Rebuilding the Cultural Sector in a Post-Pandemic World Requires Understanding the ‘Ecology’ of the Cultural City

By Hyesun Jeong (University of Texas at Arlington) and Matt Patterson (University of Calgary)

As cities around the world have shut down due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the cultural sector has been particularly hard hit. Even as some jurisdictions begin to ease public health restrictions, tourism and crowded events such as concerts and festivals are unlikely to return while we are still vulnerable to the coronavirus. Public subsidies for cultural organizations are also at risk as governments have shifted to prioritize public health. Lockdowns and social distancing have limited our participation in public spaces. In sum, the cultural landscape of cities looks extremely uncertain in the immediate future and it is likely that many cultural establishments will not survive.

There is some reason for optimism, however. Cities have always served as cultural destinations and the importance of culture within urban life has grown dramatically in the post-industrial era. Culture contributes to the livability of cities and neighbourhoods, attracting residents and businesses. It also plays an important role in other economic sectors such as technology, marketing, tourism, and real estate. There is no reason to believe that these dynamics will change in the post-pandemic world. Rebuilding the cultural sector, therefore, will be an important part of reviving urban life in all cities. More generally, calls for design proposals let us think about how future architecture and urban design can mitigate the impact of infectious disease and suggest new ways of balancing social well-being and public health with cultural experiences.

In beginning to envision a renewed urban cultural sector, it is important not to think of culture in a monolithic sense. Rather, culture is a highly differentiated set of institutions, products, and practices that convey a diversity of meanings. Within the cultural sector are grand opera houses, graffiti artists, ethnic cultural centres, indie rock festivals, and arts and craft classes for children. One of the tasks for cultural planning, therefore, is to understand how different forms of culture relate to each other and how they fit in with the larger urban environment more generally. We can refer to this task as understanding the “ecology” of the cultural city, borrowing a term popularized by the Chicago School of urban sociologists in the 1920s. The ecological approach attempts to understand how social and cultural practices are shaped by the characteristics of their locations and how they fit into larger spatial and functional structures that make up the city itself.

“Starchitects in Bohemia,” our article in Urban Affairs Review, adopts an ecological approach to better understand the relationship between two popular forms of cultural development that seem, at first glance, to be contradictory. First is iconic architectural development (or “starchitecture” as it is sometimes called). We consider this phenomenon to be a “top-down” approach to cultural development, since it typically involves powerful clients, budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and world-famous architects hired to design buildings that will become globally recognized. Second are bohemian scenes, a more “bottom-up” phenomenon where cultural activity emerges gradually as artists are drawn to previously marginalized areas of a city.

Often these top-down and bottom-up approaches to cultural development are thought to be in conflict. Iconic architectural development has been criticized for prioritizing elite, global visions at the expense of local, more grassroots cultural practices typical of bohemias. As well, whereas bohemias thrive in walkable neighbourhoods characterized by small blocks, old buildings, and cheap rents, iconic architectural development typically occurs at massive scales and is often designed to drive up property values as part of achieving the “Bilbao effect”.

To test whether iconic architecture and bohemia are really in conflict, our paper begins by examining two cities that have prominent examples of both forms of culture. In Chicago, we compare Millennium Park in the Loop, home to several iconic structures, to the bohemian scene of Wicker Park. In Minneapolis, we compared the University district, which also has many iconic buildings, to the bohemian scene in Uptown. Figures 1 and 2 provide maps of each city, identifying the location of these neighbourhoods, major pieces of iconic architecture, and each neighbourhood color-coded according to its level of bohemian characteristics.

In comparing these neighbourhoods, we make several observations that we then confirm against a national-level dataset of neighbourhoods. Most notably, we find that while iconic architecture and bohemian scenes do not typically occupy the same neighbourhoods, they are generally found in the same cities. Iconic buildings are very often found in city centres (like Millennium Park) or university campuses (like Minneapolis’ University district). These are major employment spaces that draw in outsiders, including workers, students, and tourists. Meanwhile, bohemian scenes tend to emerge in inner-city neighbourhoods that serve less as a space for employment and more for residential uses and as a more locally-oriented consumption and entertainment destination.

Drawing on an observation from Richard Lloyd’s ethnography of Wicker Park, we theorize that iconic architectural districts and bohemias potentially serve complementary ecological functions. By this we mean that the artists and cultural workers who live in bohemian districts are likely to work or go to school in and around the major institutions that produce iconic architecture such as universities or art museums. Furthermore, residents of bohemian neighbourhoods typically benefit from accessible public transit and bicycle infrastructure to travel to and from the city centre and university campuses. This complementary relationship helps explain why these seemingly contradictory forms of culture are generally found in the same cities, though not the same neighbourhoods.

What the cultural sector will look like in a post-pandemic work is an open question. However, our research suggests that in rebuilding the sector, it is important not to prioritize either top-down or bottom-up approaches. Rather, we should understand how different types of culture fit into the urban landscape in different ways, and how they can work to mutually support each other as part of a larger ecological structure.

Figure 1. Starchitecture and bohemian scene in Chicago (Photos taken by the authors)
Figure 2. Starchitecture and bohemian scene in Minneapolis (Photos taken by the authors)

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Mike Fox on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Hyesun Jeong is an assistant professor in architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). Her research focuses on sustainable urbanism and its relationship to built and socio-cultural environment of communities and cities. In her design studio at UTA, she integrates urban analysis with a new possible typology of architecture and urban design. Her work has been published in journals such as Cities, Journal of Urban Affairs, Journal of Urban Design, and Urban Design International.

Matt Patterson is an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Calgary. His research generally concerns the role of culture and the cultural industries in urban life. In particular he has examined the ways in which iconic architectural projects become opportunities for communities to articulate and struggle over notions of place. His work has appeared in journals such as Urban Studies, City & Community, Poetics, the American Journal of Cultural Sociology, and Qualitative Sociology.