What Makes Cities Creative?

Calcutta Coffee House - Famed but Forgotten
One of the key arguments in favour of urbanisation is that cities can be creative and innovative in a way the rural life may never be. 

This is indeed a very modern idea - and perhaps one of the signature ideas of modernity - as Cities, at least until the 19th century, was considered a place of squalor and crime. Until then, cities were economic and administrative necessities, and existed in forms of Forts, Bazaars, and after the eighteenth century, increasingly as Factory towns. Creativity resided elsewhere, closer to nature.

Since the end of 19th century this started changing. The improvements in sewage and transportation made cities very different place than they were before. Mid-19th century also saw shaping of some of the great modern cities, Paris and Vienna among them. A celebration of cities such as Athens, Florence or Edinburgh, as places of ideas, entered the conversation.

Cities, as places that brought people together and created enormous creative opportunities, by cross-pollinating ideas and providing ways of adaptation and commercialisation, became the centre of the world in the Twentieth century. Great cities emerged - Chicago of squalor turned into Chicago of fashion, Calcutta the malarial town sprouted its creative energies, Jakarta became the Paris of Asia and the trendy towns of Berlin, Prague and Munich had their high noons and tragic endings. Towards the end, as we came to accept ideas as the fountain of prosperity, a place in the world - a valley, more a particular Highway - became the centre of our universe. We came to accept Creative Cities as a conceptual category, as places which make the world go around.

The 21st century has now made creative cities both an accepted policy tool, with its own theorists, experts and designers. Now, we 'regenerate' the cities and 'build creative ecosystems'. We accept not all cities are created equal and that globalisation is 'spikey' - it makes talents to gather together and clusters of expertise to emerge. We are looking to draw from the history of past creative flourishing - of Athens, Florence, Hangzhou to our more modern examples - and create toolkit of making creative cities.

And, while we may discard ancient ideas of a particular place or people being favoured by God, some ideas of the past are indeed quite useful. We know geography played a role - most of these creative cities were trading posts which drew different people together, as did political stability and relative affluence. But, again, there is no theory of Creative Cities yet. Something that may have worked for a city may not have worked for another. Certainly, all trading posts did not become cities of ideas; politically stable regimes did not always produce great cities, and sometimes, like in Florence, great political turbulence accompanied great creative flourishing. Lack of such certainty indeed makes it difficult to create 'policy' of the kind today's politicians want, and while creative city remained a narrative reality, no one really knows what made them come about.

Which would have been just fine, perhaps, if this was not subject to so many false claims and erroneous ideas. The greatest folly perhaps is to tell the tale of a city's High Noon, of a time when creative geniuses mingled together, giving it a magical ring and making it appear to have come from nowhere. While this was certainly true for cities at certain times, those moments were results of long build-ups, and in them, there were legacies of many generations of ideas and work. Too many town planners today see the Paris of twenties and want to recreate in their 'cultural quarters', some chick modern day left bank hoping for its own Picasso with political correctness! The 21st Century creative city ideas are based on scrubbed clean business-book logic of creativity without its blood, sweat and tears, something that could be prototyped and replicated. In short, the ideas of creative city today are not very creative.

Consider, for a moment, Abu Dhabi, which wants to score above its upstart wayward cousin, Dubai, by being a place of culture and education. With free money flowing in, World's best universities and museums could hardly resist its charm, and duly opened their campuses to start building a twenty-first century Paris in the middle of the desert. But would these buildings and universities would make Abu Dhabi a place of culture and innovation, some kind of Silicone Mine (for real)? One doubts when one sees in the news that an economist who stepped out of line have been tried and jailed in Abu Dhabi (see the news here - the jail sentence has now been confirmed), while his employer, Sorbonne of all places, just meekly dissociated itself, presumably to keep the favours.

Another example could be Real Estates, the first thing the policy makers think of when they think of Creative Cities. They are always trying to build the special zones, the IT parks, the Arts Quarters and the like. The imagined creative city is like this place of great facilities - beautiful marinas and expensive schools, offices with gyms and cafes, and luxury apartments - and these places are being built everywhere, including some, in China, which are called Paris and have its own mini Eiffel Towers. Alas, the expensive real estate, if one follows the story of cities of the past, does not make a city creative: It has the opposite effect. Whatever Richard Florida may say about attracting talent, one must remember Jane Jacobs' formula about old buildings and new ideas: That a shiny, expensive building makes people conform and behave, whereas a dilapidated door invites people to dare to shape the space. Inexpensive bedsits allow the penniless artists to live before they could have a chance at being Dalí.

In fact, it is not the neat thoroughfares that make a creative city: Rather, it is a matter of cobbled streets and shanty towns. Creativity does not descend from a few hot-shots, talents and celebrities; it is known to have emerged, from nobody in particular and especially the misfits. Creative Cities do not 'brainstorm'; they flourish on idle chatter. Creative cities are not busy places; they are slow and the kind that misses the bus. Their real estate is cheap; their universities undisciplined; all too often, their publishing is underground and their liquor bootlegged. They are not full of beautiful people, genetically perfected and smart as hell; but rather of all colours and forms, mostly bad, who somehow make do and challenge norms all the time.

The point we miss all the time is that these are places of ideas. They come together, not because they are ruled strongly and powerfully, but rather weakly and ambivalently, so that dissent becomes possible. They are not homogeneous, so that new ways of thinking were acceptable. They are not expensive, so that living on the fringes and experimenting with ideas become possible. Some neat plan to build 'creative ecosystems' is therefore a non-starter; if that worked, every emperor would have ordered one for himself.

The point of my work is to visualise the Creative Cities, in their formative phases, in its chaos, squalor and possibilities. I want to study its conflicts, its failure to crush dissent and its reluctant acceptance of misfits among themselves. I wish to study the lives of the great, but not without the inconvenient facts of their origins and struggles. My search is indeed for a general theory, but not the kind which can fit into five year plans of governments of Singapore or UAE, but rather the kind someone in Calcutta or Caracas can drew inspiration from.



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