Cultural Creative Clusters for Dummies

by Wilson Sherwin, Maria-Valerie Schegk and Olivia Sandri

“Creative clusters,” sometimes referred to as “cultural creative clusters” have become a very popular concept recently, especially among urban developers. A creative cluster is a grouping of creative activities– including theatres, museums, galleries, as well as cafés and spaces of leisure activities such as fitness centres. Clustering often occurs in underutilised or abandoned former industrial urban sites. In theory, the proximity of many ‘creative’ activities does not create competition, but instead, a synergy of creativity and atmosphere for the various organizations and businesses sharing space and infrastructural resources, results in economic and physical (re) development for the district.

In an increasingly globalised world where goods, ideas, and people move with unparalleled speed, cities are finding it necessary to come up with innovative ways to compete with other cities to attract, what Richard Florida labels “the creative class.” In attempting to attract these mobile elites, (the creative class) cities vie to be globally relevant and attract investment.

One way cities attempt to do this is through supporting or introducing creative clusters as a way of stimulating urban renewal in general, and economic growth in particular. A creative cluster is seen as an innovative way for cities to market and sell their cultural potential.

One of the important transitions represented in the popularity of creative clusters is the move away from thinking about the arts and creative fields as sectors which need government support and funding, to envisioning them as revenue generators for cities. With the  increasing importance of tourism and the service sector as a real source of income for cities, urban governments are increasingly pinning their hopes on the development of these sectors.

Without doubt, cultural and creative clusters produce certain benefits: In a clustered structure local actors profit from informal contacts between each other, sharing ideas and resources.

Spatial proximity can also bring a reduction of transaction costs, for example, organizations sharing renovation costs. A creative cluster is a physical agglomeration which grounds in a spatial sense the flows of our society, flows that are represented by the emphasis on mobility, network connections, technology, new and digital forms of communication.

Despite the benefits clustering is meant to confer, there are criticisms to be considered. Historically, creative ‘areas’ such as New York’s SoHo in the 1980s, have evolved organically and provided important space for counter culture and innovation to develop. Today’s purposely built creative clusters, often supported by local government and/or private businesses, to varying degrees, are accused of reducing the arts to the state of a commodity, potentially undermining opportunities for true innovation.

So, do creative clusters represent a new messiah for urban development? In the cases of  Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam (a former gas factory, and now a conglomeration of cultural activities such as concerts and exhibitions) and the well-established film and video cluster Film in Soho in London, or the media production cluster in Cardiff, the practice of clustering has proved economically successful. But, clusters are not always the key to success: if members of the cluster do not work together, or are working together too exclusively, causing a ‘locked in’ or closed working-community, or if there is a disjunction between the amount of consumption and rate of production of culture and creativity in the cluster, projects may fail.

Many cities have “copied- pasted” this idea of clustering creativity and culture in the hopes of obtaining economic success. But can creativity be produced as a standardized good? We’re not sure, the best advice we can offer is to not rely too heavily on the idea that clustering necessarily attracts creativity, but rather, be creative in finding tools for urban development!

For further reading:

Bagwell, S. (2008) Creative clusters and city growth. Creative Industries Journal Vol.1/ No. 1

Castells, Manuel.(2004) An Introduction to the Information Age in The Information Society Reader, FWebster, Frank London and New York: Routledge, pp 138–49.

Hitters, E. and Richards, G. (2002) The creation and management of cultural clusters, in Creativity and Innovation Management Vol.11 No.4, p.234-247.

Mommaas, H. (2009) Spaces of culture and economy: Mapping the Cultural-Creative Cluster Landscape, in Kong, L. and O’Connor, J. (eds.) ‘Creative economies, creative cities: Asian-European perspectives’.

Mommaas, H. (2004) Cultural Clusters and the Post-industrial city: Towards the remapping of Urban Cultural Policy, in Urban Studies Vol. 41 No.3, p. 507-532.

Do you think “clustering” is important? Why (not)? (Feel free to comment in a constructive way)

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