Creative Cities in Central and Eastern Europe?

„A key goal of present-day cities is generating, attracting and retaining creative talent and innovation.“ – Richard Florida

The CREATIVE CITIES concept, closely linked to the concept and development of creative industries and related to the challenges of the post-industrial age, has been discussed and implemented in the West in various forms ever since the 1970s. The concept, in its present-day form, is based primarily on Charles Landry’s idea, who has been developing it since the 1980s. At its core is the contention that present- day cities have a soft infrastructure and that their software is just as important as their hardware. That is why in urban planning emphasis has to shift from an exclusive focus on physical structures toward greater engagement with the dynamics of human beings and the fostering of human potential.

The underlying philosophy of this concept of cities assumes that any locality offers more creative potential than is apparent at first sight or when measured by standard indicators. For this potential to be revealed and utilized, conditions have to be created that will enable individuals to think, plan and act creatively so that they can make use of opportunities and resolve seemingly insurmountable problems of the urban environment. Creativity in this context is understood as applied imagination, intelligence, inventiveness and ability to learn on the go. In an urban environment, creativity is not limited to artists and other

For many years the concept of creative cities was not known in Central and Eastern Europe. The legacy of totalitarianism combined with the need for internal transformation as well as often painful social and economic reforms seem to have, to some extent, eliminated the natural capacity and tendency of urban organisms to create communities and organize in certain ways; almost no city-planning or urban strategies were put forward that would go beyond basic maintenance. The arts were, quite understandably, not a priority compared to economic reform and to this day have to contend with an outdated cultural infrastructure, ineffective management and a lack of understanding of potential interconnections between the arts and the economy. As a result of complex processes of transferring state property into private hands in the 1990s as well as the economic boom at the beginning of the 21st century many cities in the region underwent a spontaneous, rapid and uncontrolled transformation, often driven by a vision of quick profit, while no consideration was given to how the changes might affect the inhabitants‘ quality of life and the cities’long-term capacity to function. The subsequent arrival of the economic crisis had exposed the inability of many cities to provide at least decent living conditions for a life outside the bounds of glass shopping malls and administrative buildings.

The creative cities concept has reached Central and Eastern Europe primarily in the context of the European Cities of Culture project, whose goals include transforming cities by means of culture. The actual experiences of cities that have tried to implement similar projects have suggested that in this part of the world the creative cities concept remains a bit of a utopia. The sad legacy of communism is reflected not only in the remnants of socialist city planning and architecture (which could be understood as an opportunity for change) but especially in the lack of complex visions for the development of cities and regions, a low awareness of progressive and sophisticated urban strategies and an excessive bias towards developing so-called basic infrastructure, without any consideration of its long-term impact or effectiveness. Due to the high degree of corruption, combined with an economically powerful developer class, the face of many cities has been changing fast but decidedly not in a desirable way, one that would help attract and retain the creative class. The political reality of these countries, based on election cycles limited to a few years, is not conducive to the creation of long-term visions as each newly elected set of politicians introduces new plans, concepts and visions, and political success is measured by quick results.

Projects of this kind in Central and Eastern Europe thus have to struggle with problems radically different from those faced by their Western counterparts. A key problem is the lacking positive concept of public space—i.e. everything that transcends the interests of individuals and represents a shared community interest. Physical public space in the former Soviet territory is still marked by distrust, since in the totalitarian era public spaces had been dangerous, linked to ideology and under surveillance. The tendency to lead individual as well as community life in private, safe, “own” spaces is still reflected in the appearance, function but also in the life and pulse of squares, streets, avenues, parks and other public places of the region. Developing a sense of responsibility for common interests, be they related to the appearance and character of our environment, or policies and rules they follow, is a slow process that is further linked to generational change as well as the quality of education that ought to provide a guidance on values, including those relating to the public space.

Over the past few years the gradually increasing awareness of the interaction between the arts, creativity, economic growth and quality of life, bolstered by the crisis of traditional capitalism necessitating the search for new solutions, has prompted a discussion about a new approach to shaping cities also in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. However, such approaches cannot be successfully implemented in the absence of a critical mass of a new type of leaders capable of creating linkages among ostensibly unrelated worlds of the arts and economy, culture and politics, the underground and establishment, the needs of specific communities and mainstream expectations. The crisis of representative democracy and the loss of faith that our elected “representatives” actually represent our interests to any degree, has further resulted in a slow but visible flowering of individual grassroots initiatives striving to affect, from below and relying only on themselves, the kind of change “big politics” is no longer capable of delivering. Provided these initiatives manage to exert sufficient amount of pressure to change the way of thinking in the administration of cities in Central and Eastern Europe they could provide a radical impulse for a positive change in the urban face of this territory.

Zora Jaurová

Zora Jaurová is the President of the Slovak Creative Industry Forum.

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