Culture and Cities: from Infrastructure to Sociostructure

December 5, 2016, 5:57 pm

By Rosa Pérez Monclús and Carla Schiavone, Culture Action Europe

Culture Action Europe (CAE) actively promotes the inclusion of culture as a pillar for sustainable development. Jointly with a wider coalition of civil society organisations, we advocated for the inclusion of culture in Rio+20 and culture. Advocating for Culture as a Pillar of Sustainability, in United Nations’ 2030 Agenda and in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and recently for its inclusion in the New Urban Agenda[1]. These advocacy efforts remain on-going and so is our learning process. This article is an attempt to analyse the main findings and to highlight some commonalities we found in different initiatives CAE implemented. By doing so we aim to explore and facilitate the development of new cultural policies for sustainable urban development.

Horizontal apertures

Forward-looking cities have an intuition of the transformative potential of culture however, often lack new frameworks for overcoming traditional approaches. Cultural policies at city level tend to highlight grand cultural investments that are not available to the majority of European cities, nor adequate for a sustainable future. Together with our partners, UCLG and CEMR, Culture Action Europe has developed the Pilot Cities programme. Pilot Cities promotes the development of sustainable cities in cooperation with public, private and civil society actors. The programme goes beyond the exchange of good practices and enables effective evaluation, peer-learning and a critical dissemination of existing intelligence. The added value of Pilot Cities lays on the diversity of its participants, allowing them to confront common challenges and source solutions across Europe.

Vertical apertures

In the past two years, together with the civil society and local governments, CAE has explored new cultural policy making processes that place citizenship and democracy at the core.

Our project Kathréptis in Athens was motivated by the Greek socio-economic crisis and the sense that democratic participation and civil society needed to be strengthened to build a constructive path forward. The methodology was designed around the principles of collaborative problem solving and discovery-driven learning. This allowed heterogeneous people from different backgrounds to co-designing structural elements for present and future solutions.

Learning from this experience, CAE is currently running a collaborative process involving citizens, neighbours, cultural organisations and public and private stakeholders to co-define the future socio-cultural functions of Nuovo Cinema Aquila, in Rome. By actively engaging the community, the municipality of Rome aims at rebuilding trust as a basis for democratic participation. In parallel, CAE’s Italian members independently run the CRE•ACTION campaign. In the framework of the campaign a new model of local sustainable development was developed leading to concrete proposals for those governing the city.

The above experiences have allowed us to define guiding principles that lead our advocacy efforts. Culture Action Europe believes that cultural policies at a city level should:

  1. Use cultural spaces to enhance participation: Cultural premises should be considered as civic spaces; a natural meeting place for citizens of every income, age and background, whether or not they initially come to see the work inside. An open policy of engagement pays huge dividends, in revenues, and in providing democratic legitimacy for the city’s choices. Cultural policy at urban scale should increasingly balance investments in infrastructure, with those dedicated to support creation and its circulation and to enhance citizens’ participation in local cultural life. The next challenge for the cities is about moving between policies based on a “nodal public space” approach and a “micro-public spaces” one[2].
  2. Use exchange, collaboration and new forms of partnerships to include peripheries at the core of society. Communities that are culturally isolated by definition will not feel included in the ambitions, identity and ethos of the wider city. Therefore, the cultural governance of cities needs to be re-imagined: reconverting and energising peripheral neighbourhoods with imagination and above all collaboration is pivotal. Investment in infrastructure is needed to encourage exchange and mobility. However, periphery should not be considered solely in a geographical sense, but mechanisms of exclusion need to be addressed and structural solutions explored.
  3. Fund cultural processes, not only cultural infrastructure. Local governments often feel that renovating or putting up new buildings for cultural activity can solve problems of regeneration. Far less funds go to cultural work itself. The investment in the building is the start of the process, not the end.

Urban cultural policies also need to advance in the following specific challenges:

  1. A safe public space: Actual and perceived security is strongly related to participative and inclusive public space. Freely accessible and safe public space needs to be preserved and provided, allowing for the interaction of all citizens and thus forming the very basis of democratic debate, encounters and creative development.
  2. Fund the cultural ecosystem. Positive external effects generated by culture on the economic or social spheres should be reinvested in local cultural ecosystems. For example, the benefits generated by culture-based tourism or by the most commercially viable elements of the cultural and creative industries could contribute to preservation strategies and community development. Public-private-civic partnerships with a clear understanding of shared public interest in this field are necessary.

The challenges and the work ahead are fascinating and potentially transformative. In a crisis of perceived legitimacy of the European Union, with increasing reaffirmation of national identities, key values are questioned and viewed differently between European countries. In parallel, a fragmentation of the social fabric of our societies leads to a lack of participation and growing isolation. It is therefore vital for citizens to participate in a vibrant cultural life, as such experiences allow for the generation of social capital and enhance cohesion and well-being.


[1] For a detailed description of these processes see J. Pascual’s article in this issue
[2] URBAN APERTURE | POROSITY AS A NEW MODEL FOR HYBRID PUBLIC SPACES, from “URBAN HYBRIDIZATION in Contemporary Territories, Unversità Politecnico Milano


Image for: Culture and Cities: from Infrastructure to Sociostructure