UCLG's Culture Summit '17


The Second UCLG Summit for Culture took place on the island of Jeju (South Korea) on 10-13 May 2017, titled "Commitments and Actions for Culture in Sustainable Cities".    UCLG is the United Cities and Local Governments body, an umbrella body, the largest of its kind, of cities and national associations of local government, and its stated mission since its establishment in 2004 has been:

To be the united voice and world advocate of democratic local self-government, promoting its values, objectives and interests, through cooperation between local governments, and within the wider international community.  

The summit is a project of the UCLG Culture Committee, which was formed with the approval of Agenda21 for Culture.  The Committee is only one of many aspects of the work of the larger UCLG body, and cities that engage with its work do so voluntarily because they share its ideals.

An Agenda for Sustainable Change using Culture


Agenda 21 refers to the broader agenda for sustainable development in the 21st century approved by UN members at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.  Although an important milestone, its cultural elements were minor.  The Culture Committee has spent many years filling that gap through engaged research.  Today the Committee responds to the Sustainability Development Goals seeing its role as a commitment to "human rights, cultural diversity, sustainability, participatory democracy, and creating conditions of peace".

The Committee is formally established around the notion of Culture as a "fourth pillar of sustainability", although there seems to be growing recognition in the group now that culture is more correctly placed at the bedrock of sustainability debates.  Culture in its broadest form, understood as values, wisdoms and traditions, is critical to any mindset change and has to be understood and engaged with productively in order to effectively address the issues related to climate change, food and water security and environmental degradation, amongst others.

Focusing on networking, knowledge exchange and mutual learning, the committee places research at the center of its activities, using it to leverage further advocacy and change through strategic projects.  The group encourages a strong network of practitioners both inside government and in the civil society to work with its research, and its website is an open source resource of material related to the use of culture for sustainable cities.

Anupama Sekhar, Director of Culture for the Asia Europe Foundation chairing a session

Anupama Sekhar, Director of Culture for the Asia Europe Foundation chairing a session

Cities are encouraged to commit to Agenda21 for Culture by signing a simple pledge. They commit to assess themselves against a set of globally relevant criteria which all the cities work with, usually through a Culture21 Lab.  This assessment helps the city to begin to work with the proposed actions that would enable it build on its strengths and address its weaknesses.  To help cities along, a pilot cities programme ensures local and international experts work with cities over a three year period to build its capacity and strengthen its connectivity around the principles and actions in relation to its specific context.   A series of leading cities have emerged, each working successfully with the framework for culture and sustainability.  These have developed good practise, and are able to act as spokespersons for the committee's work.  

Interestingly, the majority of UCLG Culture21 cities are in Europe and in Latin America, with only a handful elsewhere.  This bias may be due to a series of things.  First that the Committee is based in Barcelona and therefore can easily connect with Spanish speaking countries.  English and French are the other two leading languages used.  Secondly, Europe tends to have a thicker and more established ecosystem for the support for arts and for heritage.  There is also a stronger emphasis on the built environment elements of culture, ideas, around livable cities in particular.  These are some of key elements of a cultural management system - a system well entrenchedin law and reasonably well funded in European countries. Latin American countries involved in the network appear to be those who have a strong political edge, who have worked closely with notions of cultural rights amongst others, many have been pushing for radical approaches for the use of culture in development.

A Short report on the Summit

The Summit was significant for a number of reasons.  First it was an opportunity for the cities involved with and using the frameworks to talk about their work and share successes.   Second, it provided an opportunity for practitioners and researchers who have been working with or are interested in the framework to gather and share related practices.  Thirdly it was an opportunity for the Culture Committee to establish some connections with Asian cities and to extend its footprint in an area where it had none.  Lastly, it created space for cities and practitioners to respond to key developments in the global advocacy field around sustainability and to track some advocacy in the adoption of culture in recent global agenda developments such as New Urban Agenda and the UN 2030 Agenda with the Sustainable Development Goals

There were a number of successes over the three days of the summit in respect to the above.  A great deal of dialogue tool place through the various plenary and breakaway sessions and there are details available for the three days on the UCLG website with summaries on Storify

However like many large conferences of this nature, where there are a number of languages being used, and presenters often run over time, especially when using wordy powerpoints, it was a hurried event at times.   Another challenge is that it is often the politicians who get to present their city's work in such forums, and while some have a strong grasp of their cultural development successes, the majority only have a broad view and were unable to adequately respond to detailed questions.  With a need to impress other cities around successes, presentations canend up being a glossy brag.   Failings and challenges are not brought to the surface, but it is often here where the most useful learnings emerge.  Too many people in each session, possibly the result of last minute compromises, further reduced time for detailed discussion.   And while the networking opportunities were good, the Summit could have made an effort to have pre-session "speed dating" or other innovative means to foster engagements.  The interesting app developed for the Summit, with some tweaking, could have been a great way to automate the sharing of contacts, but much more was needed to foster the networks growth. 

Asia and UCLG Culture21


Jeju emerged, unsurprisingly, as the first city in the region to sign up to Agenda 21 formally, and there was interest from other cities, most notably Makati City, one of the wealthiest municipalities in Manila, who had recently completed a self assessment though a Culture21 Lab.  But the uptake elsewhere in Asian cities may well be slow.  One of the challenges is the plethora languages used in Asia, which do not coincide with the three key languages used by UCLG.   This makes the important but rather dense material on the UCLG website hard to access.  UCLG is dependent on advocates sharing its work.  However there does not appear to be many Asian cities  including the many touting themselves as creative cities, who are engaging with the content of the organizations work, in particular its excellent framework for actions.   UNESCO works closely with the UCLG Culture Committee, but I would find later that its Creative Cities programme, to which a number of Asian cities belong, does not work with any encompassing framework.  The majority of the Unesco Creative Cities work seems to be a reliant on sharing of learnt knowledge and networking around projects, and while bottom up is good, it does not necessarily foster shared language around the complexity of cultural policy.  This is where the Culture Committees work is excellent as its framework provides a way for cities to talk to each other, through a sort of developing, open source language.  The framework is balanced, it does not over-emphasize economy, livability or heritage for example, and its assessment tool importantly takes into account critical issues as cultural rights and the fostering of cultural diversity.  It could be a basis to foster dialogue both between cities themselves as cities share learnings, but also creates the possibilities of a shared language inside the city(government, civil society, academia and business), where the dialogue is most vital.   

UCLGs Framework for culture and sustainability for cities set up in its assessment tool, to help cities understand each other in relation to other cities.

UCLGs Framework for culture and sustainability for cities set up in its assessment tool, to help cities understand each other in relation to other cities.

The North South Divide

A forest in Jeju

A forest in Jeju

One issue that did emerge during the Summit, but did not get sufficiently captured, was the massive distance between ways of thinking around culture and sustainability from the global North and global South.  While those in the arts and culture environment in the north, may see the cultural management system of the South lacking, there is a growing need to reflect on alternate contexts and reflect on difference.  In a myriad of ways - in relation to cultural ecosystems, there is a need for hard revaluing of what these concepts mean in a postcolonial context.  These include different, long standing understandings of arts, and of the role of creativity and of heritage in societies.  The following poem, penned in one of the sessions by an urbanist, Marco Kusumawija, based in Indonesia, frustrated by the dialogue around sustainability and heritage, speaks to this challenge and goes to the heart of some of these differences:

Our Gods Live in Our Trees and Mountains...

Our Gods live in our trees and mounts and mountains. They bathe in our creeks, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. They are not universal. They are bound to us and to our lands. Surely we know there are other Gods in other places, water and lands. They call this now "Deep Ecology".
In this undulating lands, too, we appreciate that mounts and mountains, flats and valleys, water and wind are considered very respectfully when one is positioning him or herself, just to benefit or simply to behave correctly.
We see ourselves as a gathering of communities.
We do not think about making our Gods universal, although it is up to others to see if there are some of them universalizable. We would respect and actually feel very happy to know and meet other Gods in and from other places. 
Upscaling is not our mode of thinking and feeling. We can only think and respect that different solutions would emerge from every place, as we would respect other Gods.
We do not feel along with hierarchic structures. We understand consensus and need to exchange stories, that we do around the flickering lights from the fireplace in the center of our big house of gathering.
Some of us become artists when we employ our best abilities to tell stories during the gatherings about wisdoms we have learned from paddy fields, flows of our rivers and sound of the wind, when we praise our Gods or appeal for their blessings. 
We become artists when we craft messages on the stones on the river beds to our ancestors, or to pass on some wisdoms to our offsprings. We become dancers when we compose our bodies to movements that would hopefully steal some attention from our Gods. We become musicians when we harmonise our voices to that of leaves touched by the wind, calling of animals and water and stones when they greet each other in rivers.
Culture is a heritage that we would like to continuously enliven, and not to worry us about their to protection.


Zayd Minty of Creative City South presents at the UCLG Culture Summit

Zayd Minty of Creative City South presents at the UCLG Culture Summit

Moving Forward

Of course we cannot romanticize certain realities either.  As we shall see in the some of essays that follow on this blog, there are oftentimes challenging practises at play in a number of cities of the South, particularly in the abuse of universal human rights, unequal gender relations and/or the marginalisation of the cultural rights of diverse populations.  Coupled with high levels of corruption, this has led, in a number of countries, to extremely high levels of poverty and inequality and worsened environmental degradation.  It is a important moment therefore, to have dialogues around frameworks like Agenda21 in countries in the global South.  The translation of concepts and terms to the various cities of the South and the consideration of how local contexts may shift them, are more vital than ever.