Cultural district

A wide debate has emerged on the concept of the cultural district, promoting potentially ground-breaking initiatives, even if most of the literature has concentrated on urban clusters, cities of art and cities of culture.[1][2]

A cultural district is traditionally conceived as a well-recognized, labeled, mixed-use area of a settlement in which a high concentration of cultural facilities serves as the anchor of attraction.

Facilities include: Performances spaces, museums, galleries, artist studios, arts-related retail shops, music or media production studios, dance studios, high schools or colleges for the arts, libraries, arboretums and gardens.

Because they are mixed-use developments, cultural districts incorporate other facilities such as office complexes, retail spaces and, occasionally, residential areas.

The creation of a cultural district implies collaboration between the arts and the local community. Cultural districts may be seen by local authorities as a way to revitalize the “brownfields” of the urban core: areas of abandoned buildings that encourage businesses and residents to leave the cities.[3][4]

The developing theory of cultural districts increasingly conceives them as development models for local systems, where the term ‘district’ refers to supra-urban area.[5][6][7] At supra-urban or regional level the complexity of a cultural district is even more marked than at urban level, due to potential interdependencies among a greater multitude of actors.[8] A useful approach towards a deeper understanding can be to conceive cultural districts as complex adaptive systems.[5] Indeed, complexity is definitely not a management fad and fashion, a mere metaphor or methodology, but a deeper perception of reality.[9] Organizations are classically seen as purpose-driven entities with a structural form, exhibiting a certain degree of order and determinism. Such a linear top-down approach to analysis and design, however, exhibits many limitations when used for organizational settings characterized by a complex web of interdependencies.[7] The view of a cultural district as a complex adaptive system suggests new ideas and approaches for policy-makers, designers and managers. It also opens up debate on issues of organizational design and change.

How it Works

More than 90 cities in the United States have planned or implemented cultural districts, positioning the arts at the center of their urban revitalization efforts.

All cultural districts are unique, reflecting their cities’ unique environment, including history of land use, urban growth and cultural development. There is no standard model.

Most cultural districts are built to take advantage of other city attractions such as historic features, convention spaces and parks and other natural amenities.

Structural considerations within or near the district, community leadership and social forces all influence the development of a cultural district and the type of district that results. Factors influencing the siting of cultural districts include: perceived need for urban revitalization, existing investment, property value and preexisting cultural facilities.

Unlike a cultural center or a shopping mall, a cultural district comprises a large number of property owners, both public and private, who control the various properties involved, hence a structural complexity. The effectiveness of the coordinating agency in guiding the direction of the cultural district varies according to its size, budget, mandated functions and degree of authority, resulting in widespread variation in the coordinated cultural programming and administration services offered by cultural districts. The coordinated agency appointed for the district must work carefully to ensure inclusiveness of concerns and to balance potentially conflicting interests.

Cultural districts offer two major types of services: one targets the arts community, providing marketing /promotion, box office services and property management; the other targets the district’s business and property owners, offering urban design and development services or administrative support.

The excitement and attraction of a cultural district is a high mixture of interesting things to do, places to see, and places to visit (both cultural and noncultural), across the day and evening.

Some artist-activists are promoting the concept of a "Naturally Occurring Cultural District," or NOCD, patterned after the demographic concept of a naturally occurring retirement community. A NOCD "supports existing neighborhood cultural assets rather than imposing arts institutions somewhere new," according to Tamara Greenfield, co-director of NOCD-New York. Co-director Caron Atlas explained: "If a cultural district has emerged 'naturally,' then it grows from, builds on and validates existing community assets rather than importing assets from outside a community."[10] Indeed, different conceptions of cultural districts include self-organization and emergence in different degrees (e.g. Lazzeretti, 2003; Le Blanc, 2010; Sacco et al., 2013; Stern & Seifert, 2007). Many authors argue that districtualization is essentially spontaneous and that the conditions for formation can be recognized and sustained, not created from the top.[11][12] If the conception of a cultual district as a complex adaptive system were accepted, the design process would be conceived as something more flexible, dynamic and in evolution. Complexity theory and complex adaptive systems should move understanding of supra-urban cultural districts towards a more holistic and bottom-up approach[11][13] rather than a linear top-down approach to analysis and design. This does not suggest inhibiting any attempt at prediction or planning. The use of qualitative analysis and rough estimations or agent-based modelling can represent a fertile ground for both future research, policy-making and managerial implications.[5]

Examples of Cultural districts in the US


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  2. Richards, G., & Wilson, J. (Eds.) (2007). Tourism, creativity and development. London: Routledge.
  3. Cultural Districts, Americans for the Arts
  4. Cultural Districts, ‘The Arts as a Strategy for Revitalizing our Cities’, Americans for the Arts, 1998
  5. 1 2 3 Francesconi, Alberto; Dossena, Claudia (2016-01-19). "Learning to design cultural districts and learning from designing them". European Planning Studies. 0 (0): 1–19. doi:10.1080/09654313.2015.1133565. ISSN 0965-4313.
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  10. Urban Omnibus, Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts, Nov. 17, 2010
  11. 1 2 Lazzeretti, Luciana (2003-09-01). "City of art as a High Culture local system and cultural districtualization processes: the cluster of art restoration in Florence". International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 27 (3): 635–648. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.00470. ISSN 1468-2427.
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  13. Blanc, Antoine Le (2010-08-01). "Cultural Districts, A New Strategy for Regional Development? The South-East Cultural District in Sicily". Regional Studies. 44 (7): 905–917. doi:10.1080/00343400903427936. ISSN 0034-3404.
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