Just Planning

Can Cultural Planning Help Build More Equitable Cities?

Tom Borrup

During the past two decades, cultural planning practice in the United States has fallen behind that in parts of the world where cultural plans are required in city general plans, broader definitions of culture have been adopted, more domains of city planning have been integrated, and theoretical debate has progressed further. In the United States there is neither a field of cultural planning nor of cultural planners. There is a marketplace in which municipal or cultural agency buyers issue requests for proposals or qualifications, and independent consultants or firms compete for contracts. In a few cases cultural agency staff produce plans as a service to constituents.

For better or worse, there are no formal requirements, training, standards, or professional associations for US cultural planners. We invent the practice as we go. We range from former executives at nonprofit cultural institutions or public arts agencies, to community arts activists, to urban planners with an interest in the arts. During the Great Recession some desperate-for-work architecture firms competed for cultural planning contracts. Different cultural planners favor Eurocentric institutions, grassroots community cultural practices, economic development, or broader social change agendas. As competitors, we rarely share best practices or debate the trajectory of the practice. One key question for cultural planners and our clients remains the way we define culture — a definition that can privilege some cultural practices and/or institutions over others and mask the real significance of culture in communities.

In the parallel world of urban or city planning, planners earn degrees, meet certification requirements, and update their knowledge through periodic formal training. They meet at annual state and national conferences and share professional publications. Most work for risk-averse, politically sensitive municipalities. Some city planners favor corporate or institutional developers, environmental concerns, or neighborhood organizing, for instance. One challenge for city planners is to understand the relevance of cultural diversity and how choices in policy and physical development privilege some while denying others equitable access to resources. They need to understand also that choices can be made that respect and accommodate the ways of life of an expanding mix of people. How do the dimensions and variety of human culture impact public space design, livelihoods, settlements, socializing, recreation, and other activities?

While integration of cultural planning with city planning may not be around the corner in the United States, the increasing complexity and diversity of populations create greater urgency to bring the practices closer. In this article I argue that a deeper appreciation of culture in cultural planning and blending the best of both city planning and cultural planning can bring about a hybrid of just planning: a culturally informed approach to city planning that promises greater civic engagement and movement toward social, cultural, and economic equity.

Interest in arts and culture as a revitalizing agent for cities around the globe exploded in the 1980s. In the United States much attention has been paid to the creative class and creative placemaking advanced and branded, respectively, by Richard Florida (2002) and by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa (2010). British scholar Jamie Peck (2005) criticizes such approaches for their lack of attention to the bigger picture of city dynamics in favoring what he calls urban fragments, or the selective development of neighborhood nodes of upscale housing, coffee shops, and cultural and entertainment amenities designed for the creative class while leaving out the majority of urban populations.

The emergence and evolution of cultural planning practice over the past four decades have been steady but neither ascendant nor as comprehensive and impactful as early advocates anticipated. For the most part, the creative and cultural sector, including artists, creative entrepreneurs, cultural practitioners, and nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, remain on the fringes of the larger enterprise of city planning and policymaking. Cultural planning has made scant progress in expanding that involvement.

Cultural Planning: The Promise

Early advocates of cultural planning promised a novel approach to city planning and policy development, or, as Canadian scholar Jason Kovacs (2011) describes it, “an ethical corrective to physical planning” (322). Putting it a different way, European scholar-practitioner Lia Ghilardi (2001) writes, “cultural planning is not the ‘planning of culture’, but a cultural (anthropological) approach to city planning and policy” (125).

Practitioner-scholar Craig Dreeszen in his 1994 study of cultural planning in the United States found the practice primarily addressed the needs of established arts communities but found “some notable exceptions where cultural planning inquires of broad community needs and applies cultural solutions to community problems. There is much more potential for this” (238). Well over two decades later, little of this potential has been realized through cultural planning.

Australian geographer Deborah Mills (2003) advocated that cultural planning not provide

an argument for justifying why arts and culture should receive public support. Nor is it an argument for the arts as a tool for achieving government economic, environmental and social objectives. Rather, it is a way of making visible what has until now remained invisible to planners, the cultural concepts which underpin, often implicitly, many public planning policies. If we can acknowledge these concepts and recognize them as living, breathing parts of individual and community life, then we can give new meaning and force to efforts to achieve sustainable economic, social and environmental development. (9)

In regard to environmental sustainability, European planning scholar Franco Bianchini (1999) argues that “cities will not become more ecologically sustainable if we do not address how people mix and connect, their motivations, and whether they ‘own’ where they live and change their lifestyles appropriately” (195). Ghilardi (2008) describes the promise of cultural planning as “a way of enabling policy-makers to think strategically about the application of the culturally distinctive resources of localities to economic and city development, together with the delivery of policies capable of responding to local needs, aspirations and perceptions of place” (4).

While social policy in general, including cultural policy, is typically a one-size-fits-all solution, British planner and writer John Montgomery (1990) saw cultural planning differently. “Because towns and cities are unique, they will have different problems, different potentials, and different opportunities. It is important to build from what exists rather than pluck ‘off-the-shelf’ models,” he wrote (23). Adopting an anthropological approach forces city planners to look at cities in a new way, Montgomery argues, “from the standpoint of users rather than uses, and with an awareness of quality. The result is to root planning in a cultural sense of place” (23).

Can city planners shift to such a focus? Rather than beginning with land use and physical infrastructure, can they start with the ways of life of residents, workers, and visitors so as to develop a cultural sense of place and to think first about users and then address uses? Can cultural planners move toward what Kovacs (2011) calls a “’joined-up’ cross-departmental approach” (321)? Or will cultural planning continue to confine itself to a stand-alone practice serving communities in a limited way?

The Disconnect

A simultaneous gravitational pull and repellent force are largely responsible for keeping city and cultural planning apart, stifling progress of both practices. Klaus Kunzmann (2004), Colin Mercer (2006), Deborah Stevenson (2005), Charles Landry (2008), and others argue that the promise of cultural planning has been sidetracked by the narrow, default definition of culture promoted by formal arts institutions and agencies to keep cultural planning in service to their industry. They argue also that cultural planning has been marginalized by a city planning profession unable to see beyond quantitative thinking and the seeming imperative of land-use allocations.

Mills (2003) asserts that “culture has remained marginalized because it has been viewed as something to add to the list of topics that an integrated planning process must address, rather than something which could inform the whole planning process itself” (7). Language, common metaphors, and dominant paradigms, she adds, “hold us back from fully realizing the potential of culture as part of integrated local area planning” (9).

In cultural planning the distinct gravitational pull favors maintenance of the cultural status quo advancing Western European art forms and organizations. “Other” (non-Western) cultural practices are sometimes included when they conform to institutional models built around industrial-era structures predicated on centralized production, controlled distribution, and mass consumption (Borrup 2011). Organized arts communities have developed a sense of ownership of cultural planning that Australian geographer Deborah Stevenson (2005) concludes “privileged art over culture” (40). Describing such cultural plans, German planning scholar Klaus Kunzmann (2004) writes, “Tiresome culture-related shopping lists are not helpful” (399).

Cultural planning, argues pioneering practitioner and scholar Colin Mercer (2006), “cannot be generated from the self-satisfied and enclosed position which holds that art is good for people and the community” (6). Adds Kovacs (2011), “This discriminating and extremely powerful concept blinds us to the existence of other cultural systems” (323).

The sway over cultural planning held by mostly Eurocentric arts organizations serves to secure resources and elevate their capacities to produce and deliver arts experiences. While this may be a worthy undertaking, it need not be an either/or choice for planners. As a dominant definition of culture, however, it ignores a wider range of human needs and potentials and denies other social systems and infrastructure the benefits of a deeper understanding of their inherent cultural biases and potential new pathways to solving complex social problems. The resulting marginalization of cultural planning, argues Mills (2003), “will continue so long as there remains an arts-led push to cultural planning.” According to Kovacs (2011), cultural planning has failed to promote a fuller “integration of culture into local planning praxis” (322).

Another factor in the disconnect rests in the limits of experience of cultural planners, suggests Bianchini (1999): “A narrow training in arts administration is inadequate for cultural planners, who also need to know about political economy and urban sociology, about how cities work (as societies, economies, polities, and eco-systems, as well as cultural millieux) and of course about physical planning itself, otherwise they cannot influence it” (200). British cultural planner and author Graeme Evans (2001) acknowledges that “land-use and culture are fundamental natural and human phenomena, but the combined notion and practice of culture and planning conjure up a tension between not only tradition, resistance and change; heritage and contemporary expression, but also the ideals of cultural rights, equity and amenity” (1).

On the other side of the equation, the more established field and practice of city planning has been unsure how to welcome or accommodate cultural planning or even to see its relevance outside planning creative districts or arts facilities. Bianchini (1999) puts planning into context of the historical development of cities. “Every period . . . seems to need its own forms of creativity. Urban planners this century [twentieth] have been especially influenced by the creativity of engineers and scientists . . . responding to problems of overcrowding, mobility, and public health generated by the Industrial Revolution” (195). Moving into the twenty-first century, he continues, there is a growing awareness that “physical and scientific approaches can only be part of the solution” (195).

In his critique of city planning, Kunzmann (2004) writes, “creativity has become a topical theme, though still only with a very small audience” (391). He calls for bridging the arts and city planning in profound ways and offers a blunt assessment of city planning education, writing, “their creative skills development is neglected, sacrificed on the altar of science” (400). American planning scholar Bernie Jones (1993) observes that “many people, both in planning and in the arts, still have a hard time reconciling the left-brain activity of planning with the right-brain one of artistic expression” (89). Written nearly twenty-five years ago, this remains remarkably prescient.

“In short what urban planners also need,” writes Bianchini (1999), “is the creativity of artists, more specifically of artists working in social contexts” (195–96). One thing city planners are rarely trained to appreciate is symbolic elements of place. Bianchini advocates that city planners “learn something from the process of thinking used by people working in the field of cultural production — i.e. the production of meanings, images, narratives, and ideas” (199). Even for leaders in the cultural sector, argues Australian geographer Robyn Dowling (1997), the “physical manifestations of culture remain the focus, rather than webs of meaning” (29). “Planning is not a physical science but a human science,” asserts Mercer (2006, 5). As such, he says, planners need to be “anthropologists, economists, and geographers, not just draftsmen. . . . They need to know how people live, work, play, and relate to their environment” (5).

Significant differences in approaches are evident as cultural planners focus on the human, social, organizational, and symbolic dimensions of cities. City planners begin and conclude their work by mapping the physical or natural and built elements. Mercer (2006) asserts that in the process of planning, “we must excavate the layers of our city downwards into its earliest past . . . and thence we must read them upwards.” To do so, he advocates cultural mapping, “tracing people’s memories and visions and values — before we start the planning” (5).

Is There Just Planning?

If there is a way to formulate a practice of just planning, it constitutes a creative hybrid where cultural sensibilities and analysis inform all elements of city planning. This calls for a fundamental shift in how both city planners and cultural planners approach their work. Culture has been conflated with elitist notions of art, while critical understanding of human cultures (ways of life) and diversity have not been on the table for those designing places and systems.

As practitioners of cultural planning, we need to debate whether the practice is planning by and for the institutional arts or whether it is a process to address ways of living in communities and the cultural dimensions of policy options across a spectrum of municipal concerns.

There is no arena for these debates among cultural planning providers. And unfortunately most of the buyers of our services remain local arts agencies whose missions put them in service to arts institutions. Conversations within the city planning field have recently begun through an arts and culture interest group within the American Planning Association. Such conversations will require intellectual rigor and courage to venture outside their respective norms.

Issues related to equity across all domains relevant to city planning and policy cannot be fully addressed unless notions of human cultures and what they mean are laid bare. If city planners and policymakers are unable or unwilling to account for the cultural makeup and human dynamics of their communities, they cannot effectively resolve complex challenges across the domains of city planning. Likewise, if the arts sector continues to see cultural planning as a circle-the-wagons or case-making strategy to leverage additional resources for their ongoing operations, they restrain the practice and deprive their cities of urgently needed cultural understanding and creative problem solving while cultural divisions in our communities continue to grow.

Noteworthy in reviewing literature for this article was finding the most vital scholarly writing on cultural planning dates from one and two decades earlier and mostly from outside the United States. In response, I have conducted a survey of cultural planning in the United States under the auspices of Americans for the Arts that parallels the most recent primary research on the practice in the United States by Craig Dreeszen in 1994. Results of that study are expected in 2018.


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