Editorial: Arts and the City

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 46 – Number 2


The main focus is of articles in this issue is on what cities and their governments been doing to encourage, and benefit from, art and art-related activity. The contributors explore places for the making of art, also selling art, showing it, enjoying it and exploiting it. From a focus on themes in the first four papers, the contributors turn to places, ranging from Britain to Korea, to the Middle East and the Netherlands.

The Call for Papers for this issue of Built Environment aimed to ‘reflect on a broad spectrum of activities from across the world, that help illuminate the role of the arts in forming the city through strategies, whether formal or informal’.

Well, ‘broad’ is definitely right. Arts and the City could be about almost everything. We flirted with the temptation of ‘art-engendered and art-entangled’ places – Montmartre 1890? SoHo 1980? Florence 1450? – but thought, no, that would be a whole different story. Nor are we trying to track down loci of innovation or even creativity, though you’ll find references to Richard Florida and The Rise of the Creative Class (Florida, 2002) on many a page below; and of course we’re fascinated by how innovative art and creative place-making happen and are helped to happen.

The articles in this issue explore places for the making of art, but also selling art, showing it, enjoying it and exploiting it. We’re interested in the places themselves, and what they’re doing about art and culture. We do not just mean visual art: we include the art and places of music, and we could have widened the net to bring in theatre cities (Edinburgh’s Festival, Niagara-on-the Lake?), opera cities (Bayreuth, Verona?) and literary cities (Dublin, recognized in its new Museum of Literature in Ireland).

The Focus

That all said, our main focus is on what cities and their governments have been trying to do to encourage, and benefit from, art and art-related activity of many kinds. This is coupled, inevitably, with trying to understand how arts and the city interact with each other. Our 2005 ‘Music and The City’ issue (Kloosterman, 2005a) made an explicit link of this kind:

If indeed processes of innovation in popular music resemble those in high-tech, then we could also argue the other way round and use popular music to draw broader lessons from studying, notably, the relationship between music and the city.

And added:

It is, first of all, more fun, at least for aficionados…

– which is certainly part of the charm of a subject like art and artists in the city –

… and secondly, and more seriously, the often very-well documented micro history of pop music stars provides us with a window of opportunity to catch a glimpse of the way processes of innovation take place…’. Kloosterman, 2005b, p. 190)

So we’re looking at what happens, and how it happens, as well as the more policy-oriented question of what all the agencies and actors are trying to make happen.

The Big Picture

It is a thirty-to-forty-year story, to which Charles Landry introduces us in his Arts, Culture and The City: An Overview (Landry, 2020). He shows how cities worldwide have come to see that the arts, culture and creativity can help with their aspirations for renewal and revitalization: beginning with bigger cities like Barcelona and Glasgow, but now extending ‘down the hierarchy’ to smaller places which also see the opportunity to go with the grain of local cultures and create energy that can be transformative.

And the ‘creative’ aspect is also, and crucially, about the actions to make places more of a creative milieu, as Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus address in their Arts and the City: Policy and Its Implementation (Markusen and Gadwa Nicodemus, 2020). This is the history of an impressive decade-long policy impetus, inspired by the ‘Creative Placemaking’ initiative (Markusen and Gadwa Nicodemus, 2018) which both authors were closely engaged in, driven federally but implemented locally in many imaginative ways, across the United States. In the United Kingdom, too, recognition of the full-spectrum (not just economic) contribution of the arts is evident in, for example, the recent Arts Council England research report showing that ‘arts and culture are up there with good schools when people make their decisions on where to live’. One of their interviewees said that a strong cultural offer ‘gives the impression that an area respects itself and its historical and cultural heritage’ (Serota, 2019).

Another of the participants in the initial Creative Placemaking endeavour, Anna Marazuela Kim, explicitly links the US and UK experiences in her Can We Design for Culture? Paradigms and Provocations (Kim, 2020). She also brings in a fascinating individual-player perspective in a thoughtful and wide-ranging interview with Sherry Dobbin, a former director of Times Square Alliance and now with Future Cities in London – highlighting the vital role that one person can play in a sector as idiosyncratic and instinctive as arts and culture.

This focus on experience and implementation is carried through in the next article, by Vivien Lovell of the Modus Operandi consultancy: Artists and the Public Spaces of the City (Lovell, 2020). Here, Lovell sets out lucidly and practically the key considerations for Public Art programmes: a field too often strewn with the lost and bathetic leftovers of well-meaning but incoherent investment. A dozen brilliant examples, mainly from London, show how good Public Art can be conceived and integrated.

From Themes to Places

We then shift focus from these largely thematic treatments to a series of articles which look at specific places, and the art and cultural effort within them.

We begin with the artists themselves. In the specific milieu of London’s East End, we see where they are and were, why they were and are there, and how this links (and sometimes doesn’t) to processes of urban change like gentrification. Nick Green – who in fact contributed to the 2005 Music and the City issue (Green, 2005) – maps and describes, in The Holding Option: Artists in East London 1968–2020 (Green, 2020), this world of artistic production and exchange. And he brings us up to 2020 where strategic planning, in the shape of the Greater London Authority, now has a Cultural Infrastructure Plan for London (Mayor of London, 2019) which seeks to shape this hitherto anarchic and ever-changing scene.

The processes Green describes involve a relentless churn of occupation, removal and displacement, highlighted by one of our other authors – Elizabeth Currid-Halkett – in her earlier work about the similar pressures in Manhattan on the SoHo art scene (Currid-Halkett, 2007). It is interesting that some attempt is now being made in East London to soften the displacement pressures: Create London are working with one local council to build live-work artists’ housing, with ‘discounted rent and lifetime tenancies in exchange for running a free daily public programme in the community hall’ (Garrard, 2019, p. 63).

Then we really swing east.
Yasser ElSheshtawy’s Beyond Artwashing: An Overview of Museums and Cultural Districts in Arabia (Elsheshtawy, 2020) sets out a magisterial survey of the blaze of high-profile investments in the cultural sector in the Arab Gulf States, from Louvre Abu Dhabi to the mushrooming of ‘cultural districts’ in cities all over the region. The key actors in this setting are, one might say, only incidentally the artists themselves: these initiatives are very often the pure form of ‘art as city strategy’, with government and corporate enterprise in the driving-seat. Yet they do also relate to the idea that ‘an area respects itself and its historical and cultural heritage’, mentioned above. These are cities, often city-states, who are keen not just to state their claim to international importance, but also to hold on to their people’s culture and history as a maelstrom of globalization sweeps over the Arab world.

We then take a ‘deep dive’ into one of these cultural districts. Alongside the ten lanes of Sheikh Zayed Road, in the Middle Eastern hub city of Dubai, a sort of manufactured ‘rundown-warehousing-district’ has emerged in an area (Al-Quoz) primarily zoned for industry – and barely twenty-five years old. Damien Nouvel recounts its evolution in Organic, Planned or Both: Al-Serkal Avenue: An Art District by Entrepreneurial Action in an Organic Evolutionary Context (Nouvel, 2020). Dubai generally has a district for everything (Media City, Healthcare City, Knowledge Village, etc), but Nouvel shows that Al-Quoz/Al-Serkal is not quite that: it is an unusual variant on Dubai’s characteristic interweave of public and private initiative, with entrepreneurs taking more of the lead and with something of a blind eye from the Municipality, marking it out too from the entirely top-down efforts in most neighbouring cities and states. And of course, ‘art district’ in a trading city like Dubai means that actual artists are not necessarily the dominant form of life as you walk around Al-Serkal.

Onward and eastward, this time to Korea. In Socially Engaged Art(ists) and the ‘Just Turn’ in City Space, Soyoon Choo and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett draw in particular on two means by which art and artists have interacted with urban planning and development choices in ways that illuminate what socially-engaged art can mean in a great city like the Korean capital: especially at a time of enormous change in politics and societal values (Choo and Currid-Halkett, 2020). At one of Seoul’s major plazas, artists helped shift the role of that space towards public dialogue; whilst more broadly urban policies have responded so that regeneration plans and community-led planning involve the arts/culture and ‘just city’ norms of equity, democracy, and diversity.

The Art of Music

Our last two articles home in the role of one particular art – music – in shaping perceptions and realities of the modern city. We are back to a world where the artist is key, and one where there are many questions about the role of outside agencies in supporting, shaping and inevitably hindering the creative potential. Like the 2005 Music and the City issue, we are interested in place and music:

The virtuous circle of a city making music and music making a city shows how places and their particular histories still matter in an era where (digitalized) music seems to be first and foremost a part of the global space of flows. (Kloosterman, 2005b, p. 182)

We move back west, to two European cities. First, to Den Haag/The Hague, where Robert Kloosterman (editor of the 2005 issue) and Amanda Brandello describe the intense but ultimately quite short-lived story of that city’s enormously vibrant beat music scene. Their article, There Is Music to Play, Places to Go, People to See: An Exploration of Innovative Relational Spaces in the Formation of Music Scenes: The Case of the Hague in the 1960s (Brandello and Kloosternman, 2020) shows how specific places in the city almost by accident created, via an atmosphere of shared interests, trust and competition, a critical mass of musicians and their ecosytem which drove an extraordinarily lively and successful local music scene. Yet just as quickly, it unravelled: supporting, perhaps, another observation in the 2005 issue that ‘large cities are, in the long run, in an advantageous position vis-à-vis smaller cities that usually only thrive one style or fashion era and not much beyond’ (Kloosertman, 2005b, p. 181).

And then, finally to Liverpool. Ian Wray’s article The Pool of Life: Liverpool, Rock Music and the Roots of Creativity (Wray, 2020) looks at the city and its history, at its famous sons the Beatles and the shaping of their careers and markets in the 1960s, at the city’s subsequent boom of 1980s punk and post-punk, and at what these histories tell us about how the creative impulse emerges in cities. Although a city can – and Liverpool does – have policies to try and replicate this success and build on it, a key conclusion is that musical education, and a support network for and of musicians, are probably the crucial elements.

Which perhaps brings us back to creativity. The act of creating art, whether a guitar riff, a concerto, a painting or a play, is a personal and unprogrammed thing. Nonetheless, cities can help provide the conditions for that creation to happen, and for arts and culture to thrive. The contributions to this issue show some of the ways that this can be done. And how creative places can be made and nurtured in cities and towns of every kind and in every setting.


  • Brandello, A. and Kloosternman, R. (2020) There is music to play, places to go, people to see: an exploration of innovative relational spaces in the formation of music scenes: the case of the Hague in the 1960s. Built Environment, 46(2), pp. 298–312.
  • Choo, S. and Currid-Halkett, E. (2020) Socially engaged art(ists) and the ‘just turn’ in city space: the evolution of Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul, South Korea. Built Environment, 46(2), pp. 279–297.
  • Currid-Halkett, E. (2007) The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • ElSheshtawy, Y. (2020) Beyond artwashing: an overview of museums and cultural districts in Arabia. Built Environment, 46(2), pp. 248–261.
  • Florida, R. (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.
  • Garrard, H. (2019) How can we save space in our cities for artists? Art Quarterly, Winter.
  • Green, N. (2005) Songs from the woods and sounds from the suburbs: a folk, rock and punk portrait of England, 1965–1977. Built Environment, 31(3), pp. 255–270.
  • Green, N. (2020) The holding option: artists in East London 1968–2020. Built Environment, 46(2), pp. 229–247.
  • Kim, A.M. (2020) Can we design for culture? Paradigms and provocations. 46(2), pp. 199–213.
  • Kloosterman, R. (ed.) (2005a) Music and the City. Built Environment, 31(3).
  • Kloosterman, R. (2005b) Come together: an introduction to cities and music. Built Environment, 31(3), pp. 181–191.
  • Landry, C. (2020) Arts, culture and the city: an overview. Built Environment, 46(2), pp. 170–181.
  • Lovell, V. (2020) Artists and the public spaces of the city. Built Environment, 46(2), pp. 214–228.
  • Markusen, A. and Gadwa Nicodemus, A. (2018) Creative placemaking: reflections on a 21st century American arts policy initiative, in Courage, C. and McKeown, A. (eds.) Creative Placemaking: Research, Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.
  • Markusen, A. and Gadwa Nicodemus, A. (2020) Arts and the city: policy and its implementation. Built Environment, 46(2), pp. 182–198.
  • Mayor of London (2019) Cultural Infrastructure Plan. London: Greater London Authority.
  • Nouvel, D. (2020) Organic, planned or both: Al-Serkal Avenue: an art district by entrepreneurial action in an organic evolutionary context. Built Environment, 46(2), pp. 262–278.
  • Serota, N. (2019) The arts can restore pride to Britain’s towns. Guardian, 27 August.
  • Wray, I. (2020) The pool of life: Liverpool, rock music and the roots of creativity. Built Environment, 46(2), pp. 313–332.