The terms creative economy, creative industries, creative cities, creative class, and creative clusters have become all the rage these days, with economic development departments from cities large and small not only embracing the terms, but actively pursuing ways to attract and retain individuals that produce and consume “creative” products and services of all types.
A number of agencies have sprung up to champion this specific approach to planning and economic development, believing that supporting the creative sector of a community encourages the introduction of new ideas, which can be the foundation of economic growth in the form of trade, industry, social development, tourism and retail or consumer services. The Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission is a fairly typical example of how this is being implemented in communities around the world.
John Eger writes in his article “Forging a Creative Community for the New Creative Economy” that “…at the heart of such efforts must be a recognition of the vital roles that art and technology play in enhancing economic development and, ultimately, defining a “creative community” — a community that exploits the vital linkages among art, technology and commerce. A community with a sense of place. A community that nurtures, attracts and holds the most creative and innovative workers.”
I’ve been watching this idea take hold where I live in a small town tucked away in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It’s a place with a deep sense of history and a community that tries to honor the past, examine the present and not barrel ahead too quickly into the future. Progress here seems to move with a Virginia-bred slowness that is sometimes ridiculed, called old-fashioned, and even blasted as ignorant or backward. A few people I’ve talked to have argued that this reverence for maintaining a historical sense of place stifles creativity and freedom and severely limits growth, diversity and equality. They feel it perpetuates discrimination of all kinds.
While I’m not disputing that being too committed to tradition can be completely inhibiting to the creative economy concept, there’s a definite reason for taking the time to truly understand a city’s “sense of place.” Attracting the best and brightest is great, but I have come to think that maintaining an objective cultural perspective of how a city’s long-time residents have lived is equally important. Understanding a place’s history and what is important to the long-time residents, whether you agree with it or not, could make or break this creative economic strategy in some places.
My theory is that the “grow slow” idea isn’t all bad, and it seems to be working, at least here on the far side of Virginia. Historic preservation has been a major local effort for many years, and “green” initiatives have become a focus this past year. The city recently designated a portion of the city as an “Arts and Cultural District” and have partnered with a local small business training and micro-loan agency to fund loans for “…entrepreneurs who have traditionally had limited access to financing, ranging from women and minorities, to artists and students, to low- and moderate-income residents.” And in the process, they have not lost sight of the basic issues like maintaining infrastructure, public safety, education, jobs and housing that have to be addressed in the measured ways government must move forward.
So even in the midst of an enormously tough economic cycle, this gradual movement towards more visible support of so-called creative industries has energized the local scene. All the arts and culture organizations within the city have formed a council to collaborate on marketing and promotional ideas to help increase tourist trade and attendance at galleries, historical sites, performances and special events. The downtown association has begun organizing and advertising street performances throughout the fall to encourage actors, musicians and artists to be more visible to the community and increase traffic for downtown businesses. Local musicians have banded together to form an alliance with venues, media and music-related businesses to increase exposure and provide services to other musicians. Newcomers who are unmistakeable members of the creative class are opening businesses, running for political office and becoming active in local organizations.
Now I don’t pretend to know anything about the economics or social psychology of any of this, but the potential economic benefits to all this activity seem pretty obvious. To me, however, the emotional advantages of fueling a more inviting and inclusive “sense of place” that encourages entrepreneurship, creativity, AND community feels like the big payoff, particularly when applying these principles to smaller cities. Attracting and supporting the new ideas of the creative class to take root can undoubtedly be a worthwhile aspect of any community planning program, but if what’s happening in my town is any indication of success, understanding and respecting a community’s history during the implementation of such strategies will certainly build stronger community participation and livability. Only time will tell if such efforts can revitalize and sustain a creative economy’s health over the long haul. Stay tuned.