On 31st October, 64 new cities from 44 countries joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, bringing the total number of declared creative cities to 180.
This UNESCO network was set up on 2004 to "promote cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development." It recognises the importance of the urban as being a key breeding ground for creativity, and seeks to strengthen this element by creating a platform for mutual learning.
As a laboratory, the Network reinforces cooperation with and among Creative Cities. It offers unparalleled opportunities for cities, through peer-learning processes and collaborative projects, to fully capitalize on their creative assets.
Becoming a UNESCO Creative City
UNESCO is best known for bestowing World Heritage Site status as part of the World Heritage Convention, a strictly regulated program with high levels of responsibility and requirements for those fortunate to receive it. The Creative Cities programme expects less formal requirements other than initially proving, based on an extensive audit, what a city has to offer in one of seven categories Crafts & Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Music and Media Arts. Cities, curiously, are not allowed to be in more than 1 category. Once this selection is made, the chosen city is able to attend the relevant forums for their category where they can share knowledge, case studies and experiences. These meetings happens annually, hosted by one of the members in that network.
The peer learning is what many practitioners who attend regard as invaluable, enabling them to leapfrog their growth. Sharing, the network suggests, will: help enhance the cities as hubs of creativity and innovation; stimulate cities to "make creativity an essential component in urban development" and to "integrate culture and creativity into local development strategies and plans"; build international co-operation; "Improve access to and participation in cultural life, notably for marginalized or vulnerable groups and individuals"; and strengthen the value chains of the cultural and creative industries. Moreover UNESCO is a partner in the implementation of the 17 Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. This gives the network a potentially powerful role to play in assisting its member cities to engage with critical world issues, fostering their capacity to work better with culture and urban development.
There is of course no compulsion for the cities to deliver on any of these important areas since the UNESCCO secretariat plays only a management and communication role. There are no external evaluatory mechanisms at present, its up to the cities to self monitor and provide information on progress on goals they set themselves every four years. Depending on the relationship between the city and its civil society this could be an opportunity for meaningful engagement, learning and growth at a local level. Equally and cynically it could result in cases where a local municipality spins its success to appear more relevant. A great deal of trust is thus embedded in this network.
An aspect of the designation and one that seems to be a key driver for local governments to be involved in the program, is the use of the UNESCO designation in its tourism strategies (with strict usage of the logo for non commercial purposes). Thus the network becomes another way to position the city globally using culture to do so, if it so wishes. Thus the challenge is, without external evaluations, a city may primarily be in the network for the branding opportunities that come with a lower threshold of entry than being a UNESCO Heritage City, rather than with a meaningful engagement in the development of cultural potential.
UNESCO's associated strongly with the formal government environment, and it would impossible for a city to be part of such as network without its state involvement. However informal stories behind why and how of cities who pitched to be creative cities, suggests complex local politics impact on why a city pitches for the coveted title of a creative city and for what category. Sometimes the influence comes from civil society advocacy, as seems to have been the case in Chiang Mai, Bandung, Cape Town and Durban. Other times, there is influence from its business sector and even specific benefactors of the arts. These politics of beginnings may have significant implications in how projects ultimately play out, complicated by the fact that at the end of the day, it is the municipality who has to account for the final delivery.
Representation by the Global South
Of the 180 cities in the network 62 or 34% are in the Global South. The majority of these fall into 4 categories: Craft and Folk Art (39%), Gastronomy (23%), Music (18%) and Design (11%). Perhaps its predictable that more of the Global South cities are in the first three sections, more especially the Craft and Folk Art one, it is interesting to note though that there are 7 in Design and only a handful in film (3), literature (2) and Media Arts (2). There is much more of a spread amongst all the categories in cities in the Global North reflecting the more established cultural development infrastructure in operation.
The Network is highly conscious of this disparity of spread and has made a specific reference to it in its documents:
Ensuring equitable representation from different regions is a strategic objective to ensure the sustainability of the Network through inclusiveness as well as its capacity to demonstrate the power of creativity for sustainable development in diverse social and economic contexts, in line with the core values of UNESCO. Opening up the Network to cities from the Global South also offers the opportunity to explore new dimensions of creativity, often more intimately linked to local development, which is also a source of mutual learning for member cities.
The commitment to explore "new dimensions" may be challenging considering the narrowness in categories and the skewing to the more traditional in the Global South. There is little material available to suggest why these particular categories were chosen and why only one category was allowed. Cities are of course able to present a broader vision of itself, if it so wishes, but ultimately it will be sharing and growing in its specific disciplinary area, comparing notes on the similar areas and indicators as its fellow partners in the network.
It will be interesting to understand what this narrowness may mean for cultural development for cities in the Global South in the future, recognising the challenged nature of cultural policy and its implementation in those environments. With limited funding available in many Global South contexts, a city could easily shift all its priorities to one category to achieve narrow aims (such as linking tourism and crafts), and so potentially impoverish rather than facilitated creativity. The concern that it may have negative impacts for the development of the broader cultural ecosystem came up in Chiang Mai, which was chosen as city of Folk Arts and Craft, over the efforts of a lobby of globalists within the city trying to designate it a Design City. This case though has interesting dimensions and conflicting dynamics, which we will explore in a future blog.
The implications surrounding the design and management of the network, throw up a number of questions for further research. Research though is going to be difficult. UNESCO has a extensive moratorium on documents related to applications made to it. This means that it is going to be a relatively long time before researchers can accurately assess what has worked or not with the program as a whole.
Concerns aside, as we move further into the age of the Anthropocene, it is vital that we find collective solutions for the rising challenges facing humanity. Ultimately then, the best part of the network is the commitment for growing the dialogue about sustainability, cities and culture. UNESCO's considerable gravitas enables critical debate to be taken to new levels. For the creative or cultural sector, having its local government committing to such a network therefore creates space for embedding life affirming change into a city's DNA. If done right, this has to be a good thing.