Creative Cities: Urban Planners Forge New Practices of Economic Development

Caroline Norbury’s job as Chief Executive of Creative England is to grow the creative economy in communities across the United Kingdom. If that job description confuses you just a little, you might have appreciated Uwe Brandes’ opening questions to her at Georgetown University’s Creating Creative Cities fall 2015 speaker series.

“What is it that you do?” asked Brandes, Executive Director of Georgetown’s Master of Professional Studies in Master's in Urban & Regional Planning (URP) program.

And then: “How do you spend your day?”

And, finally: “How do you define the creative economy?”

Brandes knew the answers, of course. His point was to add some contours to a concept that can sound a little, well, overly conceptual. But there is nothing nebulous about the impact that creative industries—the creative and performing arts, information- and internet-based technology industries, and a host of other industries that produce intellectual property as a “product”—can have on the life, culture, and financial health of a city.

A Cultural “Ecosystem”

Norbury was joined onstage by Samuel Hoi, President of Maryland Institute College of Art and former President of Otis College of Art and Design, where he launched The Otis Report on the Creative Economy of the Los Angeles Region.

“We kind of measure the ecosystem of culture in terms of economic activity,” Hoi said.

Now expanded to include all of California, the 2014 report, released in April 2015, said that jobs connected to creative industries accounted for $12.1 billion in taxes to California state and local governments and more than 1.4 million direct and spin-off jobs.

With its well-established film and television industry, California might seem to be a special case. But other cities, states, and nations are also developing creative economies that emerge through various interactions of entrepreneurship, artistic ambition, and technological change.

“With information technologies pushing radical changes across urban economies, the practices of promoting local economic development require an embrace of non-traditional economic activity,” Brandes said. “I want to dispel the myth that the creative economy ‘just happens.’”

A New Kind of City

This semester’s speaker series comes on the heels of URP’s spring series, “The City Disrupted,” which examined how social networks and shifting economies are changing urban life. “Creating Creative Cities” features five Monday evening presentations running from October 5 through November 9.

Creative economies may disrupt traditional hierarchies, but they also present opportunities.

“City officials are realizing that creative economy jobs are real jobs,” Brandes said. “Arts, entertainment and heritage interpretation are no longer just lifestyle amenities in cities—they are a valuable segment of the local economy and need to be nurtured in a professional manner.”

Operating from offices throughout the United Kingdom, Creative England supports a host of film and digital media projects by providing capital and logistical support. Norbury, said Brandes, “is a new kind of publicly supported venture capitalist making investments in cultural production.”

Among the many projects Creative England has backed is the 2012 film One Mile Away, a highly acclaimed documentary of Birmingham street life that helped foster a rapprochement between two of the city’s most notorious gangs: the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew.

“We’re talking about risk. We’re talking about new ideas,” Norbury said of her enterprise. “We’re asking people to step into the unknown.”