Independent scholar, cat addict, tattoo lover

What is the relation between city regulation and creativity in producing social, economic and political innovation? This is one of the questions we will address tonight and I would like to take the opportunity to bluntly state that this is a disastrous one and to explain how I came to this statement. Let me start with the latter.

When Richard Florida’s book The rise of the creative class appeared in 2002, Dutch municipalities passionately embraced the idea that creativity can be seen as an important economic power and enthusiastically set out to regulate it in their cities. As they had little idea how, they hired consultancy agents to advise them on the steps to take. Interestingly, the advice reports that these agents produced were very similar and regardless of the cities in question, the advice always was: find out who the key creative players are, designate a run-down property as so-called hot spot, temporarily rent it to artists for low rents and expect a community to flourish. And by the way, this could increase the value of the property, so in the future either rents can be raised or the property can be sold with profit. Sadly enough, this resulted in rather uniform hot spots with little couleur locale and little added value for the surrounding communities.

Perhaps this was caused by misunderstanding the point that Florida was trying to make. His prime precondition for attracting a creative class, was that the local area was a pleasurable one to live in to begin with. Now, ‘pleasurable’ is an ambiguous word, but he defined it as: a natural environment that could provide opportunities for outdoor leisure, affordable housing for the locals, community services that were of quality and accessible, an atmosphere of tolerance, opportunities to make a decent living, rich educational provisions, perhaps some high-tech industry. This was, in short, a place where creatives could feel at home. Why? Because almost everybody would feel at home in such a place. But by regulating creativity in the way that Dutch cities did, municipalities reversed the causality. Instead of creating places where everybody could feel at home and therewith as a side effect attract creatives, they attracted creatives and expected them to deliver flourishing communities, in other words, to do their work for them. That was a mistake.

Another mistake was to forget about these flourishing communities as an effect all together and to just focus on the economic value of the creatives and their added value to the property. So when the moment came to evaluate the performance, they defined success in terms of financial and commercial parameters only, and not the community work. Hot spots that had not become financially self sustaining enough to continue under new rent policies, were considered to have failed and the experiment was closed. After all, under the regime of market logic, the best hot spots were those that thrive and by default the non-thriving ones had to be not good enough. That is the rule of economic selection.

A third mistake was to disregard local communities as creators of their own lively urban areas, with ‘lively’ defined as ‘this makes me content to live here’. Instead, examples from outside had to be followed, because for some reason benchmarking was considered a valid impulse for innovation. International rankings compared cities between one another, and so the yardstick for ‘lively’ was not what the residents themselves considered as such, but how the city as a whole did it against say Berlin, London or New York. It is always good to find inspiration outside your own bubble, but to turn into an imitation of that inspirational source as a moral imperative is a different matter altogether, and besides, it makes cities interchangeable.

These three mistakes resulted in what we now call gentrification. Add to this the investments in city branding, and we have urban areas that are unaffordable for local residents to inhabit, that are focused primarily on selling commodified experiences to tourists, in short, that have transformed into theme parcs where people temporarily feel or get a sense of what it could mean to live here, but where hardly any actual living is taking place. This is not a very sustainable place.

Thinking about the dynamics set in motion by cities regulating creativity for whatever innovation, the image of colonialism dawned on me, with multinationals as the colonizing powers, municipalities as collaborating clan leaders, tourists and newcomers as the settlers who are seeking opportunities for new adventures, and the locals as the indigenous peoples who are either replaced by settlers or dominated by the colonizing powers. All in all a situation of marginalisation and displacement. This is why I stated at the beginning that in my view, the relation between city regulation and creativity in producing social, economic and political innovation is a disastrous one. It destroys.

The destruction process is more subtle than the colonialism that literally wiped out peoples from the face of the earth or took away their identity by forbidding their language, their customs and their livelihoods. Yet, however subtle, the destruction is there and we see it in the domination of the public space. Who has the right to occupy public spaces, leave their marks? Two voices are dominant. The first is that of the law maker that communicates maximums and zeroes. This is a voice that quantifies our movements in terms of how fast and how far we can go. It says nothing about quality. The second is that of commerce that communicates unlimited and endless possibilities. Yet, although it fills our public space with qualities, it too is limited as it is restricted to the sellable ones. Those are the legal or legalized voices. Their ownership of public space excludes any discourse about the range of human values and emotions, and attempts to enslave nature. Other voices are tolerated, which means that they can be heard, but as a fleeting, not durable presence and as long as they do not disrupt.

A city is a wicked problem. This means that complexity is thus, that no one has total control. To assume that one can reduce complexity by reducing voices in public space, is another mistake. First, it is an unattainable goal in an open society. Second, it disregards important sources of knowledge, for instance from the people who know how to live in this city, or in a broader frame, from life that knows how to survive here.

Some call their voices disruptive. I disagree. The narratives of quantified, regulated movement as well as that of the qualified, commercially appropriate emotions are the disruptive ones. They disrupt life, that is all about creativity, emergence and spontaneity.

We must not limit the full breath of life.


This was my introduction to the ‘stadsgesprek Rebel Cities’,  organized by CitiLeaks on April 12, 2019.