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How Cities Are Trying to Save Their Art Scenes from Rising Rents

  • Photo courtesy of TAK Kartal.

There’s a stock image of the urban cultural ideal: bustling streets filled with colorfully painted walls, galleries with their doors wide open, live music bubbling out from local venues. This is the kind of environment, with economic as well as artistic benefits, that city governments around the world are looking to foster. But such vibrant cultural communities of artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers, and other creatives can attract well-off newcomers, who in turn drive rising rents and the cost of living. This cycle can displace the very local artists who created the scene to begin with and push out longtime residents.

To combat this pattern, dubbed by researchers as the “The SoHo Effect,” the World Cities Culture Forum commissioned a report examining the challenges faced by 12 cities, from San Francisco to Shenzhen to Sydney, and how they are working to preserve or expand their arts and cultural scenes. The report created a toolkit that emphasizes collaboration between city authorities, the private sector, and artists in ways that allow cities to maintain and grow their culture sectors.

Often a fragmented group, artists especially see the benefits if they band together. “There is strength in numbers,” said Paul Owens, director of the World Cities Culture Forum.

Increasing housing prices and decline in studio space are already taking a toll on the cultural communities of many cities. In Sydney, with a cultural scene dependent on small commercial and non-government enterprises, the number of artist-run galleries dropped by almost half in the last 10 years. In San Francisco, the influx of 75,000 residents and the addition of 17,000 new housing units earned the city the title of most expensive property market in the U.S.

London, also featured in the report, has seen a 35 percent loss of grassroots music venues between 2007 and 2015. To combat this, the city created a “Music Venues Taskforce” to identify problems and propose solutions. Exemplifying the report’s recommendations for collaboration, a group consisting of economists, city planners, police, a tourism expert, and more then worked to implement the proposals. Among them: the creation of the post of “Night Czar” (based on “Night Mayors” utilized in Amsterdam and Berlin) to champion the city’s evening economy. As a result of their efforts, a progress report from January 2017 found the city incurred no net loss of grassroots venues, which contribute £92 million to London’s economy per year, with £44 million spent showcasing and developing new talent.

  • Wall of Atelier at Seoul Street Art Creation Centre. Photo courtesy of Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture.

Other efforts included the targeted creation of affordable spaces. A partnership between Hong Kong’s district councils and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council is working to convert a school into an arts center replete with rentable studios and music practice rooms. San Francisco has seen the use of Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), a collaborative public-private partnership that buys and leases property at below-market rates to nonprofit arts organizations. It has turned to purchasing properties not publicly listed to avoid the fierce competition, and the program plans to sustain itself long-term by offering tax deductions to CAST investors while expanding to places like Oakland.

And city planners, who see creativity as something of a commodity, are increasingly incorporating art and culture in plans for the infrastructure of cityscapes. Most cities, Owens explained, “realize they need to develop dynamic, interesting neighborhoods.”

Owens noted that the case studies revealed that each city faces its own challenges, so it’s up to each city to adopt the report’s suggestions in ways that work for them. The process, Owens noted, won’t be an easy one. The interests of city planners, government groups, private developers, and artists don’t always align. And many of the cities included in the report are only continuing to get more expensive.

Along with threatening artists, rising rents in more affordable neighborhoods also surface complex issues around racial and economic inequality. According to urbanist Richard Florida, it is low-income people with the least options—not the artists or middle-class professionals—who are hit hardest when affordable communities experience an influx of more well-heeled residents. Owens acceded that in some cases, previous residents don’t feel the positive effects of the influx newcomers and lucrative economies they bring.

He also highlighted the importance of maintaining diversity in the midst of extreme growth in population and wealth in cities across the globe. The case studies outline different strategies to engage communities in the arts and provide greater access to city or private resources for artists and other creatives.

In parts of Istanbul and Vienna, in particular, only certain neighborhoods reap the benefits of lucrative economies while others are left out. Some projects have endeavored to address the issue by bringing art to an area in dialogue with the community. To avoid the parable of prescribing what an area “needs,” they have instead sought to engage residents and include them in the creation of novel art spaces and programs. Design Atelier Kartal (TAK Kartal), which runs the Corner Borders program in Istanbul, makes an open call to the public to submit project proposals, and the neighborhood elects one to fund and bring to life.

In a similar attempt to give residents a say in development in their neighborhoods, F23.wir.fabriken in District 23 of Vienna holds children’s programs, a local farmer’s market, urban gardening, and workshops for refugees living there. In its first 18 months, it has reportedly seen over 40,000 visitors for events and been well-received by the local community. The program is but one example of how the right level of collaboration between residents, artists, and both private and government financing can not only help art and culture, but also a city and community as a whole.

—Ilana Herzig