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What follows is a reflection on the ethics of the creative economy discourse when applied in the context of urban planning, a tiny participatory observation, concluded by a statement of belief in a better future.

“I was looking for something to love, for I was in love with loving”, wrote St. Augustine in his Confessions about the student days in Carthage. A quote that I remember every time I contemplate why I do certain things. But how does the quest for meaning in our actions relate to ethics, creative economy and placemaking?[1]

Recently I have been involved in the process of developing an initial strategy for a creative place in a rather small city in Latvia – Liepāja. A cluster, district, community center, we shall see when we get there. Thoughts on ethics have been bothering me ever since I wrote my first sentence for the strategy. Actually, ever since I am dealing with creative industries on a daily basis. The city has its problems, it also has enormous strengths and potential, and it definitely has its own identity. Which is why I could never see this place turn into a super-hipster-fancy-all-picture-perfect-creative cluster, simply because it would give space to the few who are already fine, but not much opportunities of identification to the rest of the community. Yet the examples put forward by people engaged in developing and reproducing the discourse of what is understood as best EU creative cluster and district development practices seem to be directing all ideas any local stakeholders might have exactly that way. The same way. The imagined “success formula” can be expressed as follows:

CREATIVE CLUSTER = abandoned building + X*artists + Y*creative firms + 1*slow-filtered coffee place + 1*fixed gear bike shop + alcohol license + business model based on never-ending subsidies

Back to ethics. So what is right or wrong about the contemporary practices of developing creative places? And what are the consequences?

Many scholars, thinkers, bloggers (and other humans) have pointed out the shortcomings and the negative consequences associated with viewing creativity as a production input, as a resource for social problem solving, and in the case of urban development projects – as the magic potion for regeneration and community development. Some of the negative consequences include :
• hipster gentrification
• precarious, unpaid labour
• copy-paste policy and implementation practices
• ineffective use of public and common resources
• giving false hope (in my opinion, the most unethical one)
Even more so, no one is ever allowed to mention the potential problems, we can only talk about the abundance of benefits such a temple of creativity can bring. [2; 3; 4; 5]

With that in mind, way too often have I caught myself wondering whether I believe in what most of the decision makers are preaching, whether I believe the introductions of scholarly articles I read weekly, whether I believe myself when I reference them. And most importantly, is my continuous taking part in acting upon the overly-positive claims on what creativity can bring ethical? Relating it back to St. Augustine’s confessions in this totally unrelated context – is our repeated engagement with the creativity discourse really beneficial or are we just in love with the wonderful idea it represents – a universal, abundant resource transforming all for better? Or maybe I get closer to an after-life in hell every time I am participating in it?

I would like to argue that the rightness comes from how we put the idea into practice. It is with intention that I chose to speak about creative placemaking, instead of creative cluster development, as I believe that it is an underexplored and very promising direction, when it comes to creativity in urban development.

The fundamental difference between placemaking and real estate development, is that it is a transformation for and by the community. An ontological design process aimed at integral change of all aspects of a place, and in the case of creative placemaking – doing so by relying on community’s creative assets and capabilities as the main resource. Here a place is not simply a space, it is “an environment where people have invested meaning over time.” And by applying the principles of placemaking they can continue to do so. [6]

So how does it help to deal with ethics in practice? In the process of placemaking, it is all about transferring the control and responsibility of managing community’s resources and thereby shaping its own future from the top, which would normally assume to know what is better for its public, to the bottom, who can now decide for themselves. In this sense, everyone else except for the community involved, including strategists like myself, are only enablers, people that help to spot already existing possibilities. From in love with loving to allowing people to attribute and create meaning themselves.

In fact, this discussion applies to anyone else to whose name the adjective creative has been attributed repeatedly. An affair with creativity is what we share, but what we make of it depends on our ethics. And creative industries discourses and practices could definitely benefit from some.

References & sources of inspiration:

[1] Saint Augustine (Bishop of Hippo.) (2006). Confessions. Hackett Publishing. Book III. Chapter 1.

[2] Jayne, M. (2004). Culture that works? Creative industries development in a working-class city. Capital & Class, 28(3), 199-210.

[3] Catungal, J. P., Leslie, D., & Hii, Y. (2009). Geographies of displacement in the creative city: The case of Liberty Village, Toronto. Urban Studies, 46(5-6), 1095-1114.

[4] Hae, L. (2012). The Gentrification of Nightlife and the Right to the City: Regulating Spaces of Social Dancing in New York. Routledge.

[5] Banks, M., & Hesmondhalgh, D. (2009). Looking for work in creative industries policy. International journal of cultural policy, 15(4), 415-430.



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