EVIDENCE : Urban stress, creative tension

Our cities will foster renewal, if we let them, argues Peter Hall
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The Independent Online
Europhobes or Europhiles, we share one worry with our neighbours on the European mainland - that our cities could be going down the American road. As yet, Europe has no Detroit, no Chicago South Side, no South Bronx.

But too many European cities are losing people and jobs, too many city centres are losing life to out-of-town centres, and too many public housing estates are becoming islands of multiple social problems and exclusion.

Yet throughout history, cities have been the magnets that attracted creative people and gave them the freedom to create, in art, literature, science,technology, and in the sheer capacity to solve problems that urban life has thrown up. From Periclean Athens to fin-de-sicle Paris and Vienna, cities generated new ways of writing and seeing, of organising abstract thought and solving problems. From Manchester in the 1770s to Tokyo in the 1980s, they forged innovations that created huge industries. From Imperial Rome through Social Democratic Stockholm to Thatcher's London, they successfully grappled with problems of organising their own growth. Surely they have not suddenly lost this knack.

Not at all, say Charles Landry and Franco Bianchini in The Creative City. On the contrary, they list scores of cases where cities are harnessing creative energies to solve every-day problems, improve quality of life and generate new ways of earning a living. Some are mind-bogglingly simple - Valencia hung a sheet across its main square to shield it from the summer sun, Nice and Stuttgart turned ugly parking garages into hanging gardens, Dortmund created parking spots for women close to garage exits and Shanghai introduced singing competitions from housing estate balconies.

Some are more ambitious, like Frankfurt's new museum quarter, Nmes' decision to insert hi-tech structures into old archaeological sites, or Perugia's solution to its traffic problems through escalators to its hill-top centre.

British cities do not appear as often as they should. But we have pioneered artistic-technological quarters, such as Sheffield's Cultural Industries Quarter, or Huddersfield's transformation into Britain's poetry capital; Bristol's Cultural Development Partnership seeks to do the same. These efforts will surely be the most important of all. For, as Landry and Bianchini argue, the economies of Western countries have undergone a profound shift, from industries based on raw materials to industries based on creative ideas. Trading derivatives is a creative activity, but so is making a television programme, developing multimedia software, or producing a play or a concert.

In the United States, entrepreneurs like Bill Gates are investing huge sums on the belief that the next industrial revolution will be based on the marriage of artistic imagination and technological innovation. We should be heeding that by developing in cities the human capacity to bring the revolution about.

Some of these creative talents are locked into a lost urban generation, now wasting itself on drug raves or football violence. Throughout history, urban creativity has come from the outsiders: the resident aliens of ancient Athens, the country painters of Renaissance Florence, Picasso and his generation of starving Paris artists, the Jewish intellectuals of Vienna in 1900 and the Jewish clothiers-turned-movie-moguls of Hollywood or the garage technicians of Detroit. There is another such excluded generation in our cities. If we succeed in finding them and releasing their energies, we could enter a 21st century Golden Age; if not, an urban Dark Age. The Creative City poses a vital question and suggests the beginning of an answer.

The writer is Bartlett Professor of Planning at University College London. His new book on the creative city in history will be published by Harper Collins next year.

`The Creative City' is published by Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London, EC4V 6AP, price £5.95.