Leonardo Erlich’s “Dalston House”
Gravity: London’s bohemian centre has shifted to the East End where works like Leonardo Erlich’s “Dalston House” can be found aplenty © Reuters

The idea that the creative quarter is the key to the regeneration of any city has become so entrenched that it has become almost a cliché. The orthodoxy is that it is the cultural pioneers who are best able to turn around decaying districts and transform them from neglected and economically stagnant sites into thriving, hipsterish hotspots. Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class became the cornerstone of this notion and one that was adopted by planners, sociologists and politicians as a kind of default position. Creative quarters, what’s not to like?

But, perhaps, now it is time to reassess the results of this almost obsessive drive to attract creatives, to better understand how this process has worked, and whether it is always positive.

London, with its almost maniacal churn, a city irredeemably in thrall to property prices and with real estate as investment rather than home, is the ideal place to start. The city’s bohemian centre has been shifting around for centuries, from Chelsea to Bloomsbury, from Soho to Shoreditch and now on to Hackney and Dalston.

Each of these areas became artistic, literary and design centres and each was, in turn, gentrified as the creative classes made once unattractive areas edgy and seductive, a process that attracted younger, affluent middle classes who wanted to be associated with hipness.

While this kind of regeneration can seem an unalloyed good thing to city boosters and economists, it has its downsides. The speed and intensity of change in London’s property market has, in recent years, highlighted those problems. Creative quarters need time to grow. They need to build an infrastructure of the different trades, venues, office and workshop spaces and, most importantly, people, who are then able to embed themselves into the fabric of the city, establishing the kind of network that builds into a specific urban character something strong enough to attract others.

There are no fixed rules for the kinds of infrastructure needed to foster a creative community but there are some features that have consistently helped. Among these is a particular and fine balance between cost and centrality. All the areas above, along with Clerkenwell, Stoke Newington, Peckham, Bethnal Green, Bermondsey and others were blessed with proximity to the city centre and an abundance of cheap space. That kind of loose-fit space, whether it was once industrial or warehouse, dockside or commercial, does not dictate how it should be used. A factory or a printing works, an office block or a warehouse can accommodate big studios or small incubator offices alongside apartments and cafés. Also the grain of historic fabric, even if it only 50 years old, adds an air of authenticity that always seems lacking in the new.

But there should not be too much heritage. Where the architecture is over-protected, rapid change is difficult. Where its use is too prescribed or zoned, again, change and adaptation are stymied. It is precisely in the blend and the flexibility of that particular cocktail of typology, age, disuse and adaptability to changing trends that a quarter’s creative resilience can lie.

London’s booming property market, however, ensures that even the cheapest areas are no longer truly cheap and the kinds of spaces that were once attractive only to artists and designers – lofts and converted industrial spaces – have become among the most desirable residential spaces, to the extent that developers now build new domestic buildings to resemble industrial interiors. London’s lofts are now, as they are in New York where the trend kicked off, out of bounds to creatives.

Yet their successors are not being built. There is, understandably, no looseness in new development. Uses are ruthlessly prescribed as commercial, residential, retail or cultural – that’s it. And the retail streets, once the city’s rich incubator of everything from workshops to markets, are being built only to attract the big chains. There are no adaptable spaces, none of the big-scale industrial-type infrastructure that has proved so enduring.

Developers and architects should build more anonymously, creating boxes with less defined uses. It is, of course, difficult to convince a bank of the value in this as-yet-undefined future. Regeneration in Britain is almost always conceived in terms of shops and shopping and apartments with balconies. It is extremely two dimensional.

Is anywhere in Europe doing it better?

Milan, another expensive metropolis, has done it well. The city might be known for fashion but design occupies an equally prominent role, notably with the Salone del Mobile, the world’s biggest design fair, by far. The fair is on the unremarkable Fiera site but the real action goes on in events dotted around the city.

First it spread to the Zona Tortona, the residential and industrial area around the Via Tortona, and then on to Ventura Lambrate, a gritty industrial district on the city’s edge. In both areas the design events have seeded workshops, cafés, studios and new cultural buildings, often accommodated in former industrial structures – exactly the kind of framework needed for a creative district. It can manage the difficult but critical shift from high fashion to artsy bohemianism within a single block.

Barcelona is often held up as the most visionary city and it is difficult to disagree. It is also instructive to see the parallels with London. Both are big port cities with rich historic centres, both are cosmopolitan and tourist centres and both are post-Olympic cities. UK politicians have enthusiastically picked up on Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout (a place as unattractive as its name suggests) but Barcelona was in the forefront of developing a digital and innovation district with its 22@, in the former industrial district of Poblenou.

The success of this huge chunk of creative city (equivalent to 115 historic city blocks) has been down to visionary politicians (notably former mayor Joan Clos, now head of UN Habitat), sophisticated urban planning and a clever use of zoning. This mixes residential with commercial, and historic industrial with fine contemporary architecture, so that the blend in types of space is maintained and the kind of gentrification that is so apparent and seemingly unstoppable in London has been halted or decelerated.

It should not be forgotten that the city’s infrastructure is almost impeccable: a fantastic metro system ensures one is never more than a few minutes away from a beach or a major station. It is a connected city in every way.

Berlin had an experience that was different again. As Germany reunited, its new capital found itself with a glut of empty commercial space as state and municipal bureaucracies that had once been duplicated were rationalised. In part, the freeing up of the massive accommodation of the Stasi, East Germany’s overbearing secret police, ironically created the space that now houses the city’s creatives. East Berlin’s now-defunct industry, propped up by sales to other communist bloc economies, also left its legacy of generous space.

A relative lack of speculation in the property markets helps Berlin sustain its creativity. Housing is mostly owned by pension funds and big organisations that are keen to secure long-term, hassle-free returns so rent is cheap and the young are able to stay in city centre accommodation as long as they like – although rental and purchase prices have accelerated recently.

After the fall of the Wall it was Mitte and Kreuzberg that took on the creative mantle, followed more recently by one-time workers’ district Friedrichshain. Yet even Berlin’s coolest districts are not immune to gentrification – though here it tends to be bigger bars pushing out smaller ones and squatters being forced out of blocks that no one previously cared about.

Enjoying a pint in a Budapest ruin pub
Enjoying a pint in a Budapest ruin pub © Reuters

Budapest presents another version of the post-communist creative city. While hardly a global capital of cool, this beautiful city is experiencing a surprising turnround.

Like Berlin, Budapest was left with abundant space after the fall of the old regime but space was never that cheap. Budapest’s contribution to the creative city phenomenon is the ruin pub, where young entrepreneurs take on crumbling, usually fin-de-siècle buildings and transform them into complex labyrinths of bars, clubs, private cinemas, restaurants, shops and exhibition spaces.

These projects are semi-formalised so that building owners are paid a small rent as the young tenants maintain and improve them.

The ad hoc aesthetic is even being reproduced in newer buildings, to curious effect. A series of courtyards known as Gozsdu Udvar (the heart of the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi era) is now a teeming nightspot which, during the day, is filled with studios and hipsters on laptops lounging at café tables. The transformation of a once rundown district of elderly residents has been extraordinary.

Paris should be like London, but somehow is not. Although it has its fashionable districts, the increasingly polarised exclusion of the poor beyond the Boulevard Périphérique makes the city struggle. Once the capital of bohemianism, it is stymied by rigid rules and burgeoning property prices. The area around the Gare du Nord, always rather seedy, provides one of the few city centre spots for creatives.

Designers take over a former Philips factory in Eindhoven
Designers take over a former Philips factory in Eindhoven © Corbis

Eindhoven illustrates a radical creative future. Once dominated by Philips’ huge factories, it found itself with a glut of empty industrial property that proved a boon to designers and makers.

Spurred by the success of its radical Design Academy, the likes of Piet Hein Eek have bought swaths of industrial space to rent to start-ups who can design and manufacture their wares, making for a far richer and more diverse creative economy. It is still small but truly engaging.

These different narratives show there is no single rule, nor even a set of rules, that guarantees the seeding or the survival of a creative city. Yet, ironically, one of the critical factors may well be failure. Creative economies depend on slack and the kind of redundant space that is the result of economic crisis, political upheaval, the collapse of industry or some other massive change.

In a way this does not bode as well for London or, say, Paris, as it might for Newcastle, Lille or Eindhoven. The potential for revival is there, in the infrastructure, but people need other reasons to come. And at the moment, it is London, Paris and Barcelona that have the cultural riches to attract people in the first place.

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