[This essay was originally written for Griffith REVIEW back in 2008. In many respects it is the forerunner of the Renew Newcastle project which did not exist (and i had no intention of creating) at the time that I wrote it. I realised recently that i had never actually published it on this blog so to celebrate the recent launch of Renew Australia I thought it might be time to post it here and release it under creative commons]
What makes a city culturally dynamic? What makes a city the sort of place that people want to visit, move to and explore? What makes a city the sort of place that spits out or draws in artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers? What makes a city culturally desirable and talked about, or a hub of music, literature, media and the arts?
The cultures of cities are far less predictable than their hard infrastructure. You can quantify good transport links, and you can commission public buildings or even the quasi‐scientific art of designing successful communities, yet there are few roadmaps to apply to the hard task of fostering a dynamic successful culture. It is much more than placement of monuments, buildings or transport links.
Cultures aren’t fixed or fixable. They are barely measurable. While you can identify the preconditions that led to Renaissance Italy, early twentieth century Paris, the San Francisco techno‐hippie culture, Hong Kong cinema, the Seattle grunge explosion, Melbourne laneways, the music scenes of Manchester and now Glasgow, or the anarchic wonder of early ‘noughties’ Berlin, it will never be possible to replicate them.
They are a product of living things and become living things themselves. They’re fluids, not solids. Cultures flow. Cultures surge. Cultures stagnate, inundate and flood. Cultures pool and freeze, and in doing so they create another landscape in cities, countries and continents as tangible as the legacy water leaves on smooth plains and jagged mountains on the ever‐changing earth. The very act of quantifying these preconditions risks undermining the vitality that produced them.
They aren’t transferable. Culture is the process by which we communicate with each other, exchange ideas, explore possibilities, and collect and curate our personal and collective histories. They are the means by which we learn something of each other’s lives and experiences, and reflect, respond to and reject inner and outer worlds.
For cities, though, culture takes on another role. Culture is an aspiration. It is a driver of status, and status is bound to wealth and prestige. Global cities increasingly aspire to cultural prestige for its intangible aura and because they believe it will drive economic growth. Wealthy cities race each other to build grander museums and hoard ever more of the world’s treasures; poorer cities look to cultural renewal for salvation and rejuvenation.
There is no easy way to buy or build a culture. Culture has properties that defy planning. The more you grab at it, freeze it and attempt to set it in its place, the weaker it becomes. Grand buildings, landmarks or monuments are often the legacies and artefacts of profoundly resonant cultures that echo to this day. But they are not catalysts. Today they are far more likely to be signs of aspiration than achievement, and are no more likely to produce culture than tyre tracks would be to produce a car.
Cultural evolution has more in common with divination than design. A city can’t build a culture any more than it can build an idea, a thought process or a polar bear. Cultures emerge from the spontaneous, temporary nature of human motivations, passions, interactions and enthusiasms. They often form in rebellion and opposition rather than by deliberation and design. They are unique and idiosyncratic. They result from adaptation and evolution, and they have a tendency to be strongest in the places where no one is looking or particularly wants them to be.
All is not lost. Once you let go of the idea that cultures are constructed, new possibilities emerge. Cultures can be nurtured. Cities can seed and feed culture. They can give it somewhere to live, to move, to breed, to grow. And when it fails (as it often does), they can provide fertile ground to go to seed in. Cultures are living things – they die as often from ill‐thought‐out initiatives to preserve, protect or resuscitate them as they do from starvation. They live in a complex ecosystem of regulation, regeneration, tax laws, economic decline and resurgence, subsidy, anarchy, inspiration, history, technology and – most importantly of all – the unpredictable, unquantifiable and subjective fertiliser of human creativity.
Great cultural cities are those which allow their cultures to flow rather than freeze.
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