Civic creativity

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In all great cities public-spirited generosity to the city is evident. Yet the question now for acknowledged creative cities such as New York, Paris, London and many others is whether they are creative enough or could they be more creative. There are many smaller cities coming up and challenging the formerly great centres, from Hong Kong to Singapore, from Vancouver to Zurich, from San Francisco to Melbourne and smaller still. And let's not forget the newly fashionable cities like Shanghai, where there is immense energy (although is it really creative, given the constraints citizens operate under?). When businesses can be run from anywhere, they should make no assumption that their position is indelible. Just remember that of the great cities from 1000 years ago only Canton/Guangzhou is again in the primary league. Furthermore, is their imagination focused on a 'just for me' creativity or is it contributing to making the city a better place. I call this type of creativity civic creativity. The concept puts two words together that do not seem to fit. Creativity that seems to be loose and potentially wild and civic that comes across as curtailed and contained. There is a tension between them. The ability to generate civic creativity is where the public sector learns to be more entrepreneurial and the private sector more socially responsible in pursuing joint aims and the willingness to share power, with a goal of having greater influence over an enlarged more successful whole.

Anywhere you go, from a tiny place in the far north like Longyearbyen in Svalbard to a giant metropolis like Tokyo, you will find creative individuals and organizations bucking the trend, exploring the boundaries of what they know, inventing useful and less useful things. Some use their energy and imagination to keep the system going as it is and to reinforce existing trends. This might be an advertising agency devising ways, at times very stimulating but often dull, of trying to seduce us to buy while making it appear they are not doing so. This requires creativity of a sort, but is it creativity for the world? The garishness can excite, the technological wizardry can create wonder, and the irony can amuse. But to what larger purpose? To make you consume more or feel you are more unique and distinctive than you perhaps really are and therefore need that special brand. The city itself is increasingly seen as a branded retail experience that integrates the brands into an urban superbrandscape that becomes the 'must-see' destination. Or so many would hope. In this process retail/leisure developers become the true city-makers.

The city of creativity has different qualities. It goes with and against the branded experience. It subverts the readily accepted. It tests convention. It seeks to be its own author of experience rather than have 'experience' imposed in a pre-absorbed way. Experiences are too often contained within a preordained template or theme that leaves little space for one's own imagination. Instead, the city of creativity wants to shape its own spaces. It relaxes into ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability. It is ready to adapt.

Not all creatives display these qualities in their lives, but the more creative city has an overall atmosphere that projects vistas of chance encounter, possibility, can-do, surprise, the unexpected, the challenging and the clash of the ugly and the beautiful. The more creative city also attends to the quintessentially ordinary (though increasingly extraordinary): affordable housing and ranges of housing choices at different prices; convenience stores selling basic products like bread and tea near to the urban core; flourishing neighbourhoods with strong identities; fast and frequent public transport; and gathering places and walkability. To make these possibilities come true requires civic creativity, because it involves using the regulations and incentives regime to bend the market logic to bigger goals. The vast number of small shops in Paris only exist because they have been encouraged through various regulations over time.

We may care for our cities, but that care is often misplaced. And given a world of growing complexity we can often forget the basics. We suffer from a collective amnesia when it comes to urban lore. Thus we deem ordinary, traditional applications of city-making, like creating a good public space or restructuring public transport, as creative, when in fact we are merely revisiting first principles. The willingness to insist on the basics of good city-making we increasingly must call civic creativity too.

Creative people come in different shapes and forms, but too frequently we conflate stylishness and creativity. Though many are undeniably imaginative, we overemphasize media creatives and artists. And while, say, the socially creative may indeed be very unstylish, they may understand social bonding in important new ways and be invaluable to some city-making contexts. Techno creatives and engineers may have a laser-sharp focus on some obscure electronic problem or building dilemma. The same is true for the researchers in organizations, such as chemists, biologists or software engineers, beavering away quietly, unseen and usually unknown, with a concentrated focus on some minutiae or other. Disparagingly, many are written off as 'nerds': single-minded enthusiasts or people excessively interested in subjects or activities that are regarded as too technical or scientific. The creatives can be architects - some of whose dizzying buildings can shock you into awe - or built environment professionals, painters, musicians, business entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, generators of public experiences and even bureaucrats.

These groups have differing characteristics, although some core qualities cluster, such as a relative degree of openness, tenacity and focus. Many may be smart in their subject but socially quite dull and limited. Indeed many work in the corporate world, with its many restrictions, formulae and group mindsets that may be effective in a narrow, econometric sense but are not necessarily creative. Creative urbanity, good conversation and wit are not inevitable partners of the research or corporate mind. Many of the so-called creatives in fact possibly want urban settings that are familiar, that have a contained edginess or a degree of reassuring predictability, and have lifestyles that are defined by the brands they associate with rather than what they create themselves. They breach boundaries in limited ways. So does this curbed boundary-breaking in one place make up a creative city? Probably not.

The creative city needs the spark of the alternative; the sense of place, of non-branded space; the imagination of the 'what could be' displayed in action; younger and older people challenging conventions in behaviour, attitudes and even dress.

I have said already that the creative city is more like a free jazz session than a structured symphony.2 Jazz is a democratic form -everyone can be in charge at some point, yet when done well the individual performances seamlessly fit together. The creative city needs tens of thousands of creative acts to fit into a mosaic-like whole. There is not one conductor guiding everything from above, although leadership, hopefully widespread, sends out signals of the principles and values that are deemed right. Too often cities resemble karaoke, quite enjoyable yet scripted.3 You read the text from the screen and feel as if you are a creative performer, but in reality you are an imitator.

The following sections look at urban creativity in a few select cities; hopefully the examples and dilemmas they pose will stand for the many others claiming they are exemplars of imagination. Readers can make up their own minds as to whether they are creative at all and what other cities they would have put in their place.

I start with lengthier discussions of Dubai (an extreme of sorts), Singapore, the more familiar territory of the Spanish cities Barcelona and Bilbao, and Curitiba in Brazil. This gives a spread of attempts at urban creativity. There are other strongly creative places like Amsterdam, Vancouver, Yokohama, Freiburg and others, which will be briefly surveyed.4 When reading this through I hope there is sufficient food for thought for you to decide what is creative and what is not.

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