Can Darwin really be a “creative city”?

One of the best papers I’ve yet read in the often controversial academic debate about “creative cities” was published this year in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. Written by Australian authors Susan Luckman, Chris Gibson and Tess Lea, it’s entitled “Mosquitoes in the mix: How transferable is creative city thinking?” [30(1): 70-85].

Darwin harbour, 2009

Darwin harbour, 2009

The paper takes a close look at the municipal cultural policy pursued by the northern Australian city of Darwin, and asks some hard questions about the validity of so-called “creative city” strategies of the type championed by Richard Florida, Charles Landry and Brisbane’s QUT school of academics.

The project is a kind of mid-way report of a government funded research project (funds are coming from Darwin City Council, the Northern Territory Tourism Commission and the Northern Territory Government’s Department of Arts and Museums, “each of whom are interested in pursuing new policies to enhance Darwin’s creative industries, and its liveability and attractiveness to new migrants.”)

Despite this clear agenda from those funding the study, the authors here produce a fascinating paper that calls into question the rhetoric and spin of creative industries/cities policies:

All of us agree that creativity matters (Cunningham, 2007), and that it can underpin economic formations in places with profound social meanings (Johnson, 2006). Such arguments catalyzed the efforts of our research team, underlay the project’s development and justified requests for funding. However, we also agree that the current popularity of creativity as a policy tool for urban economic planning has blinded many to contradictions, problems and limitations (Rantisi et al., 2006; Scott, 2006).

What follows is a nuanced exploration of the local history and character of the cultural and creative industries in Darwin, and the often laughably ambitious government policies to try and develop them. Can creative cities policies apply equally to Austin, Texas as to Darwin, Northen Territory? Darwin is a very particular city in the Australian and global context, as the authors rightly observe:

While the mythic starting point of Richard Florida’s (2003) model was his revelation that key creative cities were the same cities and regions that sustained vibrant and sizeable gay, lesbian and queer communities, ultimately this model of inclusion still rests on assumptions about access to economic wealth and the capacity to participate extensively in creative consumption practices […] In the specific context of Darwin and other Australian cities whose community comprises a substantial indigenous Aboriginal population (discussed in further depth below), opening up creative city research to questions of inclusion and belonging is essential.

There’s much, much more here, all of it worth reading (for instance the surprising finding that Darwin’s cultural and recreational industries employ more people than mining or agriculture) but I’ll cut to the chase and examine the authors’ conclusions:

It cannot be overemphasized that existing literatures on creative industries often describe models of cultural development, typically imported from elsewhere, that are largely incommensurate with Darwin’s aspirations and sociospatial conditions. Creative city thinking is at best only partially transferable. The more neoliberalized versions of creative city thinking (emphasizing competition with large international cities for ‘glamour’ industries and mobile transnational professionals) appear to make even less sense. This paper has outlined some of the ways in which a research team in the midst of a project that seeks to be critical and to provide genuine policy recommendations has negotiated the mismatch between putatively ‘global’ policy norms and local complexities. However, just because a purportedly global policy discourse about creative city planning appears incommensurate with local conditions is not by itself a rationale for jettisoning altogether the pursuit of creative city policies. What this case study highlights for the wider study of creative cities and urban policymaking is that discussions about realistic propositions, suitable policies (that encourage inclusiveness and redistribution rather than favouritism) and hoped-for benefits must remain attentive to endogenous conditions, as well as wider social and political concerns. Creativity is no panacea, and creative city planning ought not to replace fundamental concerns of social justice and inclusion.

The take-home message? A cookie-cutter approach to cultural policy won’t work. But by recognising Darwin’s unique quirks and opportunities, an attentive approach to cultural sector development just might:

… without commitment to a kind of ‘situated entanglement’ (Instone, 2004: 135) between specific industries and initiatives and whole-of-city thinking, the creative industries planning agenda runs the risk of unwittingly contributing to the continued neoliberalization of policy, or further (colonial) marginalization of particular social groups in the city.


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