Arts, Culture and the Making of Global Cities

Klaus Kunzmann

For economic reasons the central government in China is driving urbanization processes in the country. The social and cultural dimensions of these urbanization processes are breath-taking. More than 150 cities with a population of more than one million have emerged over the past two decades. Millions of people, who used to live and work in rural areas, with no access to modern public service and inadequately connected to the new prosperity in the country, are migrating to big cities that have lost much of their traditional identity.

 There they expect to find work and benefit from the country’s new wealth. The implications of such hurried urbanisation processes for cities and citizens, as well as the challenges for city governments and local administrations are enormous. Increasingly, citizens suffer from urban stress, from air pollution and traffic noise and the loss of identity. They realise that their new urban life does not really compensate for values they had enjoyed in rural areas. In the nationwide competition for image, profile, skilled workforce private investment and state support, powerful and ambitious city mayors join forces with a capitalist and politically influential real estate industry to accommodate migrants and provide some basic urban services. They are striving to improve the bad image of cities through initiatives aimed at exploiting art and culture as factors of urban development, and means to shape new identities and improve the quality of life.
Using the example of Singapore and four Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan) the authors of Arts, Culture and the Making of Global Cities have observed and described such efforts over a period of six years. Starting point of their joint research were the ambitions of these cities to belong to the first league of "global cities", such as New York, Paris, London or Tokyo. Much promoted by international life style media, global cities have experienced that culture, cultural life and cultural flagship projects are an essential feature of world-city profiles.
The analysis of the case studies of “cultural globalisation” in five East Asian cities is based on a broad theoretical analysis of relevant Western literature on the role of culture and creativity in the urban development, a field, which has been widely covered by Sharon Zukin, Allan Scott, Andy Pratt, Michael Keane, and Richard Florida, and on global cities by among others, John Friedmann, Saskia Sassen and Peter J. Taylor. The comprehensive list of references of around 300 titles is impressive! In two sections of the volume, detailed case studies describe the efforts of the five cities to enhance the local culture to gaining competitive credits for global city performance. The first section focuses on the motifs, debates and processes of building large cultural infrastructure such as the Grand Opera in Beijing, the Grand Theatre and the Oriental Art Centre in Shanghai, and the Esplanade Theatre on the Bay in Singapore. An analysis of the efforts of Norman Foster and Rem Kolhaas in Hong Kong to assist the city in developing a new cultural district, the West Kowloon Cultural District, is added. This ambitious project aims to raise the cultural profile of the city beyond its role as an international financial centre. An additional case study in the book explains why the city of Taipei has not yet succeeded so far to build a large cultural flagship lighting project.
In their comprehensive analyses of case studies, the authors emphasized the political motives that led to the realization of these projects and they stressed the crucial role played by international star architects. Thereby they did not conceal that there was much local resistance to these prestige projects that are meeting the interests of a small local elite and expatriates and raising expectations to attract more international tourists, though have little to do with the local cultural community.
The second section of the book, examines municipal strategies that promote the development of cultural and creative industries and creative quarters as an important segment of local economic development. In an earlier book, Michael Keane had described such strategies in detail (Keane 2011). One case study refers to 798, the meanwhile world famous creative quarter in Beijing. In other chapters selected projects from more than 75 cultural and creative parks in Shanghai and three creative quarters in Taiwan are analysed. Additional case studies are presented that describe the revitalization of brownfield buildings in Hong Kong and Singapore for cultural use.
The well-researched analyses of the cultural and creative quarters in major East Asian cities show that economic interests guide and dominate such projects, using culture as a decorative motive. The authors rightly observe that the definitions of what kind of cultural and creative activities should be promoted in these neighbourhoods are very broad, ranging from brownfield revitalization with arts over cultural tourist amusement parks to creative high-tech clusters. The authors also realize that high expectations of creative and productive cluster development have only been met in a few cultural and creative quarters.
In a comprehensive final chapter, the authors rightly question the neo-liberal world-class ambitions of the cities they had investigated. They also let the readers know that using urban regeneration and strategies that improve the quality of life of citizens is gaining increasing importance in political discourse, for citizens, investors and developers. The authors conclude their culturally motivated global city cruise that developing a global cultural capital requires multiple efforts, which are sketched at the end of the book as “sound urban governance, community engagement, organic evolution, visionary leadership, economic policy, party politics and heritage”.
Arts, Culture and the Making of Global Cities provides an impressive overview of the efforts of selected cities in East Asia to establish large cultural infrastructure and to promote culture and creative industries to enrich their urban profiles and reach an upper place in the not very rational competition among world cities. The reader will learn that cultural development in a city requires more than just marketing and cultural branding. European experience shows that this cannot be achieved within a few decades. Ambitious mayors in Asian cities will certainly not give up trying and pushing. They have to understand, however, that a cultural global city will have to provide space and freedom for cultural activities. Economic interests alone will certainly not be sufficient.

Klaus R. Kunzmann, honorary professor of the Bartlett School of Planning at the University College London and visiting professor at the Dong Nam University in Nanjing, China.

Note: An earlier German version of this book review has been published by disP - The Planning Review (vol 52, 2/2016, 75-76), edited by ETH and published by Taylor& Francis,

Reference: Keane, M. 2011. China's New Creative Clusters. Governance, human capital and investment. London, Routledge.