The Creative City: Irresistible Temptation of Utopia

15. 3. 2017

The idea of creative cities – still a current hot topic in urban studies—is increasingly confronted with the notion of smart cities. Both concepts reflect frantic attempts to answer the questions, what is a city and what should a city become in the post-industrial era.

What is a city? This question seems to be by far trivial and the answer to it quite obvious. If so, than why are thousands volumes of studies published trying to come up with the answer, many of which are widely recognized as outstanding creations of human intellect? Take The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin. If you combine this with “urban” literature, it turns out that the phenomenon of a city is actually quite unfathomable and escapes easy descriptions. Just like life. Because the city is pure life, in all its aspects and with all its pressures.

Cities last throughout history, at the same time evolving but not losing their identities. This idea has been perfectly conceptualized by Thomas Pynchon, the author of the epic novel Against the Day depicting the city of Lwów-Lviv-Leopolis-Lemberg; a city which endured in the same place for centuries, even though it frequently changed national hands throughout the period. Despite such shifts and human migration resulting from them, the foundations of the city survives as a living and continuously reproducing myth.

Still the myth itself will not suffice to feed its inhabitants and fulfil their needs. After all, a city is a functional machine which not only serves the purpose of reproduction of the founding narrative, but, more importantly, of development through production, creation, education and entertainment. And this is what makes cities so vulnerable to any social and economic transformations.

An Arsenal of Freedom

Nowadays, huge and previously opulent metropolises of the industrial era are often withering in a state of atrophy. Just think of Detroit, which in the past was known as an arsenal of freedom, the largest factory in the world, mobilized during the 2nd World War to manufacture weapons for the Allied forces. The 1960s marked the end of the industrial era, along with the demise of the splendor of Detroit. The city depopulated despite efforts undertaken time and again to bring new life to it. It does not attract new residents and its future is up in the air.

A similar process—though to a less dramatic extent—can be observed in the Polish city of Lodz. Once it was the fastest growing city of the Russian Empire. During Communist rule in Poland it was the capital of the textile industry. After 1989 the city was affected by post-industrial transformations. Successive weaving plants went into decline when confronted with competition from developing countries. Hence, the weaving plants were relocated to Asia or they shifted to cottage industries and artisanal manufacturing systems. In Warsaw, where in 1989 the plants of Czerwona Wola still extended to the very center of the city, you will not find virtually any large-scale industrial manufacturing any more. The abandoned facilities have been taken over by banks or by bankruptcy trustees.

Even in Gdansk—promoted under the slogan “The city of freedom and solidarity”—the very cradle of those ideas, the Gdansk Shipyard, is fading away, waiting to be transformed into the “Young City” (in other words: a postmodern housing, service and commercial park). There is no way to stop the post-industrial transformation. But let’s not look at it as destruction of old forms of life, but rather as an optimistic phenomenon indicative of progress. After all, the former economic model has been replaced with a new economy, based on information, knowledge, innovation and creativity.

In fact, even Karl Marx in his Grundrisse predicted the growing economic significance of general intellect, the social reason, which is precisely the knowledge accumulated in people’s heads and machines. Whether we want it or not, production and consumption is heading towards the segment of services and nonmaterial, symbolic goods such as works of culture or other goods, which require sophisticated cultural competence. In the industrial era, a barber was simply expected to cut hair in the same way, be it for a soldier or for a worker. Today he has to satisfy the taste of an individual consumer for whom a haircut is a crucial element of his or her personal identity and system of values. The same applies to all other needs: they have lost their simplicity and have become subject to a more and more sophisticated consumerism. Thus, the Industrial City has turned into the Creative City.

Steam From Coffee Machines

In his iconic work The Creative City (recently published in Polish as a release of Polish National Centre for Culture), Charles Landry depicts the very beginnings of this transformation. This is a positive idea, which says that the fall of coalmines in Katowice, or of the coke plants in the Ruhr area, mark historical progress. The old production forms, based on physical labor, are giving way to more elegant and creative ones, based on the creative abilities of the human mind, just fit for the masses of increasingly educated youth. The smoke from factory chimneys will be replaced by the steam from coffee machines, located in lofts and centers for creative and cultural industries. Instead of tractors, we will be producing software, advertisements, multimedia, computer games; we will be creating technical and financial innovations and developing industrial designs. This vision is so beautiful, that only an idiot would not like to join in. The sense of decline turns into the vision of marvelous future, right at our fingertips—if only the residents of cities and their wise authorities follow the direction formulated by the gurus of creative transformation: the aforementioned Charles Landry or the American Richard Florida.

Richard Florida became famous after publishing his book The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002 in which he popularized—and at the same time ideologized—thinking about the post- industrial city. Florida dealt with the following questions: What influences the development dynamics of urban areas? Why is Austin, Texas flourishing, when Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is unable to come up with an idea for itself, despite its great infrastructure and an even better track record?

Having conducted comparative analyses, Florida came to the conclusion that the major development source for cities is creative capital— this notion is composed of three elements, the famous “3Ts”: talent, tolerance and technology. Hence, you need well-developed infrastructure based on advanced technologies and a resource base to develop it. You need extensive—and exceeding the critical mass—resources of creative people. And finally, you need an axio-normative environment which accepts otherness and is open to innovation. If you have all those components in place, the Matthew effect will apply: A city with high creative capital will attract other creative people; creative economy will burgeon, and the driving force will swing into action, with no reason for a sudden failure. An epitome of this process is surely San Francisco.

Analyses by Landry and Florida were not limited to mere description. They also contain suggestions on how to transform a declining post-industrial city into a flourishing creative city. Firstly, you need to unleash creativity of its current residents. This means you need to invest in infrastructure, which corresponds, with the needs of the creative class. And this concept is another crucial idea coined by Richard Florida. Decent museums, favorable conditions for the development of a music scene, good quality public spaces, good schools and universities, restaurants or clubs—they might prove more important than various sorts of business incubators or technological parks might. Those will be established anyway, as long as the city has managed to attract creative and innovative people. But they will not be tempted by the incubators but by good living conditions. Interestingly, Florida advises against huge investments in sports venues—this has been apparently ignored by the authorities of Polish cities.

A perfect example of a transformation into a creative city is the Basque Bilbao. A key investment, which changed the nature of this center, was the Guggenheim Museum. This avant-garde piece of architecture designed by Frank Gehry altered both the city’s landscape, with a shipyard and a harbor, but also its economy. This transformation served as a catalyst for the development of creative industries and qualified tourism focused on the consumption of works of culture. And thus the word spread of the “Bilbao effect” which stands for a miracle which can be a result of a daring investment into the development of creative capital. No wonder then that the dazzling Bilbao effect was passed on to other cities who are wrestling with the post-industrial demise. Who would not like to get out of the basement through the creation of a branch of Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou or something of their own creation but designed by such celebrities as Gehry or Calatrava?

In fact, the list of cities that jumped on the creative bandwagon is endless. Just think of Glasgow, Berlin, Manchester and all the Polish contenders in the 2016 European Capital of Culture competition. Warsaw wants to be creative, Lodz wants to be a center for creative industries, and Gdansk participates in the Central European network of Creative Cities. Creative Wroclaw is going to be European Capital of Culture 2016. In Katowice, on the premises of the former “Kleofas” coalmine, a gigantic Silesia City Centre has been opened, inaugurated—creatively—by Paris Hilton. At the same time, statistics have shown that digital industry in Poland has greater share in Polish GDP than the mining industry.

Proletarians with Degrees

World’s economic crisis has become an opportunity to verify the idea of creative cities. The results of this test are quite far from what they promised at the beginning. Spanish cities, which invested in cultural venues, are now hardly able to maintain them. Creative economy has not turned out to be a driving force. The 60% unemployment rate among Spanish youth applies mainly to those who hoped to become members of the creative class in the future.

Berlin, time and again quoted as one of the most creative places in Europe, is still living off its function as the capital city of Germany. The creative sector does flourish there because there is no fully fledged real economy and so living costs and rental costs of buildings and houses are low enough to be affordable for the bohemia and immigrants. So you do have color and creativity there, with the cultural offer burgeoning and attracting tourists. But let’s face it: is Berlin, the capital of wealthy Germany, a good pattern to be followed by other cities?

Undoubtedly, the transformation of the cities of the Ruhr area in North Rhine-Westphalia is more adequate. In the 1950s, as many as 480,000 miners were employed in 400 local coalmines. In 2007, only six facilities were operating with only 20,000 positions. Parallel to restructuring the heavy industry, investments were launched to develop the creative sector. After barely two decades of implementation of this strategy in North Rhine-Westphalia, 50,000 enterprises employ over 200,000 people and generate €36 billion of annual productivity. Yet, one needs to bear in mind two things. Firstly, creative industries rest on self-employment and microenterprises, and the precariat is its immanent element. Secondly, creative transformation of the Ruhr area took place in the center of a vivid cultural world, within a society with appropriately developed cultural competence.

And this seems to be a fact frequently forgotten by advocates of creative transformation in such states as Poland. They concentrate on supply and ignore the fact that you also need demand for creative production. This however requires the systematic development of cultural needs and competence of the society. Unfortunately, looking at the statistics regarding participation in cultural life, at least in Poland, you can clearly observe the process of growing proletarianization of people, which also applies to those with university degrees.

And so, does it render the idea of creative transformation of cities pointless? Is it a humbug? Just the opposite. But to make it work, you need real creativity rather than dogmatism and slavish imitation.

Edwin Bendyk

is the president of the Batory Foundation in Warsaw, a commentator for the Polityka weekly, and the author of numerous books, the latest of which is W Polsce, czyli wszędzie. Rzecz o upadku i przyszłości świata [In Poland, or Everywhere. On the Collapse and Future of the World] (2020).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.