This weeks blog is concerned with Urban Cultural Policy, It discusses the origin of this concept, what it means, and why it's important.
There is no globally shared understanding of what urban cultural policy is (or, as some refer to it, local cultural policies). However, in recent years there have been a number of developments that point the way to what such a field could look like. Much of this can be gleaned from the excellent work of the UCLG Agenda 21, from ongoing work in Australia and Canada with Cultural Planning and more recent work from the US in Creative Placemaking. This has been bolstered with extensive academic research looking at the area of culture and cities. Local cultural policy we shall see is at the intersection of the urban, the cultural and development, influenced most recently by economic consideration, but with a growing concern for the holistic and the sustainable.
The Terrain of Urban Cultural Policy
Humans agglomerate in cities, because these provide, at their best, the most efficient form of human organization at a local level, creating the context for most of the life enhancing innovations we rely on as a species. The mobilisation of culture in the making of cities works at three levels. Firstly the functional, creating the conditions for people to live, socialise and work better with each other, building on cultural norms and values. Secondly the symbolic: ancient cities were usually built around spaces where rituals took place, or other spaces connected to social bonding and/or learning. Symbolic spaces around which cities were built include, amongst others, the Agora of Athens, the ancient Egyptian library of Alexandria, the pyramids of the Mayan and Aztec sites. Finally creativity, a fundamental component of human expression, played a key role in the mobilizing of aesthetic elements linking these to local culture and craft innovations.
By the industrial age, however, cities were increasingly seen as machines for living in. By the 19th century, western countries, a handful of which had colonized the world, set the standard for how cities would be organised, responding to the need to manage diseases, disasters and social ills. Local governance rotated around the provision of bulk infrastructure (electricity, water and sewerage), safety and security services (fire fighting, health care, police) and amenities (municipal halls, recreation facilities and cemeteries), amongst others. The management of the road infrastructure and the provision of public transport were other key priorities. The city had by now became the preserve of the engineer primarily, who, as cars proliferated, became responsible for building more roads and highways. In the process public space and aesthetics suffered and people became increasingly alienated from their surroundings.
However there was a significant pushback against this form of city making from the late 50s, often in response to highway developments, and later against the destruction of fine grained neighborhoods, which were often replaced with massive high-rises as blocks were consolidated. By the 80s these ideas around New Urbanism, had became more commonplace and there was growing effort to bring back the human elements of cities and to foster the public realm. However New Urbanism has been criticised for favouring centralisation, and at the end of the day, it is a strongly built environment centred approach. Arguably, it could be said, people and their cultures are less important than the universal design principles leading to construction. So who in cities deal with the issues of how people engage with each other and their environment?
Cultural Policy Rising
Culture , on the whole, tended to be the preserve of the national state rather than local government. Cultural Policy focused on preserving and working with the nations heritage and supporting the development of the arts, as well as resourcing the institutions underpinning these. At a local level when culture was invoked, it was seen largely as a form of welfare, for the betterment of the citizens. This often took place (as western art developed from the 18th century) in specialised spaces - museums, concert halls and the like. Local governments were in essence service providers and locations, not critical to furthering the cultural policy system. The rise of the community arts movement that came with the shifts in global politics around gender, indigenous and minority rights in the 60's, had a distinctly place based approach with cities supporting art centers, in response to community lobbying, reaching its peak in the 80s. A cultural democracy approach arose, which recognised the importance of vernacular creativity, often alongside high art. This emerged at the same time as notions of what art was were being disrupted by new technologies, the changing forms of distribution of popular culture, and by migrants who brought with them other cultural heritage.
An economic centeredness
The liberalization of the economy in the 80s would see significant cuts to programs of cultural democracy. This was the beginnings of the post-industrial city in the global North. City centers were hollowed out as industries were outsourced to the cheaper and more pliable global South. Focus shifted to working with the symbolism of culture and its potential in positioning cities as globally significant, attracting visitors and investments through a variety of culture led urban regeneration projects, with the Guggengheim Bilbao being the most famous of these. Thus culture become an amenity for urban revitalization and city branding.
This approach would continue into the 1990s with creativity as an economic amenity. Thus we see the rise of buzz words like the creative cities, the creative industries, the creative class and creative economy. This was the age in which intellectual property rights take center stage. The overly economic centered approach would slowly attract significant criticism. Researchers recognized that the linking of culture with economy at a place level had the potential to further inequality through displacement and gentrification amongst others. As many cities, began copying each other, using culture in a shallow bid to rise quickly above the clamor of countless other urban brand building exercises, a global sameness was perpetuated. These quick fix attempts were often at the expense of evidence based, long term planning and did not sufficiently build on local distinctiveness and resources, leading to projects that were wanting in terms of cultural development. A number of these developments would end up becoming expensive white elephants.
It is this economic centred approach that has fostered the most research and brought the issue of urban cultural policy to the fore. This cultural turn to public policy would raise a number of questions about rights: most importantly, whose city was being constructed through these short term thinking projects, with long term implications? [But it should be remembered that these developments were particularly global North issues. In the global South city making, was tied up, via colonial histories, to issues of control and exploitation, and caught up in different context specific trajectories. This however is a topic of a later blog.]
The Shift to the Holistic and the Human-centred
As cities grow in size, become more complex, more diverse, and as climate change threatens their foundations, there has been a growing interest in culture's potential to work with values, to build on local knowledge and wisdom, to shift mindsets and perceptions and to initiate positive actions. There has been a shift to more holistic approaches, recognizing culture as the fourth pillar of sustainability. Notably, the work of the United Cities and Local Government's Agenda 21 committee for culture has a committment to work to further the Sustainability Development Goals, with cultural rights at the center. This approach, has similarities with the cultural democracy centered work of Australia and Canada's Cultural Planning, which is heavily evidence based and uses participatory methods for collecting and working with data. Cultural mapping, which is central to such an approach, plots both tangible and intangible cultural resources of places, and often includes cultural values assessments, it is used as the basis for bottom up planning. Culture can then be used to further a range of developmental needs, including sustainable habitats, safer, healthier, more resilient communities. Economic sustainability in this approach forms one aspect of a broader city transformation palette. However Cultural Planning is more of an approach to implementation than local cultural policy. UCLG's local cultural policies framework is the only tool of its kind pursuing an idea of what a relevant policy framework for culture could look like. It is currently being used by 29 cities, who have adapted it to their local conditions. Cities share their experiences through the network and strive to improve the model. A prize initiated with Mexico City allows these cities and others to get accustomed with the model and to share diverse ways it can be implemented in local contexts.
Creative Placemaking, is a distinctly US approach to Cultural Planning. As a model, it works with artists and cultural workers towards livable neighborhoods. This is a pilot 10 year program (till 2020) to further community building in place, backed up by research, incentive grants and partnerships. It has surfaced a number of useful case studies and useful responses from practitioners. Its importance is in its promotion of multi-sectorial partnerships, including those between municipalities, arts length grant making bodies, arts networks, local communities and the like. What is useful is the shifting of discourse that happens within the project, raising the potential for diverse partners to understand better the role of culture in impacting positively on society through on the ground project work. Again this is not local cultural policy, rather an element of implementation. However we can draw useful lessons from it.
The shift to the holistic allows us also to revalue the original concept of creative cities which has been hijacked by cities taking a narrow economic approach. Landry's book, the Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovation , promotes ideas that are hardly supportive of neoliberal capitalism, as is assumed all creative city approaches are. Instead, Landry provides a set of tools to further problem solving in urban contexts - responding to critical questions around climate change and race relations, amongst others. In the book he provides clues for the kinds of skills, knowledge and aptitudes that are needed by municipal managers (and other urban innovators) to do work that is distinctly transformative - these include empathy, openness, listening, facilitation, conflict resolution and mediation skills. The next level of governance of local cultural policies will need to look more deeply at these areas of competencies, as ultimately, even with good policies, one needs effective implementors with the right abilities to make a difference.
Using Culture for Urban Transformation
The economic bias in local cultural policy work is still dominant, but a holistic approach is growing in strength, not least because it is rooted in a strong methodologies linked to a global change agendas dealing with social and environmental justice. However much is still needed to be done to further a holistic approach One of the biggest challenges faced by cities using culture is that the latter has a relatively low place in the administration, with officials in these departments having little broad influence. Culture in city administrations should ideally be in more cross cutting positions - rather than a stand-alone units. Culture focussed units need to ideally work closely with and impact on other departments, firstly those focused on public participation, research and communication and secondly those working with service delivery departments such as housing developments, the provision of basic services or tourism.
Part of the reason why the role of culture is not higher in the systems of the state, is the conflation, at least in the Anglo world of Art with Culture, making it difficulty to shift conceptual understandings of how to work with culture in development at a local level. The reality of working with culture is that one is working with people issues. This is something that cities, which are used to working, since the industrial age, on tangible things, find surprisingly hard to work with. It is often easier for city administrations, for example, to work out how to build a desalination plant than it is to either shift residents values on water saving, or to draw on local innovations and knowledge to find alternative solutions to water problems. In this way of thinking culture is something that is emergent - not a service the city delivers. Cities are unused to allowing things to emerge just as they are unused to opening themselves up to difficult discussions, since these sometimes get confrontational. Long term change partnerships, necessary for such ways of working, are not easy to maintain and prone to confrontation. It is simpler approach working with people through a tick box approach to public participation. But as those working on growing resilience have recognized, it’s the long game of working deeply with people issues, on the real challenges of social, economic and environmental sustainability, where major shifts can happen in how cities work.
As various scholars have noted, culture can be used effectively to shift the ways in which people think and behave individually and collectively for more sustainable and just cities. To do this requires us to alter our understanding of culture and to develop better governance structures, strategies and physical infrastructures to enable how we work with this new knowledge. Changes are needed not just at the level of policy development and adoption, but also at the level of data collection, of implementation and of evaluation, with a greater awareness of the role, at all levels, of participation. This recognizes that knowledge comes from a variety of places and sometimes in a variety of forms (not simply verbal). Thus there is a need, not just for citizens to claim spaces to engage, but for cities to create more invited spaces for citizens to contribute - spaces that enable a variety of voices to emerge. Formalized partnership models attached to incentive grant making and ongoing research developed and shared are vital, and learnings can be drawn from successful projects initiated, locally and internationally. Urban theorist, Edgar Pieterse suggests the importance of collective learning for fostering experiential democracy as an essential feature for co-producing our city. Working intimately with culture in all of this is key. Thus developing robust urban cultural policies (which include strategies for implementation, retraining of municipal managers, evaluatory approaches, and capacitation of civil society partners), that rely strongly on the relational and are able to work with emergence, is critical.
To make more concrete the issue of local cultural policy, in the next two weeks we will look at Cape Town, reportedly one of the only cities in Africa to have one. We will look at the development of the city's two cultural policy processes and look at what we can learn from the initiatives.
All images used in this article were sourced off the internet