Creativity and the city: Thinking through the steps

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Creativity and the city: Thinking through the steps

Charles Landry

Contents page:

Why do cities want to be creative?

Creativity seems like the answer

Creativity and the new competitiveness

Creating open conditions

The creative milieu

Diversity as a driver of creativity
Creative spaces

Creativity is culturally determined

Different cultures and contexts, different creativities

Individual creativity and urban creativity

Creativity and the past

Cultural institutions, anchoring and creativity

The arts and the creativity of cities

Artistic thinking and creative cities

Creativity and local distinctiveness

Enemies of the creative city

Creativity and risk

Is creativity by definition positive?

The geography of misery and desire

Most creative city strategies are arts strategies

The creative city idea is all-embracing

What is creativity?

Hard and soft infrastructure

Which cities are creative?

Bursts of creativity

Ebb and flow

Agglomerating power

Away from the spotlight

Qualities of creative places

Fine judgement and the formula

10 ideas to start the creative city process

Creativity and the city: Thinking through the steps


The aim of creative city making is to think of your city as a living work of art, where citizens can involve and engage themselves in the creation of a transformed place. This will require different creativities: The creativity of the engineer, the social worker, the planner, the business person, the events organizer, the architect, the housing specialist, IT specialists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, natural scientists, environmentalists, artists of all kinds and importantly ordinary people living their lives as citizens. This is comprehensive creativeness. It involves differing forms not only the thrusting creativity of discovering a new technical invention but also the soft creativity of making interaction in the city flow.

Every period of history requires its own form of creativity. Today’s will be different from yesterday’s and tomorrow’s. Now we need to focus on the creativity of working across disciplines in an interconnected whole so we can see issues and solutions in the round. We need to think both horizontally and vertically, to see strategy and detail, the parts and whole and the woods and the trees simultaneously.
Creativity is not the answer to all our urban problems but it creates the pre-conditions within which it is possible to open out opportunities to find solutions. Most importantly it requires a change in mindset. Urban creativity requires an ethical framework to drive the city forward not in a prescriptive sense. At is core this ethic is about something life giving, sustaining, opening out rather than curtailing. This requires us to focus on soft creativity, which is the ability to nurture our cities and their cultural ecology.

Why do cities want to be creative?

Creativity is like a rash; it is all-pervasive. Everyone is in the creativity game. Creativity is a mantra of our age, whether we are referring to creative individuals, companies, cities and countries; and even creative streets or creative buildings or projects.
At my last count 60 cities world-wide claimed to be creative cities. 20 were in Britain. From Creative Manchester to Bristol to Plymouth to Norwich and of course Creative London. And ditto Canada. Toronto with its Culture Plan for the Creative City; Vancouver and the Creative City Task Force; or London, Ontario’s similar task force and Ottawa’s plan to be a creative city. In the States there is Creative Cincinnati, Creative Tampa Bay and the welter of creative regions such as Creative New England. In Australia we find the Brisbane Creative City strategy, there is Creative Auckland. Partners for Livable Communities in Washington launched a Creative Cities Initiative in 2001 and Osaka set up a Graduate School for Creative Cities in 2003 and launched a Japanese Creative Cities Network in 2005. Even the somewhat lumbering UNESCO through its Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity launched its Creative Cities Network in 2004 anointing Edinburgh as the first for its literary creativity.

Why do people want to be creative cities? Where did the obsession with creativity come from? Firstly, creativity was always present in cities, it is just that we called it by another name: Ingenuity, skill, inventiveness. Venice did not emerge in its time through a business as usual approach, nor Constantinople or Dubrovnik formerly Ragusa. For example, Ragusa was for several centuries one of the world’s quintessentially creative places. It became a link between the Latin and Slavic civilizations and a powerful merchant republic. It maintained its independence by coming under the protectorate of the Byzantine, Venetian, Hungarian and Ottoman empires and by brokering knowledge, acting as a haven and refuge, inventing services. It required intense cleverness and astute positioning. Perhaps today Singapore is striving to be an equivalent.

Creativity seems like the answer

Today cities look to creativity because for different people for different reasons they say creativity has something in it for them. They feel it can provide answers to the problems and opportunities of the changing global terms of trade, economic restructuring, the IT driven economy and a society where a greater focus is on creating wealth through ideas. This adds up to dramatic change that feels like a paradigm shift. Many cities or regions are flailing and many are locked into their past either because of physical infrastructure or because of their mindset. The adjustments require changes in attitudes and in how organizations are run. Yet whilst many organizations claim to have changed through ‘delayering’, ‘decentralizing’ or ‘decoupling’ in reality they have remained the same.

Creativity and the new competitiveness

Creativity has risen too because people have realized that the sources of competitiveness now happen on a different plane and they need to learn afresh how to compete beyond merely low cost and high productivity. It includes: A city’s cultural depth and richness, which might mean heritage or the availability of contemporary artistic facilities; the capacity to network globally and to keep abreast of the best, the ability to create imaginative partnerships so that the impact of projects can generate the equation 1+1 equals 3, seeing design awareness and quality not just as an ad-on but an intrinsic part of development, to understand how urban imagery works through the media, the need for eco-awareness to tap into peoples’ aspirational desires, to develop language capacity to ease communication, to unblock obstacles to interaction whether this be concerned with bureaucracy or by creating gathering and meeting places.

Creating open conditions

The goal of cities which try to be creative is to create conditions which are open enough so urban decision makers can: Rethink potential such as turning waste into a commercial resource; revalue hidden assets such as discovering historic traditions that can be turned into a new product; reconceive and remeasure assets such as understanding that developing social capital also generates wealth; reignite passion for the city by for example developing programmes so people can learn to love their city; rekindle the desire for learning and entrepreneurship by for instance creating learning modules much more in tune with young peoples’ desires; reinvest in your talent by not only importing outside talent but fostering local talent; reassess what creativity for your city actually is by being honest about your obstacles and looking at your cultural resources afresh; realign rules and incentives to your new vision rather than seeing your vision as being determined by existing rules; reconfigure, reposition and represent where your city stands and by knitting the threads together to retell your urban story that galvanises citizens to act. To elaborate on learning it might mean: Rethinking the curricula to teach higher order skills, like learning to learn and to think, rather than more topics or alternatively to think across disciplines beyond the silos rather than learning facts. The resilience to survive requires new educational curricula. The Australian curriculum is an example of moving in this direction.

Given that people now have more choice and mobility about where they want to be the physical setting, ambiance and atmosphere is key. This is the stage, the container or platform within which activity takes place and develops. It generates the milieu or environment. The milieu mixes hard and soft infrastructure. The hard consists of road, buildings and physical things, the soft the interactions between people, the intangible feelings people have about the place.
The creative milieu

A creative milieu can be a room, an office, a building, a set of buildings, a refurbished warehouse, a campus, a street, an area, a neighbourhood and occasionally a city. These places can equally be completely uncreative. What makes a milieu creative is that it gives the user the sense that they can shape, create and make the place they are in; that they are an active participant rather than a passive consumer, that they are an agent of change rather than a victim. These environments are open but they have unspoken rules of engagement, they are not wild for the sake of wildness so that things dissolve in chaos, but they accept we need to be stretched. Things are being tried out and there are experiments. Hidden away in an office it might mean someone is experimenting with new software and in the public realm it might mean a new type of restaurant either in terms of food or décor and style. It is likely to mean that the products and services of the local area are sold and used there. There is likely to be a focus on being authentic, what this means will always differ in context.

The danger is that such an environment will attract outsiders who only consume and give nothing back. They borrow the landscape, chew it, digest it and spit it out. These local or foreign tourists can drain and suck out the identity of these places if their critical mass overwhelms the locals. Look at the trendy areas in most cities.

Diversity as a driver of creativity

Just as bio-diversity guarantees the well being and resilience of the natural environment the same is true for cities. Creative places seem to need to influx of outsiders to bring in new ideas, products and services challenge existing arrangements and bring together new combinations where insiders and outsiders meet. The history of successful cities in the past, from Constantinople to Hangchow to Florence, where the role of merchants as traders of products and ideas was tantamount, suggests the capacity to absorb and bring cultures together was key. This did not mean cultures were subsumed, identity was still shaped by where you came from. There was, however, sufficient mutual influence and counterinfluence, coalescing and mixing over time to create a special fused identity as older and newer citizens changed. The same is true today in the large multi-cultural cities of London, which bills itself as ‘the world in one city’, New York, Sydney or Toronto.

The creative challenge is to move from the multi cultural city where we acknowledge and ideally celebrate our differing cultures towards the intercultural city. Here we move one step beyond and focus on what can do together as diverse cultures in shared space. Our contention is that the latter leads to greater well being and prosperity.

Creative Spaces

Planners and urban designers play a critical role in building city culture and creating conditions for creativity. Their decisions can have a profound impact on the way we lead our lives and express our collective and individual cultural values. Diversity in public space is key as Jane Jacobs reminds us. Jacobs identifies four significant conditions; diversity of activities, fine grain of urban form, diversity of building stock and the all important critical mass of people. To which we should add a fifth the length of history of a building where the diversity of experiences is etched into the patina of the fabric. This intricate web of diversity is rather like environmental diversity. As with ecological conditions if a city or district becomes too homogenous, it becomes vulnerable. If for instance one form of activity or business is dominant, and it no longer works in the new environment, the entire area may be at risk. Therefore too new mega developments rarely encourage inventiveness.

Cities often get carried away with the physical form of public places, placing great responsibility on the urban designer to transform a place through new paving, elegant street furniture and improved lighting. The reality is that many places are dead or decaying for other reasons than poor public realm design, such as failing business or traffic domination. Too often major city or dockland redevelopments focus on iconic buildings as a drawcard but fail to build in the finer grain of diversity and urban life.
Diversity in its many forms is the primary element of a vibrant place, diversity of business, diversity of activities and a diversity of built form creating visual stimulation. Think of the street markets. The most successful are those with a great diversity of product, every stall has a different range and somewhere there is a treasure to be found. They also provide the setting for intercultural interaction as people from many cultures go about their business.
The task of contemporary planner, architects and urban designers is to help build rich textures that draw from the past but are living expressions of contemporary life. Yet it is not always city planners and designers who have primary influence over the look and feel of the built environment. Increasingly it is those that frame regulations and standards who affect the way a city infrastructure is delivered. In addition a large proportion of public realm infrastructure is created not by the city but by private sector developers. This presents a challenge to city officials who must establish a clear vision for the city and evolve strong planning criteria to influence the work of others.

We must be culturally literate in our own cities. Modernity has brought with it professional classifications and boundaries between professions and responsibility. Ideally a built environment professional should be deeply engaged with his or her local culture given the dramatic impact their professional practice has. There is a need to gain knowledge prior to the formulation of a brief for master planning from as many different sources as possible. A mosaic of knowledge gathered from people of different ages, cultures and association with place.

Creativity is culturally determined

The capacity to be creative is culturally determined. If the culture of a city, region or country is autocratic or corrupt it is difficult for ideas to emerge, potential to be harnessed and the free flow of possibilities to be turned into inventions. Rigid hierarchy too makes creativity more difficulty as creativity relies on tolerance, listening and a strong degree of equality. Clearly creativity can happen in controlled situations. For example the invention of weapons or advances in aerospace in war time happened in secret tightly controlled environments and even today new developments in computing in Silicon Valley occur in enclosed campuses, within which there is a free flow of ideas amongst colleagues. The same is true for scientific discoveries especially when intellectual copyright is at stake. Even here there is openness in the confined setting in order to harness individuals’ imagination. However many innovations are concerned with services, trading or presentation and these require free flow of movement, up and down hierarchies and across disciplines and institutions. A democratic culture and a culture of enquiry, where questioning is cherished strongly favour the development of imagination.

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