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Create to regenerate: cities tap into talent for urban renewal

At Tolhuistuin, the government provides the land, old building stock and a maintenance budget for a fixed period while the creatives develop the precinct themselves. Maurice Mikkers/flickr, CC BY-SA

Create to regenerate: cities tap into talent for urban renewal

At Tolhuistuin, the government provides the land, old building stock and a maintenance budget for a fixed period while the creatives develop the precinct themselves. Maurice Mikkers/flickr, CC BY-SA

The creative industries – ranging from game development to architecture, media, design and the arts – are a hot issue in urban development.

Creative businesses, almost by definition, are innovative. They drive new ideas, people and technologies into the market from the experimental edge. It follows, then, that strategies to make a state, city or town more creative can fuel cultural development, urban regeneration and economic growth.

The logic flows: attracting creative talent is increasingly tied to competing in global markets. Places with a creative industries base attract businesses and skilled workers from other knowledge-intensive industries like health, science, engineering and technology. This realisation has prompted regional governments across the globe, including some in Western Australia, to implement policies to make themselves more creative.

Australia’s creative industries contribute A$90 billion to the economy every year. While making a city “more creative” has obvious economic rewards, gaps can emerge between policy and reality.

Creative businesses often struggle in the face of rising rents and development pressures. They may have difficulty in accessing property, finance and business advice.

The sector is also characterised by freelance, part-time and portfolio work. This means financial insecurity, uncertain employment and demanding working conditions are real challenges for a large proportion of its workers.

What do creative industries need to thrive?

Many cities, including some Australian state capitals, have to unpick the mechanics of city regeneration, which complicate creative industry development, through investment.

This public investment is often most visible in designated innovation or cultural precincts. The large public institutions and signature buildings typically found in these areas make plain governments’ involvement.

However, iconic architecture and major events alone aren’t enough to build robust creative economies. The creative economy in Australia is underpinned by the 98% of creative businesses with fewer than 20 employees. This sector plays an outsized role in innovation, experimentation and new ideas.

When municipal or state governments join forces with these smaller creative communities to shape urban regeneration the results can be far-reaching, although government’s role is often less visible.

The creative sector feeds on affordable commercial space, physical and digital connectivity and a critical mass of like-minded but diverse neighbours.

Small-to-medium creative enterprises are often deeply embedded in their local contexts. They are also highly networked, using formal and informal platforms to match ideas with potential collaborators, as well as private, government and third-sector investors.

Creating clusters from scratch is notoriously difficult. Building on latent and emerging clusters by leveraging existing property assets and local knowledge is far simpler. It also usually works a lot better.

This approach sounds intuitive, but often doesn’t happen. The reason is a heavy stakeholder focus on building something new, as well as control over land and property use.

Lessons from Amsterdam and Toronto

Amsterdam’s municipal council has introduced economic, cultural and spatial development policies that involve partnering small-to-medium creative entrepreneurs to rehabilitate brownfield sites. Creative-led partnerships have developed clusters at De Ceuvel, NDSM Wharf and Tolhuistuin.

Tolhuisen is home to the world’s first 3D-printed canal house, a publicly accessible ‘Research & Design by Doing’ project initiated by DUS Architects. Timothy Moore, Author provided

The municipality has ceded some of its usual powers to the sector, with responsibility for delivery and success shared.

At Tolhuistuin, the council provides the land, old building stock and a maintenance budget for a fixed period while the creatives develop the precinct themselves (under the watch of a board). The outcome is a new asset-based blueprint for sustainable mixed-use urban development.

Tolhuistuin’s early seeded clusters set the stage for larger projects. These include the Eye Film Institute, the A’DAM Toren and the redevelopment of the Van Der Pek and Overhoeks precincts.

This all builds on the municipality’s longstanding broedplaatsen (breeding ground) program. This promotes creative clustering in underutilised buildings across the city by releasing 10,000m² of studio space per year.

The creative industries are empowered to take the lead in developing these projects. Amsterdam council unlocks funding sources and offers expert advice on bureaucratic and legal processes.

In Canada, Section 37 of the Ontario Planning Act has helped transform private, government and creative sector partnerships. It allows development regulations to be relaxed in exchange for community benefit, which includes creating living spaces for creatives.

In the early 2000s, social enterprise Artscape, supported by the City of Toronto, leveraged Section 37 to develop Artscape Triangle Lofts, home to 68 creative live/work units and Propeller Gallery. An innovative affordable ownership and rental program ensures a mix of uses and incomes in the building.

Toronto’s far-sighted policy decision helped the city retain and grow its creative community in the face of rising property prices. Today the sector contributes C$9 billion a year to Toronto’s GDP and employs 130,000 people.

Get in early, start small

The takeaway from this is that constructing a creative economy means implementing long-term transitional strategies to build talent and capacity over time. This avoids the need for more interventionist, expensive and risky strategies down the line.

WA towns and cities have an enviable opportunity to set up the conditions for a healthy creative economy before regeneration of their older building stock comes to pass. Nurturing this sector through a mix of smaller policy interventions could be an affordable and effective way to kick-start sustainable creative economies.

More modest interventions allow the luxury of learning from failure and trialling more experimental ideas. These can then flow through to the wider creative ecology.

All ecologies rely on an ongoing interplay between the large, medium and small. Each brings something different to the table to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

This requires a policy mix that can support big-ticket projects along with investment in sustainable careers and spaces for small-to-medium creative enterprises. This is true creativity at work.


The Conversation is co-publishing articles with Future West (Australian Urbanism), produced by the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts. These articles look towards the future of urbanism, taking Perth and Western Australia as its reference point. You can read other articles here.

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