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The Emotional City

An interview with urban thinker Charles Landry

by Erica Butler

Before Richard Florida discovered the ‘creative class’ and their predeliction for culturally dynamic places, Charles Landry started talking about the ‘creative city’, referring to the regenerative force of arts and culture in post-industrial cities like Glasgow, Scotland in the late 80’s. Landry’s concept of the role of creativity in urban life is both broad and deep, encompassing all aspects of city-making and the entire organizational culture of cities.

The UK writer and thinker will speak to a business luncheon crowd in Halifax on Tuesday, April 21st, 2009. I spoke to him on the phone from his home in Gloucestershire on April 8th, 2009, about the creative city movement, city planning, and the emotional experience of our cities.

Recently a coalition of artists from around Nova Scotia released a research report on the creative economy, making the case from an economic perspective about what role cultural industries can play. How important is that, and how does your idea of the creative city differ?

When people talk about the creative city, there are four definitions which are sort of floating around. First, the creative city is a place which has a very strong arts, cultural and heritage fabric, let’s say. You’ve got lots of good buildings, lots of cultural institutions and there’s a strong arts community. That equals a creative city.

A second group might say, actually a creative city is a place which has that, plus a strong economy of design, music, and all of those things. So that’s a sort of second definition. When I initially talked about it in the late 80’s, I was doing some work in Glasgow, looking at that creative economy and assessing the value of it. So you could say that’s a creative city, you’ve got artists and this vibrant design scene and so on.

The third definition might be, you’ve got those two things, but you’ve also got Richard Florida’s focus on the Creative Class, including the knowledge nomads (or whatever you want to call them) – people who do research, university people, software designers and so on. And typically, a sort of Halifax type place might have 20-25% of those sort of people. And then people say, well, that’s the creative city.

The fourth definition, which is really the one that I talk about, includes all of those, but really says that actually the creative city is a bit like an ecosystem. Supposing you have this vibrant cultural scene, but a very old-fashioned municipality, or a culture which is very close-minded, or a culture that doesn’t find innovative ways of dealing with homeless people, or other things… So the fourth definition of the creative city is to say, you’ve got a place that has a culture of creativity embedded in it’s DNA, which allows people to be imaginative, which allows people to explore things.

So the scope of what I’m talking about is actually wider… if you take that wider approach, the question that is then asked is what is the specific role of arts, artists, the creative economy, the creative class in making all of that work as a good ecosystem?

What is that role?

Well it depends, each situation is different. What I’m trying to avoid is that people say that the word creativity is sort of captured only by one category of people. Think of the people you’ve found imaginative through your life. I’ve found them from all sources. Could be people dealing with practical problems, whatever they may be. One of the most creative people I’ve ever met was the head of bylaws in Calgary. He was a civil servant of 62, who rethought the whole rule and regulation system of the city of Calgary. It was an unbelievable thing that he was doing.

The classic roles of artists ranges from challenging the way we see things to aesthetics and beauty, with a whole stretch of things in the middle. Looking at the world in a different way is obviously a major contribution. But you could also say, well couldn’t that artistic thinking, that perhaps lateral thinking, be something that also a planner could use and apply in their work?

You’ve written about making a distinction between buildings and infrastructure and the softer assets and qualities of a city. How important are both of those?

Well there’s a major battle going on in the world, and planning needs to adjust to it. It’s the battle between software thinking and hardware thinking.

The problem is, hardware is visible. I can see it. I had a plan and I did x,y, z. There it is on the street. But the reality of the way cities work is how they feel. And whether, in putting that hardware together, that person actually had some sense about how social relationships work, how feelings work, how cities can be a sensory experience and so on.

That means instead of thinking a road is a road, to try and make a road a place. Instead of the planner saying I’m just putting in my codes, we’ve got the budget for x,y,z, and off we go, instead of thinking that putting tarmac down could do anything for a city… All we need to do is think of all the places we like and love. What do they feel and look like?

The planning profession is under great pressure. They’ve got to perform in a completely different way, they’ve got to know new things, different things. That means different people. It’s people who can think holistically versus people who think in linear ways, in that step by step, slightly narrow way—people who say “give me the evidence that making the road more beautiful actually has an effect.”

You could say it’s about responsibility. Everyone has very specific things they’re responsible for, road safety and this and that. But noone is responsible for beauty, or that good feeling you might or should be getting from your neighbourhood or your city.

Absolutely. Because the divisions are old fashioned divisions. In the end, when you speak to people in the evening over a drink, they’ll agree with you. But the structures are usually completely outdated, in general. I obviously don’t know Halifax, so I can’t make a judgement about that. But basically I can assure you, there’s a major battle going on about these things and this is contested territory. And the people who find that a bit difficult, they just say, give me the evidence. Provide me the evidence that something that’s a bit more attractive actually makes sense economically. So all of these things that are intangible, they’re trying to put a dollar figure on.

To give you an example, I went to an extremely green city, Freiburg, Germany. Probably the greenest city in Europe, with solar settlements and basically every new buidling has to be a passive house, etc. So you can imagine it’s pretty green.

Then a week later, I happened to be in Australia, speaking to the Minister of Planning, who happened to be the Minister of Culture and Art at the same time. You’d think that would be a major, interesting opportunity. So I talked to him about that. I said look, the solar settlements they built in Freiburg, they involved an artist in the beginning. And each house produces more energy than it takes from the grid, so each household gets 3000 Euros back from the grid. Which is a good deal, isn’t it? All he then says is, “ah, but they’ve got a good feed-in tariff.” [A feed in tariff is a set sum paid for putting electricity into the grid. Germany is a leader in feed-in tariffs.] Rather than saying, “isn’t that a bloody interesting idea?” Even if they had a bad feed-in tariff you’d still get money back. And the main point is it’s carbon neutral! So that’s a typical response of someone who doesn’t get it. Someone who’s deflecting something.

The more I see good examples that work, the more I speak to those people. And the people in Freiburg said it was very simple to do what they did. They had some principles, and they meant what they said. Every new house had to be a passive house, and the development community can develop, but those were the new rules. And in fact lots of innovations emerged from it, of course, because they had to respond to a challenge.

So the Australian minister is just looking at the major obstacle. First he would need a good feed-in tariff. In Nova Scotia, there are no feed-in tariffs. You can’t put power back into the grid. It’s not yet possible.

Can you see that if I was living there I would just go absolutely crazy, given that it is possible? It’s all nonsense. We’re entering a new world, as we know, and there’s many ways of saying it. We’re entering a new world in the sense of the Halifaxes of this world are moving more towards a services economy, and at the same time we’re aware obviously of climate issues, etc. All of those things require different regulations and incentives systems related to whatever the visions are to create these new sorts of places. Of course, rules and regulations need to be adapted all the time.

When did a plan or a project publication ever start with a word that is more of an art-related word, like ‘beauty’, for example? Does the strategic plan of the city say, we want to ensure that the citizens of Halifax fall in love with their city and that the envrionment is beautiful? I can imagine what the plan says—which is different than the way people talk every day, and what inspires them. Even the language is not legitimized, let alone the rules.

A lot of the time we place the responsibility with the planners, but who is responsible for the quality of a city, is it just planners?

No it isn’t. It’s all of these things fitting together.

When we say the word planning we always think of it as the person who’s involved with land use and building heights and so on. But it needs to be people who understdand the psychology of the city. How many people in your planning department know, or are willing to dare to be open about the fact that you can psychologically feel the city as it moves along? Is this road too wide, does it feel empty, what does it feel like? Everything is described in technical terms because people are to some extent frightened to be open about the emotional nature of the urban experience. Basically cities are emotional experiences, and you decide to be there, operate from there, live there and all of that, depending on how it ultimately satisfies you emotionally. And we know that increasingly people choose the city rather than the job because they are more mobile.

It’s an interesting point about the emotional quality of things. I don’t know how we can work that into regulations and planning rules. How can a bureaucracy encompass and acknowledge that?

Just like it does in lots of places. When you look at the good examples, they encompass that.

Basically many bureaucracies try to have prescriptive rules, when in fact what they should have is principles. So you might have a principle like, we want to keep the street clean. How we do it is a flexible thing.

You might say the principle is to have a city that enhances… and this is where you would bring in the word ‘beauty’ or something like that. What you want is to have a discussion about that. At the moment people use the word attractive a lot because it’s completely bland and meaningless, but what we should be doing is using these principles to force a discussion which is the urban discussion, which is about developing the culture of a city. How Halifax defines beauty in contrast to Toronto is a thing that makes Halifax special, ulitimately.

So you’re saying we need to bring back in the subjective qualities, whereas the bureaucracy would tend towards the more objective things that it can quantify. It’s just easier, it’s just simpler. We can tell if this meets that requirement.

Absolutely. But the problem is that the result isn’t good enough. If it were true that those objective qualities were working, everything would be fine, and we wouldn’t be complaining here.

The point is there are very many different forms of knowing. There’s objective facts, there’s subjective experience, there’s intuitive knowing, to some extent spiritual knowing.

Really ugly things that are done badly, they hurt your brain somehow. If you go down to a place with some really soulless buildings which give you a ‘no’ feeling rather than a ‘yes’ feeling, that has an effect. There are enough ugly places around. They’re ugly and people don’t want to live there. They’re losing their good people, because they are basically horrible environments.

Given nowadays that more people have choices, there’s a whole group of people, obviously the professional classes, who have relatively larger chocies. If they’ve got choices about where to go then those places with horribly big roads, which are sort of soulless and all of that, will lose out in the long run. And they do lose out.

For years people like me have been arguing, what is the value of design, creativity, art, culture and all of that? And what that does is it puts the onus on me, or the artistic community, to justify their existence. When has anyone asked the planners, the traffic engineers to justify the value of what they do. So now, what I always ask is what is the cost of not taking arts into consideration (or culture, or heritage, or creativity) because that puts the onus on the other person to justify why they do something that is hideous, for example.

Even the way I’m talking now is not the way these written documents are about… I mean the word ugly never appears. Have you ever read a document that used the word ugly, or beautiful?

How would they define it in the definitions section?

But that’s what a living culture is. A living culture continually discusses that and that changes over time, as our priorities change and so on.

And even the words they do use, they can’t usually define in the definitions section.

I read that you were surprised when people embraced the idea of the creative city and that now you worry a bit that the term might be overused or hyped too much.

That’s true. The worry is that words become slogans, and concepts become slogans, and they become easy to use, and then they become hollowed out and meaningless. Whereas for me, the notion of the creative city is really the willingness to stand back and reflect, and look at things in an open-minded way, in order to see what you need to reinvent.

One of the implications of the creative city is also an organizational structure, an organizational ethos. But many people want to just say, okay, what are the five tricks we need in order to be a creative city? We need a museum, an aquarium, and all of that, and then we’re a creative city. Well, it’s simply not a formula in that way. So that’s my main worry, that these things become formulaic, and in the process of becoming formulaic, the reasons why they emerged in the first place are forgotten.

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