Creating the future of the city - RSA Blog - RSA

Creating the future of the city


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    Polly Mackenzie
    Chief Social Purpose Officer, UAL
  • Arts and culture
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Creativity can help to solve many of the problems of city life, while turning the tide against climate change, argues Polly Mackenzie in the first of a series of articles by members of the UK Urban Futures Commission.

There is no future without cities. Over half the world lives in them. By the mid-century, 70 percent will. Often thought of as synonymous with vice, dirt and danger, the creation of the metropolis is, in fact, a stupendous achievement of collective imagination, where the vast majority live harmoniously in close proximity; happier and more prosperous than at any other time in human history – more so even than their rural counterparts.

But the success of the modern city should not blind us to the challenges we face. While cities occupy only two percent of the world’s landmass, they release 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and produce 70 percent of global waste. There can be no solution to climate change without them. Nor should we ignore the flaws of the modern city, whether it be overcrowded commutes or a dearth of affordable housing.

I believe creativity is the solution to these problems and the key to imagining the future of the city. Creative people have, after all, always been drawn to cities: ancient Athens in its Golden Age, Paris in the 1920s, and Berlin after the fall of the Wall. In the closeness of the metropolis, they found like-minded people, an audience for their work, and, in what poet Federico García Lorca called its 'extra human architecture and furious rhythm', a source of inspiration.

Creative people are the makers of cities too. Modern London is the vision of Sir Christopher Wren; Paris, Georges-Eugène Haussmann; Barcelona, Antoni Gaudí. Wherever creative people go, cities become desirable places to live, because a thriving cultural scene acts like a magnet which attracts people and businesses: an agglomeration that drives economic growth across the city economy.

Creative lifeblood

The importance of creativity to cities and their economies is widely acknowledged. Charles Landry, author of ‘The Creative City’ (2000), declared it the “lifeblood”, equally deserving of consideration in making a city as housing and transportation. In ‘The Warhol Economy’ (2007), Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argued that New York’s cultural scene – its fashion, galleries, and music studios – drives its economy equally, if not more, than law, real estate and finance. And in ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ (2002), the urbanist Richard Florida prophesied that attracting creative people to rundown inner cities would be the means of resurrecting them.

Creativity has been central to the regeneration of historic cultural centres in cities all over the world, including Istanbul and Barcelona. In 2004, UNESCO launched its Creative Cities Network to promote the importance of creativity in sustainable urban development and to encourage cooperation between them. It now has 300 members in 90 countries.

The importance of culture and creativity to city life is acknowledged in Britain too. The creation of the UK City of Culture award, for instance, directed funding and attention to the cultural life of metropolitan centres beyond London.

Empowered through devolution, British cities have been doing it for themselves as well. Manchester’s Northern Quarter is a staple of bars and restaurants, independent record shops and music venues; Salford’s Media City is a cluster of production and TV companies; Birmingham’s Custard Factory is replete with creative workspaces and businesses; and Dundee has a thriving video games industry. Creative clusters, like these, tend to grow organically, with financial encouragement from local authorities.

Renewal revisited

We should not be complacent, though. In 2017, Florida released a book, ‘The New Urban Crisis’, in which he considered the drawbacks of the process of urban renewal he once championed. Many creative cities, he argued, have become victims of their success. The desirability of inner cities has led to a lack of affordable housing and exorbitant rents, which pushes out the creative artists who made those areas so desirable in the first place. Independent businesses and artists’ studios make way for monochrome new housing and business developments: a stranglehold on creative life in cities and, ultimately, on their economic life too.

These are problems we know all too well. The solution is to think more radically about how we can make our cities more hospitable for creative people, ensuring that industrial investment strategies for our urban places do not just bring in capital behind housing and infrastructure – but also support the places, ideas and flexibility to promote artistic innovation.

Examples abound from around the world. In New York, for instance, Westbeth Artists Housing was founded as a non-profit to provide affordable housing for artists and a home for arts organisations. In Berlin, the Department for Culture launched a scheme where young people were paid €50 to go clubbing. And Amsterdam has a “night mayor” with responsibility for after-hours life, inspiring the creation of “night czars” in Manchester and London.

Cultural heritage

Encouraging creative life in our cities will also help us solve many of the problems that affect all city dwellers. By preserving a city’s cultural heritage and creative industries we bring beauty, meaning, purpose, belonging and joy into the lives of everyone. We will need creativity, too, if we are to turn the tide against climate change. It can be used to imagine a green future and to persuade others to work towards it, or to design the solutions that make city life more sustainable, whether it be through product design, architecture or urban planning.

The modern city is a monumental work of collective imagination. But it is work unfinished. We must now imagine how we can ensure cities, and their inhabitants, live well and prosper this century - and that will take creativity.

Polly Mackenzie is Chief Social Purpose Officer at the University of the Arts London and is a member of the UK Urban Futures Commission.

Provide an answer to our poll and let us know why you think your submission has the most impact on promoting creativity in our cities in the comments section below.

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