No quarter given

Creativity within a place can’t be defined or nurtured by physical boundaries. We need to redefine what we mean by ‘creative quarter’, says Ivan Tennant

June saw the opening of the Folkestone Triennial, a festival of art in the public realm linked to the Creative Foundation – an arts led regeneration project. The foundation’s work centres on the creative quarter, a block within Folkestone’s Old Town that has been comprehensively restored and has been the focus of attempts to foster creative enterprise. This it is hoped will, in turn, catalyse the renewal of the rest of the town.

However, drawing comparisons between Folkestone and other creative enclaves, such as Shoreditch in London and the Northern Quarter in Manchester, should lead us to question the received notion of the ‘creative quarter’ as a physical place, and replace it with one that recognises the impermanence and mobility of creative entrepreneurial activity.

‘Creative quarter’ seems to function better as an abstract notion denoting the importance of innovative creative enterprise in building resilience into local economies. Indeed, the Triennial itself presents a compelling example of this new understanding of the term. While the Old Town struggles with a high ‘churn’ rate and little evidence of regeneration in neighbouring streets – the accompanying festival is temporary, non-place specific and has succeeded in provoking a creative outpouring on the part of the local creative community in the form of the 2011 Triennial Fringe, one that appears to have spread the benefits of arts led regeneration more widely than the creative quarter itself.

The policy implication for regenerators wishing to foster creative enterprise in their town is that, particularly when resources are scarce, investing money in physical regeneration in the hope of luring creative entrepreneurs to a particular location within the town should not be the priority. Efforts should focus on measures that create the conditions in which creative enterprise will flourish, for example, improved public realm and transport connectivity, addressing skills levels within the labour market, strengthening networks and providing creative enterprise with access to business advice and support. Start-ups in creative fields can then make the locational decisions themselves and, if necessary, invest money in the refurbishment of physical spaces.

It has been observed that ‘real’ cities, like Gaudi’s famous cathedral, are never finished. As the effects of globalisation and the ever quickening pace of technological advances impact on city life, so Archigam’s vision of moving cities is becoming a reality. As is well documented, creative entrepreneurs are a group that can congregate within a city and unleash a process of organic, market led revitalisation. But rather than a fixed place, it is more akin to the liquid edge of the lava flow – a moving frontier where the socioeconomic (if not physical) characteristics of the city are still fluid and unsettled. But over the process of a few years, the areas where there once existed this fluidity become hardened into rock – a long-term state in which the character of place changes relatively little.

In east London this process can be observed over a period of perhaps 25 years. The western edge of Bethnal Green has now been absorbed into ‘London Central’, the justification recently used by architect Amanda Levete to claim her Shoreditch Tower, a luxury residential development east of Shoreditch High Street, should be awarded planning consent. The same phenomenon has been observed the Northern Quarter in Manchester.

Cities in this molten state are exciting, and many people bemoan the loss of character that comes with the pace of change slowing. Soho in New York, for example, is now dominated by upmarket boutiques where once it was home to artists. It is, however, the inevitable process of change exhibited by dynamic, creative cities and the pioneering element always finds a new place to inhabit (in the case of New York they have moved to Williamsburg and Bushwick), just as there are always brownfield sites awaiting redevelopment.

While this is inevitable, once the process of organic regeneration has commenced, there is an opportunity for the public sector to step in before the regeneration cycle is complete to ensure residents, together with key creative organisations in the area, are not displaced precipitously. There are a number of models for this. In Vancouver members of the creative community have both acquired properties and been elected to positions within local government that enables them to influence the pace of change taking place in the city’s creative enclaves.

In Folkestone, the Creative Foundation has been able to acquire a 125-year lease on many properties, this gives them both an asset to ensure their own financial future, but also a means of keeping rents down for those creative businesses considered vital to the character of the town. Private landowners such as The Crown Estate, Howard de Walden and Shaftesbury plc have pioneered ‘urban villages’ – an enclave of high value add ‘creative’ retailing – based on conditioning selection of retail tenants for individual sites to the greater need of the estate as a whole.

Wholesale displacement is a form of market failure; surgical intervention by enlightened players who recognise the symbolic value of creative enterprise and the need to preserve some social continuity can and should engage in a form of socio-economic engineering to ensure heterogeneity and cultural richness are retained. Neither of these places were working from scratch, however. It has been noted that it is better to identify latent ‘hidden’ clusters, and nurture these. These places, unlike Folkestone, were already working with a significant existing creative community and were not therefore attempting to manipulate the market, but rather working with its grain.

Place is subject to powerful macro realities that form the key drivers keeping the creative quarter of any truly dynamic city on the move. Further, mobility demonstrates not only the futility of ‘creative quarter’ branding but also the potential harm it can do, as creative pioneers are wary of the ‘dead hand’ of the state. Indeed, the labelling is often applied behind the times when the urban pioneers have moved on and, as a result, the term itself is further devalued through an association with places that hold on to threads of an erstwhile fashionability, but in truth have been taken over by a more corporate aesthetic.

Paloma Varga Weisz’s Rug People, part of the Folkstone Triennial

Anna Rose of Space Syntax has noted the problematic nature of inventing creative quarters through interventionist means; to her mind, they tend to arise organically and need to be supported through ‘spatial relationships, land use and adjacencies’. It should be emphasised, however, that in Folkestone the physical regeneration of the Old Town is only one part of the story. In addition to this improvement in the ‘hardware’, part of the Creative Foundation’s strategy has been to look at the ‘software’ too, developing the civic culture, for example through improving education levels and encouraging engagement with cultural activities on the part of the resident population.

The process is now ten years old and while progress has been made it has been noted true transformation is still some way off. The singular strength of Folkestone is the presence of a committed and determined philanthropist in the form of Roger de Haan. The courageousness of the project can be seen in the weakness of the position from which the town started; the old town was almost entirely bereft of existing creative industry presence before the regeneration initiative began.

While the main players in the town bang the drum of the value of creative enterprise, the arrival of Rock Salt, Mark Sargeant’s fine dining restaurant in the Old Town is a sign of things to come. However welcome, it represents a flight to a more conventional notion of seaside luxury. If creative enterprise does develop in a significant way in Folkestone, it will be more to do with the Creative Foundation’s important work in changing the civic culture within the town and the skills levels of its inhabitants, combined with the operation of macro trends such as the revival of coastal towns generally and delivery of key infrastructure projects. And they may find these creative businesses will choose their physical premises in places other than the Old Town.


Folkstone creative quarter

The adoption of the term ‘creative quarter’ is perhaps a first tentative step on the part of planners who wish to demonstrate they recognise the value of the creative industries within economic development. For some small cities, the employment provided by the creative sector equates to that of the large manufacturing employers that drove their economies in earlier generations.

Local authorities’ economic strategies still revolve around attracting large industrial and corporate players, and a key part of understanding the attraction of the creative quarter is its symbiotic relationship with these organisations and the role it plays in attracting them. It constitutes an expression of the ‘knowledge economy’ at street level and forms an aspect of the conditions required for high value add businesses to flourish. Indeed, a recent study has found ‘that creative sectors that provide content and cultural experiences show… significant patterns of co-location with knowledge intensive business services (Kibs).

In this provision of ‘cultural experiences’, perhaps three examples deserve special mention. Firstly, the growth of ad hoc commercial activity in the public realm, such as farmers markets, pop up ‘meanwhile’ activity and street markets; secondly, the extraordinary development of contemporary art fairs and biennials all over the world, of which the Folkestone Triennial is one example. Thirdly, the flourishing of experimental forms of street and public art. These types of activity are associated with cities that have been successful in nurturing and attracting Kibs – Brighton, Old Street silicon roundabout in London and the Northern Quarter in Manchester are perhaps the three most obvious examples.

They are the result of the same economic forces that keep the creative quarter forever moving, relatively small scale entrepreneurial activity that sees an opportunity and capitalises on it. It reflects a demand on the part of the educated elite for cultural experiences and a sense of urban richness and vitality that only the creative industries can deliver.

These examples illustrate the opportunistic, temporary, mobile nature of the creative quarter. Further studies have shown creative industries congregate either at the micro level of an individual building, or at a city-wide level, but do not naturally congregate at the level of the district. The three phenomena noted above are similarly not tied to a particular place, but will alight in any area of the city were Space Syntax’s ‘spatial relationships, land use and adjacencies’ promote their existence.

The model of the biennial is, indeed, deliberately diffuse and multi-locational. This notion of city wide, rather than district, application of the creative quarter philosophy is in tune with government thinking about how to promote urban regeneration driven by small scale creative activity, for example the ambition to spread broadband connectivity to all parts of the city, prioritising those that suffer from the highest levels of deprivation.


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