Creative culture-based town development

One of the core CreativeCH topics is the role of cultural heritage and other cultural resources in city and regional development. We highlight “creative” development which embraces the Europe 2020 focus on “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth” with a special emphasis on culture-based creativity.

It is clear that this is not primarily about cultural heritage, rather cultural heritage organisations will benefit from a wider perspective. In turn, the contributions of cultural heritage to major policy objectives can become much clearer and tangible. Below we focus on small to medium-size towns that want to benefit more from available cultural assets. These are not necessarily the “creative cities” which urban development consultants have been promoting since some years. Typically the examples have been larger booming cities, which are known to attract most creative industries businesses as well as are the main places of the larger cultural institutions. However, promoting creative businesses, and a creative environment in general, is certainly also one element in a creative development strategy of smaller towns.

We suggest that towns should develop a cultural environment that combines in an integrated way several elements. The reference examples are neither large “creative cities” nor small “historic towns” which are mainly known for their unique historic environment.

Medium-size towns with more modern than historic features cannot mainly count on the attraction value of built cultural heritage and a specific historical atmosphere. However, what people – residents and visitors – perceive and experience is a major factor in creative town development. It is not primarily about being “historic”, but being a place where people want to live and work, a high-quality environment that combines authentic historic and vibrant new elements.

Culture-based development strategies

Below we present some elements that can be combined to create a high-quality environment for residents and visitors, emphasising cultural and creative elements:

Built cultural and industrial heritage

Well-preserved and used built historic environment, cultural as well as industrial heritage buildings is a major asset of any town. Investments in this asset should add to the overall fabric of economic, social and cultural life in the town. Such investments will often require finding new uses of historic buildings that allow for a return on investment (e.g., higher prices of office spaces in a central area of the town). Also industrial heritage buildings in a more peripheral area can be considered for revitalization, e.g. as affordable spaces for creative businesses. In general there is strong case for case for regenerating historic buildings. Because such buildings have multiple layers of value comprising historic character, architectural distinctiveness, local identity and colour, prestige of ownership, etc. Preservation of historic buildings can indeed make good sense in economic and social terms (cf. Rypkema 2005; Heritage Works 2013)

“Slow town” approach

Towns will greatly from being “slow” gentle places that emphasize quality of life and local specificities which allow for avoiding the “sameness” that has afflicted many urban centres. This is also a counter-strategy to the effects of hyper-activity in large cities that market themselves as vibrant places of production and consumption. Too much stress is produced by overloading the infrastructure and social places with various functions, economic interests and marketing. The “slow town” approach has been developed and promoted by the Cittaslow initiative, started in 1999 in Italy. Cittaslow International is now a network of 182 towns in 28 countries in different parts of the world. The initiative provides a certification mechanism for towns whose population should not exceed 50,000: candidate towns must sign up to an action plan, covering everything from good eating to the quality of hospitality facilities and the state of the urban fabric.

Fostering creative businesses

Availability of creative, highly skilled people is a precondition for a competitive and innovative region, city or town. Talented people must be nourished, retained and supported in developing creative businesses, e.g., through making available affordable office spaces with appropriate infrastructure. State-of-the-art ICT infrastructure and high-bandwidth Internet connection may be of particular importance for creative businesses and a cultural quarter (see below). However, it should be noted that companies that emerge from creative industry initiatives typically are small service companies (up to 10 employees, but more likely micro-businesses) in fields such as media, software, visual arts, design, fashion, etc. (cf. Wiesand and Söndermann 2005)

Crafts and labelled products inspired by regional cultural heritage

Also a field of creative development can be reviving and promoting crafts and products of craftsmanship and traditional artistic work. Such products typically are inspired by regional cultural heritage (e.g., materials, shapes, colours of historic ceramics, glassware, dress or furniture). Reviving this field means to emphasise the specificity of local crafts and the quality of the products. For such products a label may be established and marketed which gives an incentive to high quality and helps in protecting and distinguishing local products from the assortment of cheap imported products that are usually sold at tourist places (Russo, Santagata and Ghafele 2007).

Creative culture programmes

Such programmes cater for people’s growing thirst for personal fulfilment, which is one of the most important drivers of the interest in creative tourism. The programmes can comprise courses in restoration work, music, cooking and culinary culture, handcrafts workshops with local producers etc. (see CreativeBreaks for many further examples). In creative programmes tourists can develop a closer relationship with local communities and places. They do not require much investment, but allow for using creative competences and skills of local people. This gives them “more of a stake in tourism, becoming active producers of tourism experiences, rather than extras in a show of staged authenticity”. (Richards & Wilson 2006)

Creative offerings will ideally relate to relevant local cultural themes, i.e. there should be specific reasons for cultural tourists to engage in specific creative activities in the town and surrounding areas (e.g. traditional handcrafts, music, ceramics, etc.). In economic terms, creative cultural tourists will stay longer in the region, e.g., an extended weekend, whole week or even longer, depending on the type of courses and other activities offered.

Quality accommodation and gastronomy

Towns should also foster the development of hotels that have a unique style and charm, e.g., “boutique hotels” in buildings with historic character. Concerning gastronomy, the concept of “slow food” is worth to consider. Rather than repeating the typical formulas of “traditional food” and “local recipes” it is important to emphasize the creative reinterpretation of the regional cuisine by a gastronomy that is focused on quality and hospitality.

Quality retail development

A town will benefit from a clear-cut retail development strategy that allows for becoming “a good place to shop”. Such a strategy should foster quality retailers and shops of regional producers rather than standardized stores of large retail chains. (English Heritage 2005) The strategy can also include limiting, at important places of interest, the number of typical souvenir shops or, worse, temporary outlets of low quality, cheap goods that have no relationship whatsoever with the town.

Connecting with the region and natural environment

For tourism in large cities (i.e. “city breaks”) the wider region and natural surroundings are not relevant in most cases. However, for smaller towns and the whole region it is important to combine and thereby strengthen cultural, natural and other assets in the region. In peripheral regions the nearest larger town is often a crucial access hub for transport and services not available in remote places.

Visitors who stay in the countryside for cycling, hiking, golfing etc. will also take the opportunity to visit the town. Visitors and residents of the town can benefit from leisure and wellness offerings in natural areas outside the town. The intention to combine specific offerings can be an important factor in the decision to visit the region.

Cultural quarter strategy

A medium-size town can also consider a cultural quarter strategy of pooling, supporting and stimulating synergies between a variety of cultural, creative, shopping and leisure resources. (Mommaas 2004; Evans 2009) The result should be an attractive and dynamic mix of cultural institutions, small creative businesses, boutiques of local producers, cafés, restaurants, etc. Ideally the cultural quarter strategy is used to revitalize an area of the town and aims at creating a quarter and street life that is attractive also for cultural and creative tourists.

Cultural events that reinforce regional assets

Key events such as festivals should highlight and strengthen aspects that are distinctive for the town and wider region, i.e. not produce a spectacle that lacks clear relations with local and regional assets. Linked up with creative development goals, larger events can act as additional engines to create momentum, involve a wider group of stakeholders and sponsors, infuse expertise and know-how from invited professionals, and leverage the attention and interest of the media for the town. Rather than an approach of “something for everybody”, key events should be thematically focused and build on a critical mass of related regional activity. This is more likely to be supported by sponsors and the media than cultural imports from elsewhere that have no tangible basis in the region (cf. Rutten 2006, 48–49).

Creating a high-quality environment for residents and visitors is about making good use of existing regional strengths and energies, not importing concepts that worked elsewhere under specific conditions (which might not be given in the own region). Potential for innovation should be sought, but usually innovation cannot be imposed or is likely to be unsustainable because important conditions for success are lacking. Emphasising the role of culture and cultural heritage in creative development does not mean that it can be the only strategy for local and regional development. For example, caring about cultural landscapes and heritage might very well fit with “green” technology, high-quality food production, wellness and special medical services.

Results of the CreativeCH workshop on “Cultural Heritage and Creative City / Regional Development"

The workshop addressed the role of cultural heritage and creative industries in the development of cities and regions. It was organised in a collaboration with the Institute for Social and European Studies (ISES), Köszeg, Hungary, and held on the 16th of September 2014 in Budapest at the Petofi Irodalmi Múzeum.

Workshop highlights