Successful cultural districts are powerful policy tools
Global co-operation can help animate the cultural districts that are being planned to make cities better places to live
By Adrian Ellis. Comment, Issue 248, July-August 2013
Published online: 01 July 2013
The characteristics of great cities like Paris, Rome, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, London and New York can be plotted on many axes: their political might; the reach of their trading empires; the heft of their public institutions; the sophistication of their sewers. But few cities command the accolade “great” or even “liveable” without a significant cultural presence. Today, whether the question is “Where is the best place to bring up your family?”, “Where do knowledge workers congregate?” or “What attracts inward investment?”, “Cities with a rich cultural life” is the most common answer, alongside those with good public education, low crime rates and decent transport. (They are usually the same places.)
In this context “culture” usually means museums and galleries, theatres and concert halls and the things that animate those buildings—exhibitions, festivals and performances. Liveable cities also have compelling public spaces (agorae) and architecture that draws people to them. They encourage visitors and residents, young and old, to intermingle in ways that destratify, desegregate and generally democratise.
Successful cultural districts are therefore powerful policy tools. For planners they can help build community and social capital; for sociologists they keep at bay the forces of anomie; for economists, they incubate and inculcate creativity, and draw those fickle high-net-worth tourists; and for the politicians and the semioticians alike, they signify and calibrate complex aspirations and identities. But they are difficult to get right, and expensive and politically embarrassing to get wrong.
The Global Cultural Districts Network, which was launched at the New Cities Summit in São Paulo in June, has the simple aim of strengthening the links between the people responsible for conceiving, planning and managing cultural districts so they can learn more easily from one another, identify common agendas and develop partnerships. A successful cultural district is not one that is built, but one that, once built, thrives and animates the city or region that it serves. The network is intended to be a forum in which the conditions for success can be explored.
This all matters because so many of these districts are being planned and built around the world. The arts building boom rolls on, often outside the gaze of the Western media. Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, Beijing’s Olympic Green, the Dallas Arts District in the US, Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District and Singapore’s Esplanade are better known, but Kiev, Kuwait City, Chengdu, Datong, Hangzhou, São Paulo, Taipei and Seoul are just some of the cities hot on their heels.
Tens of billions of pounds are being committed to cultural infrastructure. This investment can be transformative or it can fizzle ineffectually and never quite catch fire.
“Top-down” has usually been the story when it comes to planning
cultural districts; think of Schinkel in Berlin, Nash in London or Haussmann in Paris. In the past half-century, efforts have been made in other areas to open up planning processes and make them more porous, but the arts are often too closely associated with national or civic ambitions.
“Top-down” generally does not equate to “complex” or “fast”—but making a success of cultural investment is becoming more challenging and the time frames for getting it right more compressed. If the huge public investments being planned and being made are to pay off, then the high-profile museum or performing arts centre now needs to succeed in a rapidly changing context. It needs to work for visitors and residents and needs to play a part in the context of the creative industries, in production and education as well as consumption (yes, Henry Cole revisited).
Physical spaces need planning and their relationships need to be calibrated. The small-scale, flexible, experimental and funky need a place alongside the flagships of the cultural canon. The income-sucking edifices also need income-generating complements if these districts are to stay afloat financially.
Perhaps most formidably, the framework for these complex relationships often needs to be resolved at a tremendous speed. This is because cities themselves are being formed at a staggering pace. In China alone, the pace of urban growth since 2001 has been equivalent to building a new Chicago each month for the past 12 years. Around the world, 100 million people a year move from rural to urban areas. Increasingly, these new urban areas are also the major global producers of wealth and economic growth.
The speed with which these new urban areas are forming means they often do not feel like cities, never mind liveable ones, with legible districts and a sense of the civic realm. It is difficult to imagine anyone writing resonant songs about them as they have San Francisco, London, Rio de Janeiro and Paris, even if sponsored by the city’s board of tourism. Rather, the pattern is of amorphous urban sprawls punctuated by gated enclaves and with an insatiable need for infrastructure—roads, sanitation, schools, hospitals, policing, and honest and competent governance.
Opinion polls of what makes a liveable city have a real impact on public policy. Global competition between cities for highly mobile capital and skilled labour has put culture and creativity, and the infrastructure that supports them, near the front of the queue for public investment. If this investment is made intelligently, the significant proportion of the world’s population that is living in new cities has at least the prospect of one important dimension of a liveable life. The cultural districts network aspires, with humility, to play a small part in that process.
The writer is the director of the Global Cultural Districts Network, an initiative of the New Cities Foundation, the Dallas Arts District and AEA Consulting. For more information, see www.gcdn.net
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