Cultural innovation & cultural heritage: How do we find a balance in growing cities?

Cities are home to a large range of cultural heritage, from historical buildings to traditional cultural offerings like museums, the opera, and the philharmonic – this heritage is a vital part of cities’ built and historical identity, and an important source of authenticity and individuality. Cities’ diversity however also presents the ideal breeding ground for cultural innovation – new ways of engaging with the world, the city, and each other. One main challenge in growing cities is how to preserve cultural heritage while still allowing enough space for cultural innovation.

Are preservation and innovation necessarily “enemies” in growing cities?

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Both preservation and innovation are necessary to create an authentic urban experience for visitors and residents alike. Preservation provides a stable backbone for local identity which may include important central and historical buildings and cultural infrastructure. These structures provide continuity for cities through visual and biographical history. They provide an anchor for the city’s historical identity (and disputes about it) in photos, films, reports, and personal memories. Historical protection therefore represents a vital part of place-making and authentic place marketing strategies.

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Cultural innovation is however equally as important, in particular for urban vibrancy and dynamic, future-oriented growth. Visible cultural innovation and the spaces that it inhabits are critical for attracting workers from the cultural and creative industries, the knowledge-based economy, and what Richard Florida coined as the “creative class.” They are also vital for creating new solutions to problems and challenges that administrations might not even be aware of, and creating new cultural offerings that don’t exist yet.

So while cultural heritage helps to maintain the historical identity of the city and attract tourism, cultural innovation plays a key role in helping cities develop into the future. For this reason, it’s critical that cities find a way to find a balance between the two poles.

Cultural innovation and preservation don’t have to be mutually exclusive – in fact, they can be synergistic. Cultural innovation can take the form of a new, forward-looking use for a historical building, or new cultural offerings that supplement existing historical structures. Cultural innovation can even be used as a way to reframe, repackage, or repurpose “burdened” cultural heritage.

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Street art by M-City on the former Soviet Palace of Trade Unions in Vilnius. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse.

Growing cities need to be aware that real estate development, in particular in central districts, can work against cultural innovation, which requires inexpensive and available space in order to experiment. A culture of openness on a municipal level can also be beneficial in recognizing and supporting cultural innovation in the city – administrative restructuring, e. g. creating a dedicated contact person for cultural innovation projects, can go a long way towards reaching this goal.

The main challenge in growing cities, where the competition for space and resources is particularly high, is to continue to preserve spaces in which cultural innovation can flourish, instead of “selling these off to the highest bidder.” My work with culture and urban development has yielded several important points that are useful for city administrators and policy-makers in this field:

  1. Cultural innovation is one of the main driving forces behind attractiveness in a city (gaining new residents and businesses and keeping the existing ones, but also for city marketing & tourism) with a high intrinsic and extrinsic value.
  2. Cultural innovation and cultural heritage do not necessarily have to be mutually antagonistic. Creative solutions that fully address the locally-specific solution can create valuable synergies.
  3. Cultural innovation can also be synergistic with traditional economic goals in cities, such as attracting businesses and investment.
  4. It is absolutely critical to preserve spaces in which cultural innovation can flourish, especially in places where investment is booming.

Cities which internalize these points and adapt them to their specific local situation will better be able to meet the challenges of balancing cultural preservation and innovation.

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