Cultural literacy is the ability to read, understand, find significance in, evaluate, compare and decode the local cultures in a place. This allows one to work out what is meaningful and significant to people who live there. We understand better the life cycle of the city in motion. We understand more what we see, feel, smell and hear. We grasp better the shapes of urban landscapes and why they came about. We sense history in how the city goes about its business, who the historic names of places refer to and what their purpose was and how that resource might be used for the future of the city. We recognize how perhaps the placement of facilities like markets, often seemingly chaotic at first sight, are thought through at root. We feel the city's economy viscerally, both through obvious signs like a steel plant and through signs of it's going up or down - shab-biness or 'For sale' signs, for example. We identify the social consequences of urban economies in transition, as when 'lower value' uses (for example, cheap incubation units and artists' studios) get supplanted by 'higher value' uses (for example, retail units). Here we are given very clear visual clues as to economic direction. We appreciate aesthetic codes, so understand the meanings of colours, the style of buildings and their presentation. Subconsciously 'trained' in advertising symbolism, the culturally literate intuits and interprets the manifold urban distinctions and identifiers - to whom a shop is targeted, what draws people in and what repels.
Culture is who we are, the sum of our beliefs, attitudes and habits. It is seen in customary ways of behaving - making a living, eating, expressing affection, getting ahead or, in the urban context, behaving in public places. Some cultural rites have evolved over generations, such as the passegiata, the evening stroll in Italy or Spain. Each culture has codes or assumptions by which it lives, and there are expectations underlying those customary behaviours, for example what kinds of acts of intimacy or affection are deemed appropriate in public space. This may condition how we organize space or the iconography of our road signs, which, while internationalizing, still have local distinctiveness. Cultures create artefacts - things people make or have made that have meaning for them. These punctuate the city, typically monuments to past leaders or heroes in the main square or in front of a government building.34 Religious monuments to saints or gods also have pride of place, especially those representing the dominant religion. In most modern cities the artefact might equally be a Henry Moore or Alexander Calder sculpture sited in front of downtown office towers, symbolizing the wealth and power of corporate capital. The meanings of artefacts change over time as new interpretations of history evolve.
Cultures need economic, political, religious and social institutions to provide and enforce regular, predictable patterns of behaviour so that the culture is reinforced and replicated. In cities these are strategically placed to induce awe or respect. Think of Siena's Piazza del Campo. From medieval times onwards in Europe the layout of a town's civic centre or market square has been dominated by the key civic institutions, the town hall, the guild house, the cathedral and perhaps a learning institution. These represent the four powers: political, economic, religious and that of knowledge. These power concentrations are now also more spread throughout the city. Cultures pattern how they behave and relate. This becomes the social structure - how we behave in crowds, make eye contact, how much personal space we need or whether we queue for a bus or just go for it.35
Our culture shapes how we create and make our places, from the physical level - from the design of street furniture to icon buildings - to how we feel about ourselves and the place. So the scope, possibilities, style and tenor of social and economic development in a city is culturally determined. If as a culture we are more closed-minded or strongly hierarchical and focus on traditional values, it can make our culture inflexible and might make adjusting to major transformation more difficult. It might make communicating with different groups difficult. It might hold back international trade or tourism because obstacles will be created to the free flow of exchange and ideas. It might deter creating mixed partnerships to solve problems now recognized as a major way forward for communities. It might hold back developing a vibrant, empowered small business sector.
By contrast, if our traditions value tolerance and openness, those adjustments to the new world may be easier. Those places that share ideas and have the capacity to absorb bring differences together more effectively. This does not mean their culture becomes subsumed - identity is still shaped by where you came from. There is, however, sufficient mutual influence and counter-influence, coalescing and mixing over time to create a special fused and dynamic identity, not one hardened into an ossified shell.
These views about how life is managed do not happen by accident - they are a response to history and circumstance. If the culture esteems hard work and the taking of responsibility, the outcome will be different than if it assumes others will take decisions for you. If a culture has an ethos that assumes no one is to be trusted, collaboration and partnership is hard to achieve and bureaucracy likely to be extensive; by contrast, where trust is high, regulation tends to have a lighter touch. societies that have transitioned from arbitrary rule, which may have lasted for decades or centuries, will not with ease move into liberal democracy overnight. As the democracy of democratic countries itself took substantial time to take hold.
These transitions take generations to unfold in their fullness, and in the meantime corruption is usually rife before uncertainties are settled with more ordered rules and common guidelines for civility. Cities are places where varied publics can come together to co-create a civic realm - a precondition for a confident civic society to uphold rules and justice. This is where citizenship is more important than ethnic group, clan, tribe, religion, party or cadre allegiance. Cultures and societies which place such an emphasis on citizenship are likely to be more resilient, flexible and ultimately prosperous than those that are divided along lines of 'blood' or traditional allegiances.
What we call the culture of a place, whether a village, a city, a region or a country, is the residue of what has stood the test of time. It is what is left and deemed important after the ebb and flow of argument, the fickleness of fashion and negotiation about what is valuable has passed. Culture is the response to circumstance, location, history and landscape. Thus a region of regular warfare about boundaries is one where people are more suspicious than a more settled one, port cities tend to be open-minded because of the influxes of people over time, and a place that is fortunate and strikes luck with its resources might come across as more generous.
The specific circumstances of place and the problems and opportunities they present inspire a culture to find its own unique solutions, such as how to save water, how to gain sustaining food from the environment, how to ensure food remains healthy, how to build machines that work in the context and with the materials available, how to maintain machinery, how to recycle waste, how to build to protect themselves against the ravages of and changes in weather, how to heal the ill, how to appease the unknown forces in the ether, how to celebrate good fortune and be sad about distress. This is what we also call local distinctiveness. It is an asset and a resource with power. It locks up within it social and economic capital.
All this leaves people in a specific place with intangible things like views and opinions about their world and the worlds outside; passions about certain things and rituals; the role and importance of higher beings and the spirit; moral codes and ethical positions about what is right and wrong; value judgements about what we think is good, beautiful and desirable or ugly and bad; and attitudes about how we approach problems, conduct our affairs, organize ourselves and manage business.
The values of a culture leave tangible marks: the buildings respond to weather and wealth and the spirit of their times; their quality, design, style or grandeur reflects the values and foibles of the powerful; how good the buildings of the poor are depends largely on how well they are empowered; places of power, ritual and worship reflect the role of politics and religion; places for culture like museums, libraries, theatres or galleries from more reverential times demand obedience through their appearance -they seem to say 'come to our hallowed ground' - whereas more modern and democratic buildings invite and entice, they are more transparent in style. This is reflected in the materials used, perhaps granite in one and glass in the other.
The industrial landscape too shapes and is shaped by culture. The best factories of the industrial age project the pride of manufacture and production, the worst the exploitation of their workers. Grime and filth live often side by side with the raw beauty of gleaming machinery. Culture spreads its tentacles into every crevice of our lives: how we shop and the look of shops, markets and retail; how we spend leisure time and how the parks, boulevards and places of refuge are set out; how we move around and whether we prefer public or private transport; and, most importantly, how and where we give birth to our children and how we bury our dead. The list is endless.
When we look at places culturally and are culturally literate, we see at once whether care, pride and love is present or whether there is disenchantment, disinterest or disengagement. We see, too, without needing to know the details, whether corruption or subterfuge are the order of the day. Being culturally literate means understanding the weft and wove of a place, what matters to a people and how they have expressed it. Without such understanding one walks blind. And this can all be learnt by paying attention, watching, learning to look closely, finding out how and why things work as they do, assessing the past to know how it shapes the present.
Appreciating culture is even more crucial in periods of dramatic transformation, because it is then that the culture needs to absorb, digest and adjust. Culture, when acknowledged, gives strength in moving forward, even if it's culture itself that has to change. It then becomes a backbone that can create the resilience that makes change and transformation easier. Confidence is key for creativity, innovation and renewal. When cultures feel threatened or weak or that another culture is superimposing itself upon them, they go into their shell. Culture then becomes a defensive shield not open to change, imagination and creativity.
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