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By Oktay Tuncer
“Good advertising does not just circulate information. It penetrates the public mind with desires and belief”, is one of the famous quotations of 20th century-advertisement and branding Guru, Leo Burnett. As a resident of the German capital one cannot help but being struck by the overuse of the city image by Berlin-based companies. In their ads – this applies to newspapers as well as to beer brands – pleasant feelings go along with values such as freedom, pluralism and whimsicality, and are depicted as unique for the city. In subway billboards or in cinema commercials before the film starts the unorthodox and avantgardist lifestyles of a diverse cast are shown to the viewer.
More than just a marketing campaign for private companies this kind of branding by the city-image has become mainstream urban policy conquering Western cities. In 2009, a promotion campaign under the name be Berlin was initiated by the city government of Berlin. On the homepage the objective is described as follows: “to strengthen the positive image of Berlin and to publicize the city nationally and internationally as domicile, location of economic activity and destination for the many tourists.” This statement is telling about the priorities of city officials.
On one hand, many people are convinced that such an approach of branding the city and the policies it spawns are cost-preventing and do not have any negative effects. On the other hand, in the long run these policies do effect how urban policy is perceived and effect the decision-making on how the city should be engineered. This ambiguity is an interesting case for it exemplifies how a policy approach becomes broadly accepted and also how a debate is cut short by not making the underlying ideology explicit. Without seeing the ideological foundation of a policy measure one cannot understand its long-term implications on society or, in our case, on the city and the urban debate. More concretely, we assert that the social questions which draw through the city are pushed aside and a blind eye is turned on issues such as inequality and segregation.
An approach to shape the city
In the be berlin-campaign´s promotional video a couple of locals appear and tell their stories about how they help shaping the city. We see an immigrant kiosk shopkeeper, a high-school student who has recently won a science sponsorship award and the head of a big high-tech company who tells the viewer about her company´s success. These components strongly hint at an urban policy approach which is based on a theory known as the Creative Class Theory. The theory was developed by US urbanist Richard Florida at the turn of the millennium and instantly took off among urban policy elites in the Western World. To summarize Florida´s initial observation, creatives are highly concentrated in some metropolitan areas and these same places are locations of technological and social innovation and success. The conclusion he draws from this is the following: “creativity is the principal driving force in the growth and the development of cities, regions and nations today” (Florida 2005). Another argument for this is the growing number of people employed in the creative sector, he observes. In the end, these reflections lead him to the suggestion that cities should try to attract creatives if they want to experience economic growth and do not want to be left behind in today´s world. He then offers a toolkit for urbanists how to achieve this, naming talent, tolerance and technology as three key factors – which are advertised under the catchy title “the three Ts”. The be Berlin promotional video demonstrates how politics and government officials have embraced these ideas. The immigrant shopkeeper represents the city´s tolerance and pluralism, the awarded high-school girl stands for talent and dynamic youth and lastly, technology is an important industry in Berlin, we learn from the high-tech company executive.
A 2007 article from mainstream German weekly news magazine der Spiegel further substantiates to what extent the assumptions of the theory are accepted. It reads: “Social tolerance, technological development and a bank of talent are proven factors in determining the economic success of a region. A new study ranks Berlin at the top, suggesting the economically weak city may soon be poised for a boom driven by the creative class.”
Berlin is far from being the first city to go this path, many US cities were forerunners. By now, the approach is widespread and we see many examples all over the world. In the rethinking of Singapore´s urban space and implementation of gay-friendly policies or the construction of Arts and Entertainment districts in Baltimore Florida was involved directly. Other famous examples are Memphis and Toronto for urban locations which were attempted to be turned into creative cities as means of economic development strategies.
Many of the Creative Class theory (from here on: `cct’) proponents remark that, in an era of “fast policy”, these interventions offer solutions to economic problems that are relatively easy to implement, seemingly any city can adopt and – the cherry on the cake – they come with a beneficial byproduct: declaring the city as a creative location. There is not much to argue against new museums or cultural centers or even “support for small-scale projects that encourage art and culture to blossom within walkable, mixed use neighborhoods” (Moss 2017). Herein lies the strategic importance. There is no categorical rejection from any population group or partisan group with regards to these projects.
The subtle long-term and structural consequences of the approach
Since the proposed measures do not deal directly with inequality and segregation, scholars have decried them as “cappucino urban politics with plenty of froth” (Peck 2005) or dismissed them as “neo-neoliberal extensions to market-ideology” and put them in the tradition of gentrification literature (Paddison 2014). There is no denying that the measures can be emancipatory to some extent. Yet, this is rarely the case for people who do not stem from the Creative Class themselves. The way in which Little Britain´s `white trash’ population was “socially engineered out of existence” is an example for this. In the end, the city government demolished their public housings and built mixed communities in their place (Paddison 2014). A similar process took place in Pittsburgh. Geographer Patrick Vitale from East Connecticut State University assesses the implementation of development programs in Pittsburgh: “Contrary to the media hype, Pittsburgh’s tech-driven story is all too common: the city was remade for businesses and wealthy homeowners. And poor and working-class residents have been left behind.” It is the creative elite which is supported by these development policies. Doctors, bankers, and engineers find prosperity within the city whereas “residents suffer from the same (or worse) poverty, racial injustice, and environmental degradation.”
Initially, a trickle-down economy was part of the cct and assumed to set in as soon as the creatives took hold of the cities. By accommodating the needs and desires of the creatives trickle-down benefits should arise for the low-income workers and the impact would effect all sectors of urban economy generating a widespread urban revival. This did not occur. In reality, we see that a large number of “underlabourer” and low-skill jobs are created but the necessary reflection on the serious downsides of this is missing (Peck 2005). Higher housing costs make sure that the blue-collar and lower-skilled workers do not profit from their wage increases but, contrary, get pushed more and more to the outskirts of the cities. Investment in `cool’ districts, as Florida himself reflects self-critically, has done little for the urban middle class and the working class: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits to service and blue-collar workers”
In Berlin, the resounding social problems persist: poverty becomes concentrated in some districts which, according to a city official, leads to destabilizing dynamics in these. The urban social planning programs cannot counter the number of challenges they are faced with. Karl Brenke from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) sees gentrification as the reason for this development.
The economic assumptions do not hold empirically. Florida acknowledges in his new book released in the wake of last year that he has been “overly optimistic” with his ideas. The downsides of these policy prescriptions are crucial, such as the creation of a greater number of low paid working class and service sector jobs designed to support the occupational and personal needs of newly arrived high-skilled creatives. Furthermore, the tendency of the measures to be responsible for rising rents and the intricacies this brings along for the poorer population cannot be overlooked.
Striking examples for the failure of the creative city approach include local artists from regions subject to the policies complaining about displacement and exclusion (Moss 2017), the Rustbelt cities which now confirm that they are still left behind (and once were enthusiastic about their rise through creative city policies), and the much expected trickle-down effect which did not occur in cities like New York, London and San Francisco. The social crisis of the 21st century urban space persists and has become worse in some parts.
It is worthwhile, in this case, to examine the academic assumptions in order to understand how the theory spreads and to put them to the test. The case is telling about how politics and science are intertwined and makes a statement about the role of ideology. As the geographers Chris Gibson and Natascha Klocker note attentively: “For all rapid international diffusion of Florida´s prescriptions, little critical attention has been paid to structures and networks that support, sustain and profit from their circulation” (Gibson/Klocker 2004).
A look at the theory´s underlying assumptions
The conception of class contains theoretical fuzziness and establishes a form of political favouritism. The arbitrary attribution of creativity generates a class category in which high-tech developers, artists and real estate professionals are put together. Class consciousness does not exist – except when one assumes that the finance professional and the poet have comparable objectives (Markusen 2006). Assuming that these occupations all have creative capacity and others do not, is also problematic. Why is an airplane pilot not part of the creative class whereas bankers and engineers are?
Distinctive occupations are merged into one category with educational attainment being the only linking factor (Markusen 2006). The positive effect of the creatives on urban growth perishes when controlled for the average educational attainment in the city (Glaeser 2005). Ultimately, the construction of the creative class as a societal driving force serves mostly to rename a staff of elites – be it cultural or economic – and to provide them with theoretical and economic significance, and thus with political power.
Another debatable issue is the question of how we measure and read the relationship between creatives and economic growth. The assumed socioeconomic process is validated by the ‘right’ choice of indices. The positive link between urban economic growth and the existence of a creative class seems solid if we look at inner city property development, urban labor markets for high-tech employees or the number of start-ups. Also increased housing prices are proposed by Florida as indicators of economic growth. He calls them the “real demand for place” and indicator for “attractiveness” of various places. We have here a set of indicators of “how the market views the attractiveness of various places” (Markusen 2006) which, however, makes the whole approach somewhat tautological. One could also look at outcomes like unemployment rate or real wage of workers to see if economic development in terms of living conditions ameliorates. But examining outcomes which hint at nothing else than gentrification only proves that more well-educated and wealthy people (creative class) have moved to the place and hence, nothing is proven. On top of that, other critics have argued that the direction of the assumed mechanism could be exactly the other way around (Markusen 2006). There is no convincing argument that the economic success of cities is not prior to the presence of creative people.
Finally, the social theory carrying the cct is telling. There are two societal frameworks which make up a fitting setting for the cct: post-scarcity and the experience society. Essentially, the post-scarcity assumption is that we are living in a society where there is no shortage of the most important goods (Peck 2005). Industrial capitalism has brought us so far that we do not have to fear scarcity anymore. Coherently, having experiences becomes the center of our daily life (Schulze 2000). They are the means by which we distinguish ourselves, express our personality and define our identity. Obviously, no society is either 100 percent free from scarcity nor completely centred around experiences. However, these premises build up the world in which the creative class policies make sense. If there still was scarcity the neglect of social policies would not be tolerable. A shift from economic growth issues to lifestyle issues make cultural policies more important (Florida 2012). Without the assumed relevance of “experiences” many cultural policies, and notably the eventification and branding of city space, would be out of place.
The creative class bias is as rooted as ever in Berlin. Throughout the 2000s a huge part of the city treasure was saved for creative city projects and policies (Juhnke 2016). The result was that many young artists were attracted, up to the point where their activities made 20 per cent of the city´s GDP. Between 2009 and 2012 the sector grew by almost a third (Juhnke 2016).
On a more concrete level, the displacement of artisan shops and retailers is significant. A recently published article in a city magazine illustrates how such local shops struggle more and more to keep their spots in the trendy Kreuzberg district in view of horrendous rent risings and shortenings of contract durations. They have founded an alliance to organize protest and to get in touch with government officials but an effective measure against the unaffordable rise of rents is not at hand. The question emerges for whom the city is shaped.
Even if cultural policies are a priori not a bad thing, it cannot be neglected that a push is taking place to engineer the city for the gusto of already privileged people. The discourse of creativity simply sidesteps many of the concerns of 21st century´s distributional questions. One reviewer states that the function of the theory is to put an “egalitarian gloss on contemporary conflicts” between the upper 1 per cent of the population and the working class (Moss 2017).
Today, the pro-gentrification, neoliberal policies can be sold as efforts to promote creativity (Moss 2017). These policies “work […] through interurban competition, gentrification, middle class consumption and placemarketing” (Paddison 2014). Their assumed academic assumptions provides them with a sort of justification and power. It is these assumptions however, which are shaky, at best.
Florida, Richard (2005): Cities and the creative class. Routledge, London, New York.
Florida, Richard (2012): The Rise of The Creative Class. Basic Books, New York
Gibson, Chris & Natascha Klocker (2004): Academic publishing as a `creative’ industry: some critical reflections. Area, vol. 36(4), 423-34
Glaeser, Edward L. (2005): Review of Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class”. Regional Science and Urban Economics, vol. 35(5), 593-596
Juhnke, Sebastian (2016): Locating the Creative Class: Diversity and Urban Change in London and Berlin. Thesis submitted to The University of Manchester, School of Social Sciences
Kratke, Stefan (2011): The Creative Capital of Cities: Interactive Knowledge Creation and the Urbanization Economies of Innovation. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden
Levine, Marc (2004): La « classe créative » et la prospérité urbaine : mythes et réalités. Conference presented in Montréal, 20 May 2004, part of the series « Villes Régions Monde », at the Centre-Urbanisation, Culture et Société.
Markusen, Ann (2006): Urban development and the politics of a creative class: evidence from a study of artists. Environment and Planning A, vol.38, 1921-1940
Moss, Geoffrey (2017): Artistic enclaves in the post-industrial city : A Case Study of Lawrenceville Pittsburgh. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, New York
Paddison, Ronan (2014) : Cities & social change : Encounters with contemporary urbanism. Sage, Los Angeles
Peck, Jamie (2005): Struggling with the Creative Class. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 29(4), 740-770
Schulze, Gerhard (2000): Die Erlebnis-Gesellschaft : Kultursoziologie der Gegenwart. Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt