Can culture save the city?
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Cultural policy now plays a major part in how our cities seek to reinvent and regenerate themselves. The accepted premise is that ‘creativity’ is a key factor for any city keen to: redevelop, create jobs, transform its image at home and abroad, build “a lasting legacy” and create “a new sense of pride”; that culture can be a driver in making cities – however run-down or deprived – more economically and socially dynamic. Such influential ideas have resulted in a flurry of initiatives, such as the UK City of Culture scheme (inspired by the European Capital of Culture). The specific title UK City of Culture is awarded every four years and the winner for 2021 – to be announced in December 2017 – will be the third UK City of Culture.
The recently revealed short-list comprises Sunderland, Swansea, Stoke-on-Trent, Coventry and Paisley (‘the biggest town in Scotland’), which pipped its rival Scottish city Perth, which had been the bookmakers’ favourite. Paisley, once at the heart of the Scottish industrial revolution, ‘transformed the world’, but now, following decades of post-industrial disinvestment, and protracted decline, it is culture that is seen as the white hope for transforming its prospects. Indeed, each of the five cities left in the race are former industrial powerhouses that have faced steady decline over the past 50 years; all hope that winning the coveted title will mean they emulate the success of Hull, which is UK City of Culture this year. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has estimated that the City of Culture title has boosted Hull’s local economy by £60 million across the year, and that nine out of 10 Hull residents have attended or taken part in a cultural event in the city as part of the 2017 celebrations.
Some worry about over-claiming for City of Culture, that too many of the creative projects are little more than a superficial gloss that will do little to transform the everyday lives of any city’s residents. Can culture really compensate for protracted economic and social disenfranchisement? Should we even ask it to, especially if using culture as a tool for economic growth risks judging culture by non-artistic social and political criteria? And as the successful city must prove its bid is centred on heritage, some warn of the danger of cultural regeneration simply becoming a shorthand for turning urban spaces into living museums. Is the idea of a city of culture a solution to the problems and challenges that shape our cities in the twenty-first century? Or is it the aesthetic equivalent of trying to paper over of the cracks?