We're now starting the second day of the Creative Places + Spaces conference, with another conference plenary. This is facilitated by Mary Rowe, a community artist from Toronto, who begins by congratulating the Artscape organisers for the conference so far (yay!), and now introduces the first speaker, Glen Murray from the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto; he is also the former mayor of Winnipeg.
Glen notes that there are a number of issues of concern at the moment. We are living in a very risk-adverse culture - in Canada, for example, people like their politicians to do what is predictable, not to be creative and original. Breaking with past practice escalates into an experience of higher rate risks of failure. The more original you are, the more people you will upset, and this raises the risk of failure. But why build political capital and popularity if you're not prepared to invest it in supporting and driving new projects and ideas? The media have a lot to answer here, too, as they reinforce sameness and the mainstream.
The creative cities movement, Glen notes, is not a new arts programme - it's not about building yet another new museum (what he calls 'irritable Bilbao syndrome') - it's about dealing with mindless and soulless suburban architecture and urban planning. Creative cities is about the quality of every street corner and every neighbourhood - about restoring authenticity. Too many cities have no sense of place, no sense of geography, and Glen notes a number of good and bad examples from Canada now. Glen notes that there is a living experience of culture - the everyday - as opposed to the expressed experience of culture, and it is this living experience that creative city development ties into.
Much of this is also tied to city budgets, however - where cities are impoverished they will even compete about whether the next ugly Walmart monstrosity is built on their or on the other side of the city boundary line. It is a fight over monstrosities as these are the only assets that appear to be left within local authorities' grasps. And legislative problems further complicate the problem, as many cities do no longer have the authority and legislative power to create change - for example by encouraging sustainability and ecological soundness, and discourage urban sprawl, though intelligent tax models.
The problem is also that in the public and local government sector those staff who are risk-takers are often the first to be fired - their work is seen as having less value than that of public servants dealing with essential services. Failure, Glen suggests, is not 'not succeeding', but not having an environment which enables people to take a risk. So, there is a strong need to transfer more power to the communities and neighbourhoods.
Stephen Goldsmith from the Enterprise Foundation in Salt Lake City is the next featured speaker. He is an artist, a planner, and an administrator, but describes himself instead as a 'homemaker' - a person taking care of their home and finding new solutions to old problems. He began his journey as an artist developing an abandoned warehouse into an arts space, and learned that a fundamental shift towards making a change was possible - rather than portraying himself as an artist needing help, he positioned himself as an artist having something to offer to the city. Eventually, he and his colleagues redeveloped the building into the 'Wild Westside' in Salt Lake City, and the heartbeat of a real pulse of change began becoming noticeable. The artists living there also began offering their skills in teaching - including the Spy Hop learning organisation. An artists' community had emerged (but this also made gentrification a real issue now).
But some of the developments also put the community in conflict with the city government, where creative solutions (for example to the problems of the homeless) do not necessarily follow established processes. And gradually, the process also broadened out to other adjacent buildings, working with whatever materials and spaces were available, and opening access to flats and offices also to less artistic, ancillary services (for example, framing) so that an economic micro-cluster emerged around the environment. Childcare services, coffee shops, retail, and others also followed. Reframing the landscape was not just about the neighbourhood, but about thinking about oneself as a city builder, a planner, an urban developer.
The city now also began to approach this arts community group to advise on other redevelopment projects, even to the point of redeveloping a mountainside where rock had been harvested for building materials - the artists were asked to re-envisage the mountain once the harvesting process was going to be finished in 20 years' time. And as the Urban Design Coalition, the community began organising itself about things which aggravated it, also using some of its public art to spread the message about some of the problems involved (by creating the characters of Howard and Martha, a fictional couple present in the city through its cardboard stands with speakers, and its letters to the editor), and beginning to have a clear impact on city politics and planning.
In the discussion, Stephen also points to dosomething.org as a further interesting initiative which does similarly exciting work. He also notes that the idea of sustainable development may not be the best approach - he asks, 'would you want to have a sustainable marriage?' - and that a more engaging concept than sustainability needs to be found.