By David Wilson
22 December 2010 –
Last year some of Sydney’s most prominent arts personalities debated whether Sydney had lost its cultural edge at the Creative Sydney debate. Moderated by Peter Carr from the Sydney Development Agency, the speakers considered what creative culture means in Sydney, and whether through our nightlife, cultural institutions and entertainment quarters the the wants and needs of Sydneysiders are being met.

The question being debated was whether or not Sydney had lost its cultural edge.
Speakers included NSW Minister for the Arts Virginia Judge, Shadow Minister Anthony Roberts, chief executive officer of the Sydney Opera House Richard Evans, executive director of the Sydney Festival, Josephine Ridge, Laurence Gibbons from the Alternative Media Group, and Tim Jones, artistic director and general manager of the Seymour Centre. Moderator was Peter Carr from the Sydney Development Agency.

The speakers debated the state of Sydney’s creative culture, exploring the sector’s contribution to our quality of life, commercial landscape and cultural diversity. They discussed what Sydney offers to engage the senses, inspire curiosity and fuel the imagination.

The general consensus of the platform speakers was that Sydney generously supports signature events and venues. However, as many in the audience were keen to highlight, while the major cultural institutions are well supported many local neighborhoods such as Glebe, Balmain, Enmore and Surry Hills are underrated.

Cultural quarters are more than randomly located elite arts venues around the harbour edge. Newtown, with its web of interconnected networks of creative studios, galleries, clubs and live entertainment venues, has a more distinctive creative energy from its resilient residents than the tourist tamed precincts around the harborside.

Inner city residents in the audience lamented the decline of once vibrant inner city areas like Glebe that only 20 years ago were full of thriving independent traders offering a mosaic of local original goods and services.

Today the Broadway Shopping Centre is more of an attraction than all the shops in Glebe combined. The same is true in Bondi Junction where the Westfield Bondi Junction Shopping Centre has more retail outlets than the surrounding Bondi basin neighborhood that has been emptied of once vibrant local shopping outlets.

The NSW government is supporting the development of these enormous retail outlets that impact on surrounding independent traders. The recently opened Westfield Sydney  in Pitt Street in the Sydney CBD will have a huge impact on surrounding independent tradersthose who that were beginning to flourish in the city centre while the mega mall was under construction.

There needs to be a change of emphasis to support and celebrate the unique creative cultural quarters in Sydney such as Surry Hills, Glebe, Balmain and Newtown. These areas have old fashioned high streets, independent traders, galleries and workshops producing distinctive local products, arts, crafts, live entertainment, films, local fashion, design outlets, local markets and traders.

Creative cluster and quarters
Leading contemporary cities have attempted to develop creative hubs bybuilding networks of small creative industries and workshops, moving away from the bland pervasive power of globalisation and over consumption. Many of the world’s established large cities have small clusters or quarters where creative enterprises have established themselves around nodal institutions such as art galleries and museums and craft industry workshops.

Emerging cities such as Bangkok, Beijing, Mumbai, Calcutta, Dhaka, Dubai, Jakarta, Karachi, Manila, Osaka, Seoul, Shanghai and Tianjin provide us with a glimpse of the future direction and design of new urban areas. A new view of the future is emerging where place demarcation between work and play is becoming more blurred. This will add new layers to the way we live and work.

Key ingredients to establish successful creative quarters are premises and buildings that can accommodate a diverse range of activities, from large to small scale, with the objective of encouraging street activities, performance venues and rehearsal rooms. The greater the mix of public and private galleries, studios, clubs, venues the more successful the quarter.

In many cases, cities have established a network of linked strategic venues to establish an area-wide presence of activities. Cultural quarters that are successful have merged their day and evening economies including formal and informal activities. Day and evening activities need to be balanced to achieve vitality throughout the day.

Cultural quarters need to establish production facilities for goods, products and services as well as cultural consumption. There should be a high proportion of small-scale businesses inter-trading and sub contracting. There should be exporting firms as well as local traders. As cultural quarters develop, a network of suppliers and sub contractors will be established to trade with each other.

New businesses will be attracted to the quarter and will produce additional goods and services locally that were previously imported from outside. As the creative arts diversify and expand this will stimulate tourism, catering, leisure and retail.

Potential cultural quarter developers would be well advised to benchmark existing and developing creative industry quarters in Australia. These include (Fitzroy) Melbourne, Brisbane (South Bank) and the Hobart Cultural Quarter clustered around the harbour. We need a set of cultural policies for our cities and local government areas that will expand creative capacity.

To implement these policies is to ask one question,. Will policy “x” enhance the expressive life of individuals, businesses and the community by making the tools of creativity more available?  The argument in favour of cultural quarters and an expressive life is to answer the pressing 21st Century  challenge, . If western democracies must abandon the false promise of consumerism then how should we live?

Citizens today are no happier than the 1950s despite increases in material well-being. A according to Robert Lane (2010), “there is a spirit of unhappiness and depression that mocks the idea that markets maximize well-being”. Developing creative cultural quarters and cities to enhance citizens’ expressive lives is a gateway to higher quality lives now that the 21st Century illusions that  consumerism brings happiness are discredited

It is time to harness dynamic creative forces across art, business, music, film and literature to drive our cities forward through creative cultural innovation.

David Wilson is Sydney based city and transport planner and has worked on establishing cultural quarters in the UK. He also helped to organise the Creative Sydney debate in June this year.

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