Urban Manufacturing/Manufacturing the Urban in Zürich

by Ares Kalandides

Last Saturday I wrote a short blog entry with some very quick thoughts after visiting the conference re:Art:the:URBAN in Zürich. These thoughts did not relate to the panel I chaired, but were critical observations on the way we talk (and particularly do not talk) about our cities in times of crisis. Today I would like to sum up some of the most important observations of our panel, Urban Manufacturing, with Dieter Läpple, Arnold Reijndorp and Travor Davies.

The main issue of the panel Urban Manufacturing (and the following one, Manufacturing the Urban) was whether small-scale entrepreneurial activities have a positive impact on urban space (e.g. activate public spaces, provide innovative programmes, invest in the maintenance of buildings etc.). In reverse, it examined how urban spaces themselves provide ideal conditions for urban manufacturing (inspiration, audience, markets). The panels Urban Manufacturing/Manufacturing the Urban aimed to “elucidate the reciprocal relationship between urban manufacturing and urban space and how it can be made productive for a sustainable development of contemporary cities”. As usual the actual content of the panel differed substantially from this programmatic text:

Dieter Läpple opened the panel talking about how the cultural and creative economy is embedded in urban spaces and about the relational positioning of the creative realm within urban society and economy.  He criticized definitions according to which cultural and creative economy is mainly seen as an economic activity that generates ‘symbolic goods’ – meaning ideas, signs, brands, image campaigns, advice, architectural or design icons etc. – as too limited. Looking from the perspective of urban society and urban economy he was rather interested in the possibilities to link the production of symbolic goods with material production processes, in the interrelation between the cultural and creative economy with local and migrant economies, as well as in the overlapping with the traditional service sector.  At the same time, the peculiarity and relative autonomy of cultural production has to be respected and supported. Creative activities need open spaces. If they are only perceived with regards to their possible contribution to economic value creation and to the revitalization of city quarters, they lose their innovative power.

Arnold Reijndorp’s contribution was on the issue of diversity. Diversity is often brought forward as an important condition for livable and vital cities  and the attractiveness of cities for the “creative class”. Ethnic or immigrant businesses, like shops and restaurants, add to this diversity, but seem to be only recognized as an addition to the preferred scenery of the public space as a stage for the ‘creative city’. A function they also fulfil, in scholarly studies as well as popular fun shopping guides, in the attractiveness of cities for tourism and day trips.  In this approach migrant businesses are mainly seen as a colourful part of the “parochial domain” of the creative class and a contribution to the ‘tourist gaze’. To really understand what is going on in specific parts of European cities it is important to see migrant businesses in their own right, to look at the social-economic dynamics within specific migrant groups and the contribution to both the economy of cities and their own emancipation and integration.  The perspective has to change from a focus on immigrant cultures as the new locals to transnationalism as an important economic, social and cultural phenomenon, that immigrant and creative groups share. In this light it can be argued that immigrants are in fact the new cosmopolitans and the creative class, the new locals, the last ones finding their unified parochial realms in cities all over the western world and more and more also in other parts.

Travor Davies talked about the city of Aarhus and a series of cultural mapping exercises conducted in the preparation for Aarhus 2017, European Capital of Culture. A city of 300.000, Aarhus has a high concentration of cultural and creative actors and agents and the overlapping of professional, social and physical networks and spheres is seen as a key factor in this synergy.   Davies talked about the existence of “soft” urban space as a vital aspect, where a melting of public and private space generates fertile ground and allows untraditional forms of communication and stimulates the generation of programmes and projects which both support this synergy but also transforms this cultural potential to cultural capital in the public domain and thus this becomes an asset for the city – both for residents and citizens and also for visitors.    A third aspect of this is the key role of events and actions, which can act as testing grounds for ideas, relationships and programmes.

ARoS Aarhus Art Museum Photo by Gerd Fahrenhorst

Obviously such a panel had to repeat a lot of broadly discussed facts (some of them tiring to those of us who have been dealing with issues of the creative economy for a while), but what I am interested in here, are the new ideas that came out of it – and fortunately there were a lot. Here are some thoughts from the panel which I think are worth repeating:

I found that Dieter Läpple’s insistence that we should look at the “production of symbolic goods” together with (and not in opposition to) material production is one of the most interesting points made. The whole discussion on the creative economy has a strong post-industrial bias, it takes us away from manufacturing and towards the production of symbols. As several examples around the world show (see also our blog posts on Nemona in Berlin), there are today several attempts at thinking of the creative moment as a link in a larger value chain. It is very interesting to think about how this is connected to others, including education, production, financing, distribution and sales. The creative economy discourse concentrates mainly on the supply side and hardly at all on the demand. Läpple went on showing how this discussion has reversed a more traditional view, where it was the services that used to be the “silent partner” of manufacturing, i.e. the part less visible. Today, it’s the other way round with the services in the focus of both research and political discourse and manufacturing on the dark side of the moon. This also conceals deeper issues such as the structure of the labour market with its thresholds, particularities of migrant economy etc. Only through a reconceptualization of the creative economy that links the above different elements can we consider relevant policies that create “spaces of opportunities” in our cities.

Urban manufacturing: symbolic goods or material products?

The other point that I found very interesting was Arnold Reijndorp’s example of “places of interaction”, i.e. places of the everyday – such as a corner copy shop where different people of different backgrounds (including the “creatives”) interact. These are places of familiarization with “the other”, places where you can observe actions or overhear casual conversations. But for that there are several conditions including openness, the existence of a threshold and a set of unwritten rules of behaviour. Only through these places can the multiculturalism of “creative neighbourhoods” become more than just a background, a scenery for a fictional “creative class”.

I find that in both these issues we may have some attempts at moving forward in a discussion that has been turning around in circles in the past five years.  Here, we may have two different entry points that allow us to look at the creative economy in cities, not as an isolated phenomenon, but in its interrelations with others.

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