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Failure to deliver

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The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovatorsby Charles Landry. Earthscan Publications, 2000. 300pp. £17.95

This book sets out to provide a 'toolkit for urban innovators'. Structured to examine a progression of ideas about urbanity, it considers why some cities are successful, draws lessons from 'best practice' examples, and seeks to develop a methodology so that the successes can be applied more broadly. An ambitious task.

The book repeats some of its core themes time and time again, presumably to drive the message home that we should not be looking for absolutes in how we understand the city, but revel in the flux of the urban dynamic. This is a message well worth saying in an era of targets, results and 100-point plans, but the devil is in the detail.

Landry seems to revel in uncertainty because it prompts 'creatives' to come up with solutions. While examining some of the success stories of urban change, he chirps that we must open our arms to the 'virtues of failure'. In Landry's view, a celebration of failure might be the first stage to success, but a success that can't be enjoyed lest we become complacent and fail.

It's a 'can't win' rather than a 'win-win' argument. We need, he says, 'a self-conscious recognition that a city has a crisis or challenge that needs to be addressed' and believes that if it ain't broke, you haven't looked hard enough. His view is that adversity breeds imaginative solutions; a masochistic defence of the liberating nature of restraint.

One of the 'best practice' examples cited is Belo Horizonte in Brazil, where 'an annual parade is held to help change people's perceptions. . . where scavengers and street sweepers dress in colourful, recyclable clothes.'He then goes on to say that 'The Big Issue has had a substantial impact on the perception of the homeless. . . elevated out of the traditional hand-out mentality'. Really?

He considers that the traditional view of these two examples - and many others - in terms of blight, poverty and squalor is too compartmentalised; suggesting that the homeless be given homes, arguing that scavengers be given jobs, is too old-fashioned.

Rather we should look at the imaginative and creative benefits of people who have traditionally been seen as marginal to society.

There are many sublime and ridiculous examples, although the former are few and far between. Huddersfield crops up throughout the book as the hub of the new 'creative milieu'. No offence, but I rest my case.

It is not necessary to read far into The Creative City to sense that Landry's definition of creativity is synonymous with participation and social engagement. The object of the book is therefore to create a means of involving society - an elusive social cohesion. Landry would undoubtedly consider it crass of me to look for the Holy Grail of urban harmony. Maybe he's right, but by enjoying the 'process of engagement'more than the way it impacts on material betterment, he is in danger of applauding self-denial.

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