture in the context of cultural and creative industries is confronted with the tension between cultural content and cultural instrumentalisation. The latter is the cause of disparity between the image of a creative city and the practicabilities of physically embedding culture and creativity in cities.

Economic growth

One form of cultural instrumentalisation is represented by Richard Florida’s creative class model, which positions the creative city as a place-marketing strategy. Culture becomes merely a means to non-cultural ends as entrepreneurial city leaders favor short-term economic growth over long-term activation of cultural assets.

Creativity and cultural production become secondary in this narrative, leading to the alienation of local creative activity through a) perceived displacement caused by changes to the local field of cultural production, and through b) physical displacement such as gentrification and the inaccessibility of affordable work and living space. Hence cultural production and in effect also consumption cannot be sustained without subsidies.
(Besides sustaining the material fabric of cultural activity, it is crucial to maintain the contextual field of production from which cultural content emerges!)

Social cohesion

Creative city advocator Charles Landry has since the late 80’s consulted city councils on how to make cities more beautiful, liveable and socially inclusive. His socially creative city goes hand in hand with the emergence of alternative cultures in the 1960s and 70s, from which ideas about active audience engagement, museum learning and visitor participation came from. This again brought forth social inclusion legitimation programs in which art institutions had to monitor their work with communities and evaluate projects in order to receive public funding.

Local authorities and cultural institutions became trapped in the legitimisation process of commissioning culture. This fostered the emergence of high-cost flagship cultural facilities that stimulated cultural consumption as a ‘safe’ public investment option, without actually creating the space from which creativity would emerge from cities, rather than being imported into them.


So, what would a policy look like that fosters local cultural production and creativity?

1) Understanding the creative industries
Creative city policy makers should not rely on the given categories of the cultural industries (for example fashion, media, fine art). They should instead operationalise interdisciplinary work to broaden cross-sector growth possibilities and an understanding of the needs of the creative industries in other business sectors. This would stimulating new cultural content and non-normative approaches to urban problems for example.

British Council Toolkit: Mapping the Creative Industries

2) Alternatives to culture?
The creative industries are often praised as the saviour of urban economies despite being precarious sectors with little long-term employment and revenue stability. Policy makers need to assess whether their urban strategy requires cultural resources or if there are alternatives in solving urban problems.

3) Land-use and infrastructure
Beyond assuring openness towards infrastructure and land use strategy, we have to create an awareness for the involvement of creatives professionals in policy/public consultation. Creatives need flexible space and not an expensive flagship development that they cannot access (means have to match ends after all).

Case study: Cultural production, place and politics on the South Bank (Peter Newman & Ian Smith)

4) Stakeholder analysis
A detailed stakeholder analysis is necessary to determine local cultural actors and networks of cultural production (creative workers and the creative class are not the same stakeholder group and need different support structures). It is financially and culturally more efficient to operationalise already existing cultural resources, rather than displacing them with imposed networks and structures.

Case study: Urban development and the politics of a creative class. Evidence from a study of artists (Ann Markusen)

5) Home-growing talent
Home-growing creatives is a highly important element of anchoring cultural production locally. In creative city literature, education often becomes sidelined, assuming that creative talent is simply floating around freely. Education is about providing quality teaching and access to networks and knowledge. In today’s mass education market these virtues are long gone as arts students for example have little academic challenges to conquer, while spending all their fees on art school studio space and scarcely allocated tutorials.

Case study: The art of innovation. How fine art graduates contribute to innovation (Andy Pratt et al.)

6) Governing principles
Planning and jurisdiction boundaries are often misidentified and cause complications at the implementation stage, hence many initially promising developments being conformed to investors needs or bogged down completely. Much work needs to be done analysing the proposed cultural support mechanisms qualitatively before reaching the policy implementation stage (to avoid an expensive overhaul of an unsubstantiated strategy).

Case study: Beyond the Creative City. Cultural policy in an age of scarcity (Jonathan Vickery)

7) Communicating goals
While working with ‘creatives’, the necessary formal structures of policy development will still be required in providing a structured and accountable response to specific urban problems. This confirms that a balanced conversation between authorities and cultural stakeholders is necessary to map collective goals.

8) Conclusion
Planners, policy makers and creatives need the willingness to learn from policy mismatch, in order to follow an open strategy agenda that would allow for the right support structures to foster connectivity and growth. For cultural production this would mean sustaining the field of production (i.e. the local urban identity) and providing the possibilities for creativity to remain at the heart of the creative city.

Case study: The cultural contradictions of the creative city (Andy Pratt)

Silvie Jacobi is an artist and cultural strategist studying urban geography and creative industries at King’s College London.

Images via Metro Centric and Buildington