As a membership network, the aim of the Global Cultural Districts Network is to consider the role arts, culture and creative industries play in improving the quality of urban life, by fostering cooperation and knowledge sharing for those responsible for creative and cultural districts. The annual convening – this year hosted in Singapore – brought together these responsible individuals, a majority of whom are the leaders of major cultural institutions and venues, as well as academics, urban experts, government agencies and other interested parties. Leaders of cultural districts from across Australia and New Zealand held their own in a highly diverse international crowd, with representatives from Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide, the Gold Coast, Auckland and Queenstown.

Day 1 set us up with a better understanding of our host city, delving into the places that are valuable to Singapore’s cultural identity, and the policy commitments, investments and initiatives that activate the city and foster social and cultural cohesion. The conversation then moved to trends in analysing cultural activity within the built environment, and considerations for ensuring cultural districts remain inclusive, engaged and relevant into the future. Highlights for me included Dane Lim’s presentation on Singapore’s People’s Association community centres, which have become valuable places for hybrid models of community connection and public service; Stephen Jolly’s overview of Burohappold’s analytical tools for measuring the way people engage with cultural spaces by evaluating movement patterns within and around cultural venues; and a panel discussion that delved into the challenges of how cultural districts can stay relevant, particularly when competing with commercial entities that are increasingly turning to cultural content.  

Day 2 began with a keynote from Gehl’s Helle Soholt, setting up the day’s conversation about making cities for people and making culture a way of life, not just part of a district. We went deep on social impact – what it means, how to measure it, and how to change perceptions of the value of culture and its impact beyond economic value. The conversation finished on the subject of cultural experiences, spectacle and the changing nature of how we reach our audiences and spark their imagination. Highlights included Helle calling for the cultural leaders in the room to consider their role as curators of public life; Sanjoy Jaipur reminding us that cultural districts risk becoming dinosaurs if we don’t think about fostering creativity and innovation on a city-wide basis; a close study of London’s Culture Mile and how a cultural district can be retrofitted to an existing urban fabric; and finally, Vince Kadlubek of Meow Wolf encouraging us to consider a future where non-fiction and fiction blend to create experiences we can only imagine.

Given the membership of the GCDN, much of the discussion focused on the challenges and perspectives experienced by those managing major culture institutions, which predominantly came back to the need to stay relevant – relevant to audiences to keep them engaged, relevant to the cities in which they are located, and relevant and accountable to funders to ensure long-term stability. It felt like much of the conversation turned to placemaking through activation, programming and spectacle as a tool to engage audiences and achieve that relevance, tapping into the experience economy and the increasing competition for people’s time and attention. But we were reminded that the sector needed to do more than activate to be relevant, having spent too much time concerned with the supply of cultural content without addressing the falling demand that has been happening behind our backs.

Personally, I felt that the voice and opinions of city makers, urban planners and policy makers was missing from this conversation, focusing too much on what the institutions needed to do, instead of thinking collaboratively about how to better design, plan and deliver cultural districts to enhance their relevance and create better places through design rather than activation. Within and beyond the GCDN, the cultural sector and the urban sector are often on a different wavelength, speaking different languages and focusing on different priorities, even though their objectives are more aligned than they could imagine. 

For our cultural districts to avoid becoming the “dinosaurs of the future”, institutions need an expanded understanding of the urban planning context, how they interface with other assets and activities, and the part they play within the creative ecosystem. City planners need to better understand the value cultural spaces can bring, the different forms and models of cultural districts and how they can impact a city, and how to design for a greater diversity of spaces and cultural workers within urban planning strategies. A more collaborative approach needs to be brokered between institutions and venue operators, city makers, policy advisors, and the sector, starting from the outset of envisioning a place, through its design, and to the extent of the operational model. This has the potential to enable the delivery of more viable and adaptable venues, enhanced public realm, the attraction of new audiences, a greater appreciation of cultural activity across the community, and hopefully, increase relevance for the cultural institutions across our cities.