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Urban Australia: generating cultural capital or breeding cultural impoverishment?

July 20, 2017

We tend to think of rapid urbanisation as something that happens somewhere else, like China. But it’s happening here too, right in front of our eyes.

In a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia in February, former Treasury secretary Ken Henry estimated that Australia will need a brand new city for two million people every five years.

Most of it will happen by increasing the capacity of our current cities. The NSW Department of Planning forecasts Sydney’s population will grow by 40% to 6.4 million in less than twenty years while Plan Melbourne envisages a city of 8 million by 2050.

City-making at this scale and pace demands that as urbanists we give serious thought to its consequences – in particular the impact on human culture.

The cultural impact of urban development matters to us all. Cultures emerge in communities that share a place, and urban development shapes our planet place by place.

When we’re careless in the way we do it, urban development creates places of generic homogeneity that fail to serve us on any level.

For residents, the same-same landscapes of bland dormitory suburbs offer little beyond the most basic requirements for modern living.  Dispirited, dulling and indistinguishable, they cannot catalyse the authentic experience a genuine sense of place delivers.

On a larger scale, homogeneity of the urban landscape deprives our towns and cities of the character that gives rise to authentic identity.  Character should emerge organically from development that’s responsive to place for people. When we get this right distinctive character becomes a direct result of the urban environments we create. Traditional Queenslanders for example, built a century ago, shared a common design language grounded in their subtropical climate. Responsive to the environment, their built form embodied place. Considered at the street, suburb or city scale they created unique, authentic identity inextricably linked to the laid-back Queensland culture of the time.

Without such layers of meaning our cities become culturally impoverished. This gives rise to a larger consequence we ignore at our peril: our attractiveness as a destination diminishes. Not only will we see tourism fall away, we’ll lose again in the ceaseless global competition to attract and retain the talented people we need to power our economy.

Taken together, it’s a heartbreaking missed opportunity. I see it close-up from inside the process where my job has been bringing art to urban development.  From this viewpoint I repeatedly see a pattern: when a developer commissions a piece of art it typically enables them to tick a box marked ‘culture’.

Reductionist thinking has compromised this ‘art-as-culture’ model by enabling what should be a celebratory choice in the public interest to become a box-tick about compliance.  I see many cases where the development’s true cultural contribution could be so much more. To understand how, we need to look at the values that underpin contemporary urban development.

Our current dominant values are numeric. Governments are under pressure to house more people and developers need to achieve a healthy financial return. This gives rise to the quantitative values of volume and profit that drive development. But when these are our only values we all suffer as our places and cities become culturally impoverished.

Contemporary urban development requires a more sophisticated approach.

To the quantitative values of volume and profit we need to add a qualitative value: I call it cultural capital. This value pays careful attention to the lived experience of the communities of people impacted by development.

For a development project to create cultural capital, it needs a unifying cultural vision. Originating before politics and money, the vision needs to start from the acknowledgment that genuine connection to place is a fundamental human need that requires primacy in the development equation. Establishing a direction for all aspects of the development, the unifying cultural vision needs the muscle that come with the investment of the developer.

Delivering to this cultural vision starts with orchestrating the development around authenticity to place. Only then will it become imbued with the meaning that leads to a sense of belonging. As people develop a sense of being connected to their place and manifest their interest in it, interaction is encouraged; facilitating the networks that build true community. And when those things happen, imagination flourishes, creativity becomes expressed, and the local economy essential to a beneficial lived culture is seeded.

We are seeing movement in this direction, albeit slowly. My firm is increasingly engaged by government development agencies moving beyond the obligatory public art to the commissioning of sophisticated cultural strategies. Other developers are taking a lead by spending up front on social infrastructure as Billbergia have done in linking the Sydney suburbs of Rhodes and Wentworth Point with a bridge across Homebush Bay. With a strong vision and developer-led funding, they’ve created connectivity and cultural amenity; Rhodes and Wentworth Point now share access to infrastructure, retail and public transport.

Ae encouraging as these initiatves are, they remain drops in the ocean.

To bring an expanded vision for our urban environments to fruition demands far more ambitious policy settings that encourage the creativity our cities require. Advocacy plays a role here. If we demand better development outcomes from government, in time we’ll get a legislative environment that fosters it.

But there’s no need to wait for government. Individual developers can (and occasionally do) take matters into their own hands.  By exceeding the minimal requirements of compliance with policy, developers can create uniqueness that differentiates the places they create from others.  Differentiation creates the desirability that translates into increased revenue with quick, profitable sales and stable tenancies. At the same time it saves money by eliminating the need to pay branding agencies millions for a struggle they cannot win – to manufacture marketing descriptions for developments whose uniform mediocrity renders their differentiation impossible.

That’s great for developers.

Better yet – the results for us all are the healthy human ecologies that grow from distinctive urban environments; rich in public domain, redolent with meaning, grounded in place, memorable in identity. Places of authenticity that attract citizens and visitors alike. That’s cultural capital.

– Mark McClelland