Focus

Culture increasingly seen as path to economic growth

12.10.12 @ 07:20

  1. By Honor Mahony
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BRUSSELS - With a little imagination and some creative interpretation of guidelines on how to spend EU aid, some cities and regions are pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and turning themselves into cultural - and money-making - hotspots.

  • An artist's 'photo marathon' of Nantes (Photo: Eric Montfort)

  • Dundee - another city that has focussed on culture as an economic force (Photo: Shahbaz Majeed)

  • Central square in Tartu, Estonia (Photo: Gerdy Ling)

Nantes is one of them. Twenty-odd years ago, the western French city had a huge industrial scar at its centre after the closure of its shipyard. The 15 hectare space on the Ile de Nantes was ugly, barren and a reminder of a busier past.

Today, it is an artistic centre. Art projects, festivals and shows have put the city on the cultural map and boosted outside investment. The creative industry employs 5,600 people - a 200 percent increase since 1982. Visitor numbers have shot up, from 140,000 in 2006 to 220,000 last year.

The city's authorities got around €54 million from the European Regional Development Fund. They spent around €9 million of it just on culture-related investment in the city.

Valentina Montalto of KEA - a consultancy specialised in culture - and co-author of a *report looking into the use of EU regional aid for cultural projects, says this reflects better appreciation by local authorities of the importance of creativity.

"What is happening in European regional policies is that there is better understanding of culture. There is much less culture for culture's sake but seeing it as a tool to promote activity and innovation," she said.

There are many examples. Dundee on the east coast of Scotland is another city that has set about transforming itself.

The starting blocks were the same as those of Nantes - a city in decline after a more prosperous industrial past. In the early 1990s, city developers started to focus on culture and creativity. Now the city accounts for 10 percent of the UK's digital entertainment industry. It is home to 17 games companies employing over 400 people.

Arnhem in the Netherlands has focused on turning itself into a city that designers not only want to come and study in but also to stay afterward, while Estonia's Tartu is busy establishing itself as a cultural hub by encouraging cultural entrepreneurship.

But, according to Montalto, even if some urban developers are enlightened about the role of culture as a force for economic growth, this does not mean that a profound change has taken place.

The proposed new rules for cohesion policy (a bag of EU funds for regional development) give a less prominent position to culture. It is not mentioned in the 11 'thematic areas' where the European Commission wants money to be spent - although it is mentioned in less important strategic guidelines for the spending of EU aid.

"Even if the current reference is limited to cultural heritage, compared to the new one, it's still better," says Montalto of the proposed changes.

Helga Truepel, a German Green MEP, says that the parliament's culture committee will try to use the report to influence negotiations on the next budget.

"It is not about abolishing the intrinsic values of culture but seeing that it is a new part of economic development. It's a cross-over between culture and economic policies," said Truepel.

"Cities that have invested in culture have had more economic success than those that invested only in cars and airports. In the knowledge society, a lot of innovation - when you put it in economic terms - depends on creativity."

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