Creative Cities, Creative Tourism
Russell Degnan

On the recommendation of BridgeGirl I went along to the Melbourne Conversations series yesterday, to hear four speakers discuss what makes cities creative. Or more specifically, to engage with the unwieldy and overly broad set of questions relating to creativity and the urban form.

How does the design and built form of a city impact upon its public life? What elements contribute to communities and promote cultural interactions. Is it possible to design for sustainability, in the broadest sense of sustainability, to support a creative city? What are the lessons from our heritage? What are the leading examples of innovation in architecture and design for modern cities?

Needless to say, given such a broad brief, each speaker became remarkably adept at turning the topic into to a discussion of their own recent research, and for one, their forthcoming book. Nevertheless, because I think it is an interesting question, and one I have (fairly badly) already attempted to answer; I think it is worthwhile disentangling the various statements from the talks and the mostly decent discussion that followed to try and find an answer.

The most interesting contribution, and one that I think makes the most sense in the context of what governments can or should do to encourage creativity came from Kate Shaw. She identified a contradiction between the way artists improve an area, and the gentrification that raises house prices and eventually forces poor artists to relocate elsewhere. The implication being that creative areas contain the seeds of their own destruction.

On one level this isn't a good argument. As Leon van Shaik pointed out, when house prices rise, the artists merely move to another spot, leaving behind a trail of gentrified neighbourhoods. Because house prices will always operate on a curve related to wealth and income, as long as sufficient housing exists, some of it will be low cost. The question is really whether some low cost housing is unsuitable for artists and the bohemian subset of society that supports them, and therefore, whether some urban design kills creativity.

Needless to say, the underlying context here is anti-suburban, propounded by a group of people devoted to dense, walkable communities propounding their views to a like-minded audience.

The most significant argument in favour of this view is cultural. For van Shaik, who opened his talk by saying that all cities are creative, good design creates a culture that responds, and expects good design. Poor design does the opposite. Thus, the predilection for good design in cities like Milan or Paris, is different to the gross indifference of say, the Gold Coast, or Canberra. For Melbourne, some parts are obviously well designed, and some not. But in a city of this size, and with so much contact with other cities throughout the world, and their own creative impulses, it seems highly unlikely that those influences can be completely killed. Transformed, certainly, but that transformation would be a good thing.

Following the argument of Richard Florida however -- an argument oft-mentioned, but neither properly explained nor refuted -- creativity is not just the artists and their endeavours, but the combination of creative economic start-ups, and other value-adding service providers that Marcus Spiller identified as the main drivers of economic growth. Historically, no really creative city has not also been undergoing extraordinary economic growth -- Athens, Venice, Florence, Amsterdam, London, New York -- and there is little evidence that artists are more important for a creative community than their (mostly young, well educated and high disposable income holding) consumers. Nor that the latter are less attracted to the cheap housing that attracts the artists. However, if cheap housing attracts both, the question becomes what aspects of cheap housing are important. Or rather, why a Carlton slum and not a Broadmeadows one?

Often this is ascribed to immigrants in the inner suburbs, and there is no question they brought great vitality and diversity to the culture of the inner city. But the main reason seems to be simple economics. After World War II, the housing shortage was so great that any sort-of house would do, and would still cost quite a bit. Immigrants being the least financial, they made-do in the suburbs of the inner city in cramped, unsanitary conditions. By the late 1960s, when home-ownership rates peaked and levelled off, this was no longer the case. At this point, housing was cheap enough for the owners of different housing stock to become, and to continue to become self-selecting: families move into the suburbs and young singles and poor artists move into the inner suburbs.

The difference between Broadmeadows and Carlton is space and access to cultural services. In the former you can have a large land-lot, perfect for a young family. In the latter, you have no land, but access to cultural services that for historical reasons, convenience, and by political preference, reside in the CBD and immediate surrounds.

The ability of governments to provide for creativity is limited, but the current focus for events, festivals and venues in the inner city raises house prices in that area, and makes it harder for new creative areas to emerge where housing is cheaper. However, because the housing in the inner city remains smaller than the suburbs, there will always be a tendency for creativity to reside in those houses, even when, as now, the people in that demographic are growing faster than housing to accommodate them.

In a sense then, this is a discussion, not about creative cities so much, but about a demographic, where they live, the type of city they create for themselves, and their size. The trend of the past few decades has been for this demographic to expand, and to create an interesting environment, somewhat regardless of what government does.

But none of that relates to urban design. Urban design itself cannot create a creative class, although it can inspire them, and it does afford different potentials. As I discussed here, Melbourne's laneway culture and relaxed atmosphere would be different with a differently laid out city and different building materials. Leon van Shaik noted the importance of local input to local architecture, the way stories interact with what is built, and the poor quality of buildings done by outsiders in cities like Barcelona. But if the creative class moved elsewhere in Melbourne, they would still be a creative class. They would (and already do) produce different things in a different style.

Passing Fancy 26th February, 2006 19:08:48   [#]