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“Vista Paradiso against the blue sky” by flickr user See-ming Lee

Title: Culture Urban Future: Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development

Author(s): UNESCO and many others

Publisher: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Year: 2016

URL: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002459/245999e.pdf

Topics: urban planning, cities, economic development, community revitalization, social cohesion, community identity, cultural heritage, sustainability, resilience

Methods: survey of regional and global trends, case studies

What it says: The report aims to provide a global overview of the role played by culture – including cultural heritage, creative economies, and diverse forms of cultural expression – in developing thriving cities that are people-centered, inclusive, and sustainable; in the process, the authors hope to make the case for culture as a force “at the heart of urban renewal and innovation.” Their proximate purpose is to influence the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 – “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable” – to ensure that culture is incorporated robustly as a lever of change. That’s a big ambition with fuzzy borders, and the report accordingly adopts a strategy of profusion, combining across its three hundred pages:

  • Part I: Eight regional analyses covering every part of the world, authored by local experts. (The versions in this report are condensed; full versions are available separately online.) Each lays out for its region the history of urban development, trends within cities (e.g., suburbanization), challenges to continued development with a special eye to the role of culture, and high-level policy recommendations.
  • Part II: Twelve thematic reflections on the role of culture for sustainable cities grouped into the categories of People, Environment, and Policies. Each of these consists of an essay by an expert on a different general idea, such as “humanizing cities through culture” and “enabling access to public spaces to advance economic, environmental, and social benefits.” These meditations draw on the literature in a general way and with relatively few citations (though more are available online) to point to possible ways to use culture in urban development, sometimes drawing on successful examples from the field.
  • One-hundred-eleven case studies: Throughout the first two parts, short examples of specific interventions are summarized in inset boxes (e.g., an app developed to map the informal public transit network of vans in Nairobi; the gradual development of the historic city in Coimbra, Portugal). These are typically a paragraph or two long and seem designed to illustrate the breadth of ways culture and urban development intersect.
  • Forty-four “perspectives”: Also throughout the first two parts, mini-essays from luminaries such as architect Renzo Piano and the head of the Library of Alexandria offer first-person takes on a range of issues, from “creative placemaking as urban policy” to “people-centered heritage conservation in Beijing.”
  • Conclusions and recommendations: See below.
  • Eight “dossiers” on UNESCO programs relevant to culture and urban development. These brief primers, gathered in an appendix to the report, describe things like the role of cities in the World Heritage program (one-third of the sites on the list are historical urban areas) and the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities.

The report’s short “conclusions and recommendations” section acknowledges the difficulty of summarizing the state of global urban culture in a few crisp proposals, but the authors do offer 12 recommendations with a few sentences of description for each. These draw out ideas that recur throughout the other sections of the report, and they are grouped into three themes:

  1. People-centered cities are culture-centered spaces: enhance the livability of cities and safeguard their identities, ensure social inclusion in cities through culture, promote creativity and innovation in urban development through culture, and build on culture for dialogue and peace-building initiatives.
  2. Quality urban environments are shaped by culture: foster human-scale and mixed-use cities by drawing on lessons learned from urban conservation practices, promote a livable built and natural environment, enhance the quality of public spaces through culture, and improve urban resilience through culture-based solutions.
  3. Sustainable cities need integrated policy-making that builds on culture: regenerate cities and rural-urban linkages by integrating culture at the core of urban planning, build on culture as a sustainable resource for inclusive economic and social development, promote participatory processes through culture and enhance the role of communities in local governance, and develop innovative and sustainable financial models for culture.

What I think about it: While far-reaching and well-intentioned, “Culture Urban Future” suffers from key limitations. First, the report’s purpose is not really to assess or synthesize the most up-to-the-minute academic research, and the paucity of citations or even explicit connections to the literature limits its usefulness as a guide for in-depth inquiry. Second, as a general primer encompassing (at least in theory) all cultural aspects of cities everywhere, it skims vast expanses, summarizing trends to raise awareness in a general way without engaging with any particular topic in great depth or contributing significant new insights that would merit further evaluation as independent evidence-based claims.

What it all means: The report may be useful to students of urban development or urban culture as a primer to some of “the current policies and practices of urban regeneration and sustainable development that have put culture at their core,” in the words of the report’s mission statement. This especially pertains to those with a specific regional interest who can focus on the relevant section for a partial overview of trends and practices. The topic itself certainly merits further study: the report notes that although it was only in 2007 that the majority of human beings lived in cities, urbanization is accelerating dramatically: 67% of the world’s people are expected to be urbanites by 2050. Increasingly, human culture will be city culture, so we would do well to get our “culture urban future” right.