Diversity as a driver of creativity

Just as biodiversity guarantees the well-being and resilience of the natural environment, so cultural diversity strengthens the city. Creative places seem to need an influx of outsiders to bring in new ideas, products and services to challenge existing arrangements and bring together new combinations where insiders and outsiders meet. But there is a level at which a city can absorb the new - if it is too much it can overwhelm. What constitutes too much depends on circumstance. The history of successful cities in the past, from Constantinople and Hangchow to Florence, suggests the capacity to absorb and bring together different cultures was a contributing factor to that success. This did not mean that cultures were subsumed - identity was still shaped by where you came from. There was, however, sufficient mutual influence and counter-

influence, coalescing and mixing over time to create a special, fused identity as older and newer citizens changed. The same is true today in the large multicultural cities of London (which bills itself as 'the world in one city'), New York, Sydney and Toronto.

The creative challenge, as noted, is to move from the multicultural city, where we acknowledge and ideally celebrate our differing cultures, towards the intercultural city. Here we move one step beyond and focus on what we can do together as diverse cultures in a shared space. The latter probably leads to greater well-being and prosperity.

Planners and urban designers play a critical role in building city culture and creating conditions for creativity. Their decisions can have a profound impact on the way we lead our lives and express our collective and individual cultural values. Diversity in public space is key, as Jane Jacobs reminds us.71 Jacobs identifies four significant conditions: diversity of activities, a fine grain of urban form, diversity of building stock and the all-important critical mass of people. To which we should add a fifth, the length of history of a building, where the diversity of experiences is etched into the patina of the fabric. This intricate web of diversity is rather like environmental diversity. As with ecological conditions, if a city or district becomes too homogeneous, it becomes vulnerable. If, for instance, one form of activity or business is dominant, and it no longer works in the new environment, the entire area may be at risk. Therefore, very new mega developments rarely encourage inventiveness.

Cities often get carried away with the physical form of public places, placing great responsibility on the urban designer to transform a place through new paving, elegant street furniture and improved lighting. The reality is that many places are dead or decaying for reasons other than poor public realm design, such as failing business or traffic domination. Too often, major city or dockland redevelopments focus on iconic buildings as a drawcard but fail to build in the finer grain of diversity and urban life.72

Diversity in its many forms is the primary element of a vibrant place - a diversity of business, a diversity of activities and a diversity of built form creating visual stimulation. Think of street markets. The most successful are those with a great diversity of products - every stall has a different range and somewhere there is treasure to be found. They also provide the setting for intercultural interaction as people from many cultures go about their business.

The task of contemporary planners, architects and urban designers is to help build rich textures that draw from the past but are living expressions of contemporary life. Yet it is not always city planners and designers who have primary influence over the look and feel of the built environment. Increasingly it is those that frame regulations and standards who affect the way a city infrastructure is delivered. In addition, a large proportion of public realm infrastructure is created not by the city but by private sector developers. This presents a challenge to city officials, who must establish a clear vision for the city and evolve strong planning criteria to influence the work of others.

Modernity has brought with it professional classifications and boundaries between professions and responsibility. Ideally a built environment professional should be deeply engaged with his or her local culture, given the dramatic impact their professional practice has. They should be culturally literate. There is a need to gain knowledge prior to the formulation of a brief for master-planning from as many different sources as possible: a mosaic of knowledge gathered from people of different ages, cultures and associations with place.

Creativity is culturally and contextually determined The capacity to be creative is culturally determined. If the culture of a city, region or country is autocratic or corrupt, it is difficult for ideas to emerge, potential to be harnessed and the free flow of possibilities to be turned into inventions. Rigid hierarchy also makes creativity more difficult as creativity relies on tolerance, listening and a strong degree of equality. Clearly, though, creativity can also happen in controlled situations. For example, the invention of weapons and advances in aerospace in wartime happened in secret, tightly controlled environments and even today new developments in computing in Silicon Valley occur in enclosed campuses within which there is a free flow of ideas among colleagues. The same is true for scientific discoveries, especially when intellectual copyright is at stake. Even here, though, there is openness in the confined setting in order to harness individuals' imagination. However, many innovations are concerned with services, trading and presentation and these require the free flow of movement up and down hierarchies and across disciplines and institutions. A culture which is democratic and where questioning is cherished favours the development of imagination.

Creativity means different things in different cultures. For instance, within certain cultures good imitation is deemed to be the apex of creativity. The imagination is then steered to producing with perfection. And again perfection is also a relative term. To the Japanese eye, a lack of symmetry is what creates perfection. For the West, symmetry is associated with harmony and has a high value. In Western culture there is also an obsession with the new. As global culture is swept up with a similar obsession, so the Western perception of creativity tends to dominate, especially given that the overriding capitalist economy itself is driven by the need for continuous innovation. The challenge is to create a working definition of creativity that addresses both tradition and the future as well as a quality of nurturing the existing and pushes the boundaries into the new.

In Japan, for instance, one would need to ask, 'What is Japanese creativity?' What is the same as in other Asian places, Europe or the Americas? What is specific and unique about it and what is different? The same would be true for Norway, Chile or indeed any country. The answer should be beyond trivial concerns such as differences in cuisine, clothes or heritage. Does Japanese, Chilean and Norwegian creativity work on different principles? Are these then visible in the urban landscape?

Creativity is context-driven. What was creative in a period long past is not creative now, although it may still be necessary, such as the public health advances in the 19th century. What is creative in Britain may not be creative for Malaysia and, in turn, what is deemed creative in Malaysia may appear ordinary in Britain.

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