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Cities: the cultural dimension

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Guest post by Professor Andy C Pratt.

People in the fountain at Bradford City Park (Tim Green/CC BY 2.0)

I have spent 25 years studying cities, and culture; so it was an interesting, if daunting, task to be asked to write one of the working papers for the Foresight Future of Cities project. It was a welcome opportunity to look at the ‘big picture’ that for various reasons we so rarely have the time and space to do. I am particularly glad that those commissioning the project decided to include ‘culture’. I think that 50 years ago it might not have merited a paper on its own - times change!

I really enjoyed the challenge of this paper; it was a welcome opportunity to look beyond the immediate and the necessary; and toward consideration of the bigger picture. What I had not anticipated was quite how big that picture would be. The task of looking back 50 years was a reminder; it was the start of the 1960s, teenage culture had just begun, the Beatles had their first hits; Britain was just emerging from post-war austerity, and its cities still had some way to go. But above and beyond this one is impressed looking back by how much has changed, or rather was transformed.

The usual vectors of change were evident in spades:

  • migration
  • economic growth
  • decline of manufacturing
  • urban redevelopment

But, on top of this is a dramatic change in the ways we live and work; lead perhaps by the cultural sector with its work in micro enterprises, freelance work, and project working. The field of culture has been amplified in its breadth (what counts as culture), and depth (we now think of cultural production as well as consumption).

Put together all of these elements with changing political positions, governance structures, and funding streams, and mix! What is amazing is that the city is perhaps more of a focus for culture than it ever was. In spite of the siren calls of the ‘digitariat’, cities have come through emboldened and changed, but still at the centre. They are changed, the pressures and tensions are different to before and the solutions must be as well. What cities offer are a mix of the on and off-line, and a form of unplanned sociality. One can potentially ‘log off’ from online communities; however cities persist in their messy, frustrating and exciting ways. We can’t escape the consequences of our actions or those of others and we have to adapt and change in response. This is the process that will shape the future productive relationships between culture and the city.

Culture is relatively more important in cities that it ever was: it is no longer widow dressing, now it is the core business. Cities reinvent themselves in their infrastructure to accommodate and anticipate change; for culture planning soft, as well as hard, infrastructure is the ongoing challenge. In one sense we can say that the next 50 years will be much the same as the last: we will have to deal with revolutionary changes beyond current expectations.

In the scenarios that I plot out I seek to confront us with a number of dystopian outcomes. I am not concerned with the futile task of guessing future technologies or trends; rather the social and economic organisation that will shape them. Primarily, the purpose here is to concern ourselves with the risk of the downside, or the consequences of ‘business as usual’; and, on the other hand to encourage us to be bold and inventive, to plan for better, and to aspire to greatness.

If nothing else, what I think the paper shows is that it is not ‘technology’, or ‘buildings’, but people that make (culture and) cities. The challenge of governance, and the object of policy, must be to engage with this complex amalgam; a process that requires substantive understanding of the processes of change that affect the cultural sector, and its interaction with the city, its peoples and the environment. This is the main message of this paper, the need for on-going research into a (previously) neglected field that is required to fully understand and plan for our futures. This will, I hope, provide us with the analytical tools to deal with the otherwise unexpected.

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Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Featured image by Tim Green on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

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  1. Comment by Justin O’Connor posted on

    Andy Pratt's paper for the UK's Foresight's Future of Cities project is a significant addition to that project - trying to address that multiple, shape-shifting, amorphous object known as culture. It is significant in getting these cultural questions to the table and in the way in which is does this. Many of these kind of reviews tend immediately to spurious and contentious characterisation on which they then build spurious and contentious scenarios. Richard Florida's "three T's" and other kind of 'guru' generated quick fixes have plagued thinking about culture and cities for a decade. So the fact that we have somebody writing who has been actively and centrally involved in these debate since the mid-1990s is a very definite plus.

    The paper has two - really three - parts. The first attempts an historical account, the second to identify drivers of change, the third to apply these to different scenarios - or 'ideal-type' future cities.

    The historical account is rich, informed and open to possibilities. I think it is a little too sanguine about de-industrialisation as 'inevitable', but that is to be discussed. The drivers of change are entirely appropriate of analytically entering such a complex question. The city-types are highly suggestive: Tourist-experience city; Homeland city (a kind of gated community); Campus city - creative, smart and Californian free markets; Business-lounge city; The Omnivore city: Islington in the popular imagination; Edge-city - well, like everywhere else in the UK that isn't central london or the nicer parts of Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh.

    My characterisation already gives away a key aspect of these scenarios. Only one of these cities is about the 'losers' of the past 50 years - the low paid (sort of) working class who are growing in numbers and declining in income. There is less and less diversity of culture. In the rest, well, we have ageing, narrow-minded contented people and corporate business people - and more open, but socially privileged cosmopolitan omnivores - all of whom might possibly meet on a trip to the tourist city.

    It is an odd disconnect - the dynamism of the city evoked in the historical section, and the opening up and diversity of culture, its slipping the net of heritage, elitism and subsidy in to the open grasslands of the (now validated) commercial field. And yet we have this narrowing, hardening of culture, the erosion and fragmentation of the public realm, and the growing exclusion of the demos, the ordinary people who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of all this.

    Perhaps this is the sign of the interregnum we are currently experiencing - the sense that neither social democracy nor the now ragged neo-liberalism have anything to tell us - but yet there is no new scenario. So the odd feeling of possibility and energy combined with stasis, fragmentation, proliferating cynicism. Is there life, and are there cities, on Mars?

    Justin O’Connor
    Professor of Communications and Cultural Economy
    School of Media, Film and Journalism
    Faculty of Arts - Caulfield Campus
    Monash University
    Master of Cultural Economy

  2. Comment by Tom Hutton posted on

    Andy Pratt has long been one of the most influential scholars on the significance of the cultural economy to nations, regions and cities. In his new essay on "Cities: The Cultural Dimension" Professor Pratt offers a particularly insightful and informative assessment of the saliency of culture to advanced economic systems, as well as a commentary on future prospects. An important feature of the discussion is the adroit treatment of interdependencies between politics, social factors and culture in the production of the creative city. There is a generous referencing of key works in the field, adding to the weight of his arguments. The essay is clearly written, and will be of considerable interest to policy professionals and to cultural agencies and actors, as well as to senior undergraduates and graduate studies students in the fields of urban and economic geography, political science and government studies, sociology, and city planning. Highly recommended.

    Tom Hutton
    Centre for Human Settlements
    University of British Columbia