I’ve become a big fan of Bas van Heur lately. Asides from heading Cosmopolis, he writes a lot about small and regional cities. He’s got a great chapter on “Small Cities and the Sociospatial Specificity of Economic Development” in a book he’s co-edited with Anne Lorentzen called Cultural Political Economy of Small Cities (2011).
For the most part van Heur looks at the ‘Creative City’ agenda set by people like Richard Florida, Charles Landry and Jan Gehl. The basic assumption behind this agenda is that indicators of a successful city can be taken from major metropoles (London, New York or, in Gehl’s case, Copenhagen) and applied to much smaller cities.
The problem I’ve always had with these people is that their logic invariably runs like this :
(1) Cities with a strong economy have lots of creative people.
(2) Creative people like going to small bars.
(3) Therefore, if your city has small bars it will have a strong economy.
Rhetorically, this approach is popular because it looks at a successful city, hones in on one particular phenomena (i.e; small bars), and then de-contextualises that one thing so as to present it as the cause of economic and demographic success.
That allows policy makers to declare city revival as a matter of one thing, which means they can measure and produce strategy around that one thing, and avoid complexity or ambiguity.
As van Heur points out, this approach rarely works.
He’s quoted at length in a report commissioned by the EU, which you can download here. They label this phenomenon of adopting decontextualised policy frameworks ‘Fast Policy Transfer’, warning:
Fast policy transfer is extremely dangerous because small cities all over the world tend to follow “metropolitan imaginaries” (Van Heur, 2010a) frequently with inappropriate results.
Van Heur proposes that one of the ways to overcome this sort of simplistic approach is to broaden the research frameworks underpinning policy to include measurements of:
I started applying this logic to Australian cultural and planning policy. And I almost immediately got stuck on ‘place’ and ‘territoriality’.
I ended up wading into Justice Blackburn’s ruling in the 1971 Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd case, which hinged on the issue of whether the Federal government had the right to sell mining rights on Yolngu land. Blackburn upheld an English common law definition allowing the British to claim ownership over ‘desert and uncultivated lands’. The clincher was a definition that this included ‘uncivilized inhabitants in a primitive state of society’.
The terms ‘uncivilised’ and ‘primitive’ are pretty clearly subject to perception based assessment. They work the same way terms like ‘creativity’ or ‘vibrancy’ do; they have no clear definition and allow policy makers to read in whatever they want. Usually, they’ll look for pre-existing models, so as to reduce the ambiguity and provide clearer pathways.
The ‘creative city’ agenda tends to focus on laneways, small bars and public realm campaigns. The use of European indicators to detect legitimate culture allowed policy makers to ignore a pre-colonial legal framework, systems of land ownership and non-British occupation.
It’s weird, because Governor Phillip and his lieutenant, Judge Advocate David Collins, had already confirmed the existence of these non-British frameworks within the first year of colonisation. It’s like an initial moment of perception was wiped out as the discourse of British law gained strength.
The Mabo ruling ultimately overturned Blackburn’s judgement. I suppose Terra Nullius is the extreme end of things, but what I find interesting about it is the suggestion that Australian policy follows a discursive structure so fundamentally warped it can get things so very wrong for so very long.