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From Creative Economy to Creative Society: A neighborhood-based strategy to increase urban vitality and promote social inclusion


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Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert
Can a creative economy ameliorate urban poverty? The contemporary U.S. city is witness to an increasing proportion of its residents being denied active participation in the local economy, social institutions, and broader civil society. While many a metropolis has weathered the transition from an industrial to an information-based economy, most urban neighborhoods bear the persistent physical and social manifestations of economic inequality and social exclusion.

Urban policy-makers generally agree that regional economic development and job growth are the solution to urban poverty and its associated blight and pathology. Many cities have latched onto Richard Florida’s argument that attracting the “creative class” to the region will generate jobs and tax revenue, a trickle down of benefits to all citizens. Unfortunately, it appears that growth of the creative economy can spark inequality and exclusion. Is the creative economy a bargain with the devil? Does a city have to accept increased economic inequality to reap the prosperity of the creative economy?

In this article, we recap current research and policy on culture and revitalization and propose a new model—a neighborhood-based creative economy—that has the potential to move the twenty-first century city toward shared prosperity and social integration.

The Creative Sector And Urban Policy
A focus on the creative economy represents the latest wave of interest in culture as a post-industrial urban revitalization strategy. Beginning with the 1983 landmark study by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, economic impact studies have quantified the contribution of the nonprofit cultural sector to a regional economy based on the multiplier effect of organizational and audience expenditures. In time, policy-makers realized that economic impact is magnified when bounded spatially. So the planned cultural district came into vogue, along with the development of major cultural facilities like museums or performing arts centers, as catalysts for downtown revival.

The creative economy is more than just nonprofit arts and culture. Studies by the Rand Corporation of the performing and media arts took the lead in treating nonprofit and commercial cultural firms as a single sector. Richard Florida’s work—with its claims about the role of the “creative class” in global competitive advantage—encouraged the trend to treat nonprofit and for-profit firms as a single sector and expanded definitions of culture to include design and related fields as part of the creative economy.

The excitement among public and corporate executives about the creative class has overshadowed a growing literature on the community benefits of the arts and culture. Researchers studying community-building seek to integrate their findings on grassroots cultural practices and informal arts with their understanding of contemporary urban community. Economic geographers have developed a third stream of literature, which explores production-driven “cultural clusters” and the social networks underpinning productivity. It is this cultural cluster perspective that has the greatest potential to meet the dual policy goals of economic growth and social inclusion.

Social Costs of the Creative Economy
Neither the literature on the creative economy nor that on community building has focused on possible negative effects of culture-based revitalization. Gentrification remains the most common fear. A less commonly discussed drawback of culture-based revitalization, but one for which there is more evidence, is the expansion of inequality. Economic inequality—attributed to structural changes including globalization, the decline in unions, and deindustrialization—has exploded in the United States over the past thirty years.

Of particular relevance to the arts is the emergence of “winner-take-all” labor markets. Robert Frank and Philip Cook, who developed the concept, show that changes in the U.S. labor market have expanded the number of job categories in which the most skilled members reap a disproportionate share of rewards. Frank and Cook suggest that what used to be a relatively rare feature is now common in a great number of occupations and serves to accelerate economic inequality.

Within the creative economy, artists are especially vulnerable to the winner-take-all dynamic. The handful of opera singers, concert pianists, dancers, and authors seen as the best in the world garner incomes that dwarf those of gifted practitioners who are seen as less extraordinary. Indeed, the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP),* in a 2005 study of artists in six U.S. metropolitan areas between 1980 and 2000, found artists consistently among the occupations with the highest degree of income inequality.

Empirical research indicates that as culture increases its share of the metropolitan economy, increased inequality is a much more significant downside than gentrification. In his 2005 work, Richard Florida acknowledged that the growth of the creative class has contributed to the rise in economic inequality and its social and political repercussions. “Perhaps the most salient of… the externalities of the creative age,” Florida noted, “has to do with rising social and economic inequality.”

Still, since its publication in 2002, Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class has been used by city officials from New York to Spokane as a how-to manual for stimulating economic growth. The realization that pursuing creative class strategies will actually exacerbate the divisions between rich and poor has been slow to sink in.

The job mix within the creative economy poses concern as well as promise for its role in promoting economic revitalization. Overall, the creative industries are dominated by jobs with high educational requirements. The expansion of both arts occupations specifically and the creative economy overall will create more opportunities for highly skilled workers than for urban residents with modest educational qualifications.

Social Benefits of Community Culture
Research conducted over the past decade across the U.S. has reshaped our understanding of the role culture plays in urban communities. We now understand that culture includes nonprofit, public, and commercial organizations as well as independent artists. In addition, we have learned that even the “informal arts” play a critical role in building social networks and connections across communities.

Much work on community culture is concerned with the inclusion of historically marginalized populations. The Urban Institute has developed a broad framework for tracking community cultural vitality—which it defines as “evidence of creating, disseminating, validating, and supporting arts and culture as a dimension of everyday life in communities.” The informal arts sector, in particular—characterized by participatory, hands-on cultural and creative activities in non-chartered groups and informal settings—is associated with people of color, immigrants, and other out-of-the-mainstream communities.

Ethnographers in Chicago and the Silicon Valley have documented the community building potential of the informal arts. A recent study, for example, found that Mexican immigrants in Chicago “use artistic and cultural practices to break down social isolation, create new social networking relationships, strengthen… bonds among group members, and … create local and transnational ties with [outside] institutions…” Read More!

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One Response to “From Creative Economy to Creative Society: A neighborhood-based strategy to increase urban vitality and promote social inclusion”

  1. Deborah says:

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