Making and Selling the Creative Space

Creative city branding is a popular game, but raises questions about who the winners are.

The branding of cities is a difficult matter; it isn’t just one of your holiday games. ‘Silicon’ remains popular, for cities and regions both: San Francisco was obviously the main forerunner, named by a journalist in 1971 to describe the emergent group of semiconductor firms in the city’s Bay Area. In the UK, the Cambridge high-tech cluster and the ‘Scottish triangle’ between Inverclyde, Edinburgh and Dundee have claimed ‘Fen’ and ‘Glen’ respectively; and the businesses in Dresden, Germany, have gone for the charming title of ‘Silicone Saxony’ for their own microelectronics cluster. Away from high-tech, other regions have also sought their own individual identities. Greater Montreal spent nearly $500 000 on a colourful ‘M’ logo, paired with the tagline of ‘Space to make it real’, as a reference to ‘psychological space and creative space, and the possibility of realizing your projects, your ambitions and your career’. UK policy makers have tried to encompass the ‘Silicon Roundabout’ tag with the ‘Tech City’ brand which covers a spread of companies and communities across East London.

Richard Florida developed the notion of a ‘creative city’ then got it popularized and picked up by policy makers. Florida, a Professor of economic geography was curious about why his brightest students at Carnegie Mellon University weren’t choosing to stay in Pittsburgh after graduation but were instead seeking jobs and the first baby steps of graduate life in cities such as Austin. He was confused—why on earth would young men and women in their early twenties want to leave a place like Pittsburgh which was filled with world-class universities and sports stadiums? The answer came back—colleges and stadiums weren’t enough for these smart and educated young people. These graduates wanted to start the next stage of their adult lives in places filled with ethnic and cultural diversity, music, nightlife and ‘tolerance’ where they felt they would fit in. They wanted cafes, musicians, street level culture which would help them achieve not just a good quality of life but also a ‘hip urban lifestyle’ (Florida’s words, not theirs).

These bright young things seemed to be indicative of a new class of people—a ‘Creative Class’ of talented, highly educated and well-paid workers for whom creativity was an intrinsic part of their jobs. If cities wanted to attract the best and the brightest to their doorsteps, they were going to have to lure them in by developing the cultural amenities and services which would please the members of this class: opening new independent coffee shops, transforming factories and other old industrial premises into new offices and ‘loft space’ apartments, promoting art galleries and festivals. Companies had already figured out that certain practices such as relaxed dress codes and flexible schedules would make their organization more attractive for flighty young things—wasn’t it time for cities to market themselves in the same way?

The identification of this new class group and associated creative regions was extremely attractive, not least against the backdrop of the cultural and creative economy and the concurrent rise of the city. The creative sectors had begun to boom from the late 1990s, expanding as a result of the emergence of converged mobile devices combined with the pervasiveness of the Internet and the need for convenient, flexible and personalized services when using them. Many of the products and services spinning out of these new sectors were experiential and design intensive, as a feature of contemporary capitalism was instilling products with distinguishing visual and semiotic meanings. And—of course—the people who were involved in this instillation were assumed to be members of the ‘creative classes’. The recent economic turbulence helped to propagate this line of thinking become increasingly attractive to policymakers in a recession: if cities could make them happen then they could theoretically, as NESTA described it, “kick-start a self-sustaining trajectory of economic growth”. On the flip side, the need for urban renewal also rose because—as of 2008—more than half of the world’s population lived in cities. Most of that growth was occurring in smaller towns and cities which were less equipped to cope with this change.

Bringing smart and creative folks into an urban space, beyond whoever might employ them, has been hugely attractive to companies, organisations, communities, and citizens. Spaces of grassroots social innovations have arisen in those messy spaces—supper clubs, urban gardening, and hackspaces. How the many communities fit together is also complex. Researchers on the ‘Brighton Fuse’ project from Brighton and Sussex Universities are currently investigating what exactly the link is between the artists and the members of the Brighton digital cluster. Do the former inspire the latter? Do they collaborate? Or do the artists just act as the canaries in the mine, signalling spaces to be gentrified and who quickly get extinguished once the money moves in?

Managing this from the top though has proven a more challenging proposition. Buoyed by municipal enthusiasm, general formulas emerged to brand a space as a means to urban regeneration. Although the economic benefits were meant to arise from the production outputs of the creative classes, much of the policy focused on consumption: building new art galleries to visit, tarmacking down new cycle paths to bike down, and, most importantly of all, developing a branded identity to encircle it all. Yet tensions emerge between what people want on the ground, and what is imposed from, or managed by, higher authorities. The schemes implemented by city planners may not be sustainable or support everyone. Making an area ‘bohemian’ may just be shorthand for gentrification, raising questions about who controls and takes ownership of the cultural aspects of these spaces.

Image courtesy of Simon Andersen

In terms of infrastructure, many of the schemes introduced by city planners which are meant to foster arts and diversity as a means to growth have been seen as ‘bolt-ons’ rather than sustainable initiatives. One-time lumps of funding is given towards a marvelous cultural festival and capital spending is pulled in to build shiny galleries and studios, but after the shows have left town and the buildings are built, there isn’t always enough ongoing support for the artists and performers who actually work in those spaces. Moreover, the ‘creative classes’—a problematic term in itself—might want to be in a vibrant environment filled with exciting artistic communities, but that might not be in the best interests of the artists themselves. These ‘creative classes’, if they exist, are assumed to consume—artisan bread, cortados, ‘experiences’—but don’t have the time or inclination to actually produce these things themselves. As a result, when an urban space fills with them, there’s a concurrent rise in income inequality: high-income ‘creative’ professionals need low-income service providers to make their coffee, walk their dogs, and fulfil their rich consumption habits. Some, such as Florida, see these income gaps as a necessary part of the creative ecosystem and has continuously argued that trying to provide empowerment for this lower class of workers through a minimum wage and unionization would stifle the creativity in the area. Geographers Mary Donegan and Nichola Lowe take a much more critical view, saying that this restructuring of cities around the creative class’s whims has “essentially allowed higher paid professionals to live in a service paradise fueled by low class labour”. Ed Glaeser, a Harvard economist, argues that as economic growth can be explained by human capital; that those endowed with that capital like things such as large suburban lots with easy commutes by cars, safe streets to walk down, good schools for their children, and low taxes. These things however may not necessarily be present in ‘creative cities’—or even in cities at all.

Jamie Peck, professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, also raises the point that the cultural innovations and conspicuous consumption which are meant to attract the creative classes might actually be an effect of economic growth, not a cause. In planning terms, making a neighbourhood or city ‘bohemian’ is often shorthand for gentrification—creating a space where the monied middle classes can move in, raising property prices, displacing the existing residents who may have embodied the ‘creativity’ and ‘tolerance’ which acted as the initial bait. ‘Diversity’—sociological, cultural, racial and sexual—is often flagged as one of the attractions of creative regions, yet when these spaces do gentrify, it is often by an influx of white middle class residents who take symbolic ownership of these spaces. Portland is not racially diverse in the neighbourhoods where ‘creative cities’ rhetoric is used to leverage growth, and white homeowners who have moved into those spaces on a tide of gentrification have said, when questioned by sociologists, that they prefer the improvement to the ‘drugs’ and ‘gangs’ which they thought might have been there before.

The changing East London identity demonstrates another issue around the gentrification of urban spaces: cultural ownership. If creative urban spaces and the cultural products within them become commodifiable resources which are valued for economic utility rather than for their own sake, who controls this process and who profits? Andy Pratt, a professor in the cultural economy at Kings College London, saw this effect when he looked at how the scruffy East London region of Hoxton had evolved from a place where, at the millennium, advertising agency’s clients were too scared to visit a ‘cultural powerhouse’ a decade later. In its early days of bohemia, Hoxton was filled with professional artists and first generation new media professionals who produced the creative content that gave the area buzz in the midst of its gentle (and not so gentle) squalor. Not just what Pratt describes as the “consumers grazing on the latest trends in their lunch hours and weekends”. In 2008, a casual comment at a summer party by Matt Biddulph, founder of Dopplr, that the number of new technology firms in the area made it like Britain’s own ‘Silicon Roundabout’ (a reference to the concrete carbuncle of the Old St roundabout). As fate had it, the technology correspondent for a London newspaper was standing nearby, pounced on the term and had it in print shortly where it was picked up by the media and politicians. As the area became branded as the place for new young tech start-ups to go to, the British government pricked up their ears and enfolded the emergent and still-scruffy cluster under the auspices of ‘Tech City,’ although confusingly the term seemed to include a sprawl the Old St underground station to the Olympics site at Stratford some 5 miles away. In 2012 the irony cycle came full circle. After Neil Boorman’s Shoreditch Twat fanzine which had run between 1999 and 2004, describing the new monied pretenders in the area, NK Media released ‘Tech City Magazine’, a bland free publication whose launch was met by yelps of mild outrage from the members of the existing community based around Shoreditch. Particular merriment was reserved for the magazine’s male fashion spread featuring a model clad in a £225 ‘Summer Mac’ and a £295 ‘Patch Pocket Blazer’.

However, as the reputation of the space developed as somewhere ‘hip’ and ‘urban’ and other unspeakable terms, landlords did what landlords do and raised their prices. The artists were forced out. The richer grazers who worked in the financial district of the City of London moved in. The wave of East London gentrification didn’t stop at Shoreditch but instead swept up through the northeast of the city, displacing the young and poor arty types in its wake. In a typology of London Tribes for the Evening Standard newspaper, Grace Dent described the transient abstractionists: artists who had been progressively priced out of Shoreditch, Dalston and Clapton and were—for now—residing in a “vast unheated warehouse space” in Seven Sisters.

Places like Brighton, Shoreditch, Montreal and Barcelona can act as ‘talent magnets,’ brilliant at attracting and nurturing specialized labour pools of smart people and smart organisations. In doing so, these spaces can generate complex and messy innovations which spill between companies communities, creating cultural value which is hard to pin down into simple ‘social’ or ‘economic’ boxes. However, much of the bottom line of ‘creative’ planning discourse centres around economic development as city regions try to find their own identity to compete with each other, signalling their desirability as good places to live and work, pulling in the tourist money and attracting international firms and financing. Simply sticking to a homogeneous ‘creative city’ script may, as Jamie Peck has put it, continue to the place the focus commodifying arts and social tolerance rather than responding to the genuine socio-economic need arising in growing cities as they attempt to find the resources to feed and sustain their growth.

Two ideas that keep emerging about creative cities or ‘clusters’ are that, firstly, physical proximity amplifies the creative process and produces the best results, and secondly, innovation has transformed from a rare and grand occasion to a life ethos. Cafes, coworking spaces, start-up incubators (tech or otherwise) and all manners of collaborative / creative spaces are popping up everywhere. Even Starbucks, the coffee empire, has opened a concept outlet in Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam, promoting itself as a “cultural gathering” space . On top of the local design aesthetic, the inclusion of “a centrally-situated oak table and multi-level spaces that cameo as stages for local bands, poetry readings and other cultural activities” —AR

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