What is a creative city?

View from a friend’s 5th floor walk up rooftop in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Downtown Brooklyn is changing rapidly. Will it lose its creative buzz?

During an extended stay in Manhattan in 2013 I was given a copy of Jane Jacob’s famous 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by a postgrad student who was obsessed with this great urban activist’s vision. I devoured that book, hungry to learn about how New York had developed, particularly during the 20th century. I’ve had three visits to New York since 2008 and will probably have a life-long love affair with that city. This is a common affliction; I am obviously not the first to have ‘suffered’ the lure of this great city.

Many creatives are drawn to the New York, and most would agree that it’s a creative city. But what exactly is meant by the term ‘creative city’?

In 1988, David Yencken wrote an article in the much-loved Australian literary journal, Meanjin. In doing so, he coined the concept ‘creative city’. Sadly, that article sits behind a paywall, but you can access another article written by David in 2013 on the topic of creative cities here to get a sense of his perspective.

Creative cities nurture and value creativity. They do this through experiences and developing a sense of place. In short, it’s about cultivating a city’s mindset. Because of this, these kinds of cities attract creative talent in all dimensions – creative thinkers and problems solvers of ‘hard’ city infrastructure issues, and those who can help work on ‘soft’ infrastructure issues (think social connection) such artists and designers. For more information on what is meant by hard and soft in this context check our Charles Landy’s book, The creative city: a toolkit for urban innovators.

Curiosity is a key part of the cocktail of what makes some cities hum with creativity. A city whose culture is open and curious and reflects this on a structural level (for example, being open to proposals to do things differently and thinking laterally about how permission can be given to these ideas) fosters an environment that’s conducive to creative thinking and activity.

Jane Jacobs reminds us that cites are complex systems. This is a good thing, and something to encourage. Variety and diversity are key elements to complexity and contribute to a level of dynamism that cities need. For example, cities that rely on one or two dominant industries don’t offer this diversity, and find it harder to evolve because they simply don’t have the variety of people, knowledge, skills, desires, and human energy that is needed to keep the city ecosystem functioning and creative.

Creativity is about generating ideas, but also about implementing them. This too, is the case for creative cities as David Yencken points out.

All of this has led to me to think about cities like Melbourne, but also Lisbon, Berlin, Philadelphia, Newcastle (in Australia), and others that are often spoken of as being creative cities. After moving back to Sydney in 2014 following 17 years of living in Kyoto and Melbourne, oddly, every time I met a Sydney-sider they seemed to be shocked that someone would voluntarily leave Melbourne to live in Sydney. Why on earth would you do that, one guy asked? Don’t you know Sydney folk are moving to Melbourne in droves, was his follow up. When I asked why, he told me Melbourne’s such a great city, and so creative! Since then, I’ve been told this over and over. Ah…. the great Sydney versus Melbourne debate. It’s a long, and somewhat boring one that Australians know well.

If we think about creatives and creative cities, affordability is definitely a criterion. Melbourne is expensive to live in, but Sydney is far more expensive especially when accommodation is taken into account. This is also the case with Lisbon, which is currently experiencing an enormous surge in popularity with start-ups and all kinds of creative endeavours. Creatives find it affordable (and incredibly beautiful). Affordability is also one of the reasons why people flocked to Berlin over a decade ago.

How cities become known as creative hubs is also tied up with history, of course. They don’t operate in cultural or economic or historical vacuums. Berlin is a great example of this.

Industry has a role in shaping creative cities too. Winifred Curran wrote a great article on this topic about Williamsburg in Brooklyn. She argues that creative cities draw from the innovation inherent in traditional industries like manufacturing, and asks us to think broadly about economic activity in cities.

Architecture and the built environment also play a role. That is, how a city looks and feels impacts who is attracted to it, how they behave, and what they do there. A new book, Welcome to your world. How the built environment shapes our lives by Sarah Williams Goldhagen unpacks this topic. I heard an interview with Sarah on The Urbanist recently, and really resonated with her views on how architectural design shapes the human experience in cities. Sarah argues for thoughtful, human-centred design. Which sounds obvious, but is an often neglected part of the way cities are designed and developed according to Sarah. It’s hard not to think about how this might impact on creativity.

When Richard Florida wrote his book The rise of the creative class in 2002 the creative city concept really took off and became part of mainstream thinking and conversation. There have been many critics of this work, mostly because of the belief that it oversimplifies things and proposes a formulaic view of how a creative city can be made. In reality, as Jane Jacobs pointed out in the early 60s, great cities are complex. I’ve not read it yet, but Richard Florida has just published a new book, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It. The title alone suggests a desire to address an important issue on the rise in all cities, be they ‘creative’ or some other kind: the growing economic divide and inequality.

So what is a creative city? Complex, varied, open, risky, green, affordable, diverse, curious, stimulating, digital, aesthetically alive, sustainable, fair, and just are words that come time mind for me. How about you?

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