Urban development through cultural solutions

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Urban development through cultural solutions is about using arts and cultural heritage (e.g museums, old industrial sites etc.) to develop (degraded) urban spaces.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

The approaches here work for multiple actors at multiple levels such as public administration, citizens and informal groups or private grant-making foundations. They are all centered around a paradigm of using cultural capital in order to develop a city. An important aspect here is the idea of "regeneration" which aims at "restoring and improving the quality of urban life through the enhancement and development of the unique characteristics of a place and its people." [1]

Shapes, sizes and applications

Specific examples:

  • Regeneration and Optimisation of Cultural heritage in creative and Knowledge cities (ROCK)[2] aims to develop an innovative, collaborative and systematic approach to promote the effective regeneration and adaptive reuse in historic city centres by implementing a repertoire of successful heritage-led regeneration initiatives related to 7 Role Model selected cities: Athens, Cluj-Napoca, Eindhoven, Liverpool, Lyon, Turin and Vilnius. The insight gained by this will be used in three 3 Replicator Cities: Bologna, Lisbon and Skopje to achieve regeneration, sustainable development and economic growth of the city. Developing cities in accordance with the cultural heritage is thus very well developed and has shown to be successful. The idea is transferable though the cultural heritage of every city is obviously unique which means that there is not "one" concept of using "cultural heritage" that every city can apply. A common way to regenerate cultural heritage is through the renovation of old historic buildings. On a worldwide level, UNESCO honors sites/landmarks/areas with outstanding historic/cultural significance with the name “World Heritage Site”, so that they are protected by international treaties.
  • Impact of the Third Sector as SOcial INnovation (ITSSOIN) analyzed the relationship between the issue of social cohesion and culture-led urban rejuvenation in degraded, peripheral areas within cities, such as Milan, Rotterdam, Greater Paris region and Galicia (Spain). It specifically explores how civic engagement in the field of culture and arts contributes to the expressive, communicative, recreational, and spiritual needs of individuals and communities.[3]

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

This is strictly about urban areas. The project “Cultural heritage as urban regeneration” looks at city centres (mostly because there is generally a richer heritage than in peripheries), “Culture-led Place Rejuvenation” looks at degraded urban spaces in the periphery of cities (mostly because of the availability of spaces in the periphery)

Renewing city parts with the aim of cultural vibrance can contribute to sustainability, but this is not necessarily always the case. One case in question is The Olympic Games in Turin (2006), which, according to the ROCK project, is described as a "great international event" that helped to create "a new culture & knowledge-led identity"[4] for the city. “The reuse of the heritage in the central districts combined with physical regeneration, great international events (e.g. 2006 Winter Olympics) and the development of a strong, long-term publicly-led cultural policy, contributed to boost an overall and wider redevelopment process.” It is at least questionable though if Olympic Games can actually actively contribute to environmentally sustainable cities. (or if they can just be planned in a less harmful way) Cultural vibrancy in cities is enhanced through "procedural justice" and "justice as recognition". The approaches seem to address justice issues, though often only implicitly in a way that they want to enhance the cultural vibrancy of a city. And different aspects can be addressed in different ways. Therefore, the case studies of the different projects mentioned here pay respect to justice issues on different levels. For example, in the urban renewal project in Kluj-Napoca (ROCK), the “model depends on a participatory approach, consisting of local administration, policy makers, industry, research, NGOs and associations strongly committed to the priority projects for heritage regeneration, reinvention of historical centre and redevelopment of the city’s backbone to create a sustainable and equitable solution to address the community's needs.” This reflects attention to issues of “procedural justice” in Kluj-Napoca.

Culture-led rejuvenation (ITSSOIN) pays explicit attention to justice aspects (e.g the inclusion of socially disadvantaged groups, strengthening their feeling of belonging to a community and stimulating their active participation and involvement in the life of a community) In the case of Eindhoven (ROCK), however, it is more about enhancing the reputation of the city. For instance, it was reported that “Eindhoven generated a Living Lab in the former industrial regeneration area called ‘Strijp-S’ […]. The Living Lab generates economic, cultural and technological initiatives that contribute to strengthening identity and the significance of the Strijp-S as the center of Brainport Region Eindhoven, to promote its (inter)national reputation and the rediscovery of the place for industrial heritage”[5] There may be some ambivalence surrounding its claim to achieving justice if the goal of an initiative is to better the image of a city, not least with regards to gentrification effects (e.g. making housing unaffordable for certain income groups due to an improved image of the areas). There is a high potential here for unintended injustices.

The project "Cultural heritage as urban regeneration" brings out both issues of sustainability and justice [6]: “Environmental sustainability is a golden thread throughout the ROCK project as urban regeneration efforts are intrinsically linked to attempts to minimize our impact on the environment – whether through the creative and adaptive reuse of built heritage, the circular model approaches to improve well-being, the use of inclusive and participatory approaches to involve citizens in co-designing solutions, or efforts to contribute to the resilience of communities to climate change.” It very much depends on the individual case if justice and sustainability are linked. As mentioned above, the Olympic Games in Turin led to the city's success in reshaping its image [7]. However, it is important to bear in mind that there has been reports detailing that the "work in progress"(building) period of the games led to negative air qualities at that time though.[8] As with most city development strategies using culture to develop the city can be done in more or less environmentally harmful ways.

Narrative of change

This addresses how degraded (built) parts of a city can be renewed through cultural activities and infrastructure. This renewal and strengthened ties of identity are expected to contribute to a better quality of life for residents. An advantage of using the cultural heritage of a city in redevelopment is that citizens can accept new developments more easily when they can relate to its historical context. Providing spaces and opportunities for civic artistic activities as a way of community building and empowerment is a different rationale. This is a strategy partly mobilized by ITSSOIN.

Transformative potential

Activities of urban renewal with reference to cultural heritage may have very diverse impacts on power relations. If designed as a participatory processes as it was done in Kluj-Napoca (next chapter), they add to procedural justice and enhance the sense of community-belonging among residents. However, overall positive outcomes, such as those contributing to fostering more just and sustainable cities, seem rather unlikely as long as there is a tendency to develop large events and infrastructures prevails and gentrification effects are not effectively mitigated against (see e.g high rent prices for apartments in the quarter Strijp S in Eindhoven[9].


A case study in the ROCK - project is the city of Cluj-Napoca, which is one of the seven role-model cities and also known to have considered the leveraging of cultural heritage as a strategy for sustainable city development. The model ‘COM’ON Cluj-Napoca’ is based on the process of brokering between public and private stakeholders. This enabled an open and cooperative environment, raising community trust and encouraging civic involvement by offering citizens the opportunity to become active participants in the life of their own community. The goal is to involve citizens in a democratic deliberation and decision process to help determine the best way to spend part of the public budget (participative youth budgeting). Therefore, it very much pays respect to "justice as recognition" and "procedural justice aspects". The initiative ‘COM’ON Cluj-Napoca took a participatory approach in its urban planning process. To implement, the local administration, policy makers and members from the industry, research centers, NGOs and associations were strongly committed to prioritise the projects on heritage regeneration, reinvention of historical centre and redevelopment of the city’s backbone in order to foster a sustainable and equitable solution to address the community's needs.“[10]