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What’s the role of creativity in urban development?

In recent years, “creativity” has come to be seen as a crucial feature of urban development; a way of addressing the issues of globalisation, technological change and international city competition. Increasingly, cities are investing in cultural infrastructure and promoting creative industries by zoning art districts, building museums and theatres, and installing galleries and performance spaces in derelict industrial buildings.

Indeed, creativity can be a way to cope with the gradual loss of local and regional cultural identity by replacing it with an urban one. It can be a way to make local economies more competitive, and achieve social cohesion and inclusion in urban communities.

The possibility of using creativity to enhance cities has excited policy makers, policy advisors and academic researchers alike. However, attempts made to produce the creative city, such as promoting and building cultural flagship projects or hosting cultural events, don’t always yield long-term results.

Similarly, the promotion of cultural and creative industries rarely acts as a solution for ailing local economies. In the end, the promotion of the “creative city” has just acted as a kind of window dressing, and has gradually been replaced by other paradigms, such as the smart city, the compact city, the resilient city, the healthy city or even the wise city. 

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However, the successful city balances creativity with economic competitiveness, social inclusion and sustainability. This is the real challenge faced by city mayors and local stakeholders. 

To manage this, creativity must be linked to political ambitions and financial commitments to create jobs and affordable housing for all citizens, and to take action in improving cultural education and sustaining the environment. Otherwise, the creative turn of local politics remains just an exercise in rhetoric and symbolic politics.

Can creativity help bridge the four fields of political action in cities? Here are a few answers:

  • Developing culture-based strategies for social inclusion can meet criteria for sustainable development, and demonstrate competiveness, when implemented efficiently. Careful screening of projects or strategies, to see whether they meet all four t fields of action, will help to identify appropriate innovations.
  • Creativity can be used in urban projects to help remove stakeholder objections and local administrative obstacles. Finding strategic, creative allies for launching, developing and implementing projects urban development is an essential dimension of creative local policies.
  • Continuous dialogues between local government and local people can result in creative approaches, which may even be more economic than a top-down, money-bolstered approach.
  • An occasional look over the fence into neighbouring urban areas may result in surprisingly simple solutions. Even if projects in other regions are rarely transferable across cultural boundaries, they can serve as very efficient informal checklists for exploring new approaches to urban development.

In the end, pathways must be found between policies which favour vested economic interests, those which respond to social disparities, and those which protect the endangered environment. This requires more than just rhetoric creativity. It requires willingness to rethink policies and act in a creative way.

Klaus Kunzmann is professor emeritus of the Technical University of Dortmund. He will be giving a talk on this topic tonight as part of the Inside Out Festival 2014. 
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