The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Ranking 'Creative Cities': an exercise in futility?

Researcher Oli Mould reflects on the tendency for economic development policies that seek to boost a city's ranking on 'creative city' league tables to paper over the very people and processes responsible for creativity.

Oli Mould

Oli Mould

Cities: Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, London

Topics: Urban economics, Place promotion, Arts and culture

The 'creative city' is often heralded as the path out of the economic quagmire many cities around the world find themselves in. Employing a palette of planning and development policies designed to attract the so-called 'creative class', cities compete with one another to climb the creative city league tables that have been built around a countless array of indices. However, increasingly, these policies are overlooking people and processes that are more fundamental to a city's inherent creativity.

To compete globally, cities are turning to marketing and branding strategies in order to sell themselves as the next Silicon Valley, for example. A notoriously futile example of complete citywide remarketing was Detroit in 2003 under Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Being toward the bottom of many creative city rankings (notably those by the creative class guru Richard Florida) and experiencing severe economic decline in recent years, Detroit's economic governing agencies (such as the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and the City of Detroit) formulated the 'CreateDetroit' brand and enacted policies to encourage growth around creative and knowledge-intensive industries.

This included a 'creative corridor' around Woodward Avenue which sought to upgrade buildings, improve facilities and beautify the area. Millions of dollars were poured into stimulating economic growth through creative economy policies, culminating in 2008 with the Creative Cities Summit 2.0. Leading experts on the role of creativity in promoting economic regeneration were invited, and it was heavily sponsored by agencies such as the Detroit Regional Chamber. However, today the city still has high levels of unemployment and a decreasing population, due to far deeper structural problems that creative policies cannot hope to address.

Jane Jacobs, whose theories of economic development and urban planning have become increasingly beguiling to policy makers since her death, argued that "building the creative city is an illusion"; one can only provide the infrastructure and hope that a city's creative forces respond. To say that a city with higher tolerance or more miles of cycle paths than another is more 'creative' than the other is erroneous, as it implies that these factors are creativity, rather than a precursor to it.

The 'creative city' — the city of tolerance and cycle paths, gays and galleries — is qualitatively different from the creativity that Jacobs alludes to. The impulse to quantify the former is, unfortunately, usually to the detriment of the latter. In striving to climb to the top of the league tables, cities focus on how they can create the conditions that stimulate creativity quickly and cheaply (although it rarely ends up being either), missing or neglecting the role that individualised, neighbourhood creativity plays; and which is often already present in the city.'Creativity' has been hijacked as a pseudonym for the promised land of economic prosperity, in effect reduced to marketing a city, creating a competitive city brand.

Moreover, and perhaps more damaging from a community perspective, is that these city branding practices are designed specifically to give the city a single 'voice' — a singularity of landscape which is opaque to the messiness, complexity and diversity that is more conducive of human creativity. Diversity is often repackaged as a sanitised simulacrum of creativity, aggressively pushed within a corporate agenda, and advertised as good cause for investment.

This is because real diversity contains elements that would subvert that agenda. The 'ugly' parts of the city — homelessness, youth unemployment, physical and mental disability, illegal or unsafe activities, urban subversions — these are also part of a city's diversity and in many cases, produce the most creative processes. This has been argued by Jamie Peck, a staunch critic of Richard Florida's creative class thesis. He suggests that the thesis essentially valorises a mobile class of elites; many younger, less mobile, underprivileged but no less creative (in the traditional sense) individuals are forced out of the urban environment by high rent, planning procedures and the over-zealous commodification of urban space (what others have labelled gentrification).

In short, there tends to be an emphasis on the quality of place in terms of the amenities available, rather than the quality of life of the urbanites involved. This leads to the migration of people from those urban areas which are gentrified.

In Montreal, a design competition was established that rewarded boutiques, restaurants and offices that hired professional interior designers to change the interior aesthetics of their spaces, but this increased emphasis on the visual and aesthetic was to the neglect of the broader public space. Toronto's policies revolved around 'mega-projects' designed to increase the cultural capacity of the city, but placed too heavy an emphasis on the physical infrastructure, and a neglect of the social and cultural milieux that foster innovation and creativity. In other words, it is cultural plumbing, not cultural planning.

This process of creative city branding (via an emphasis on rankings) has meshed economic and political determinism with creativity, and in the cases described here, the creativity of people that is gained from softer, more intangible influences has been defenestrated from the political and economic mantra altogether. Creativity, not the economic version but the progressive thinking that constructs our everyday lives, is enacted by everyone, and not just for those who translate it into economic growth. Jane Jacobs and others have argued that our connectivity and collaboration which is so pronounced in cities, only serves to stimulate such creative forces, and it is that which needs to be encouraged through more sensitive policies of community interaction.

Incubator spaces, such as The Hub in the Angel area of London, are designed for individuals to work and play together and offer cheap, effective and encouraging accommodation for start up businesses or simply somewhere to read and study. Consisting of rentable office space on one floor of an old factory, The Hub is a one of many incubator spaces across London. Indeed there are many examples of these across cities around the world, and redirecting some of the vast millions spent on cultural mega-projects to community-oriented efforts such as the Hub would be a way of encouraging, or stimulating urban creativity.

To make best use of these creative city rankings, perhaps there is an opportunity to create indices or 'rankings' that are more sensitive to the availability of these kinds of incubator spaces, not merely as an audit or counting procedure, but which analyses the ability of urbanites to come together in collaborative places (both formal and informal) to work, play and create.

Unearthing the creative potential of a city's inhabitants requires something more than counting the number of theatres or bistros it has; it requires a nuanced understanding of ethics, culture, liberalism, collaboration and lucidity.

is a researcher at the Globalisation and World Cities research network, Loughborough University, UK. His opinions are his own.