Justine Simons in the newly built Exhibition Road Quarter of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum
Justine Simons in the newly built Exhibition Road Quarter of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum © Rick Pushinsky

In a globalised world where our lives are increasingly run by algorithms, we all wear the same trainers and drink the same coffee, what makes our cities distinctive? And how can we futureproof London as an open, vibrant and successful world capital?

Any diplomat will tell you that getting 25 countries to agree on anything can be a very difficult task. Every year I chair the World Cities Culture Summit, to try and do just that. It is attended by influential city leaders from global cities, including New York, Shanghai, Moscow, Paris, Seoul and Buenos Aires, and I am always struck by how united the delegates are in their common mission, regardless of the international tensions at the time. They all turn up because, whatever political or economic system they come from, their shared goal is to grow the role of culture in our cities.

It is obvious to say that cities have much in common, but what has changed in the past decade or so is how those who run, live and work in them feel about culture. Culture is becoming a golden thread, woven through all aspects of urban life, rather than something separate or aloof.

Bold Tendencies, an arts venue in a disused area of a multi-storey car park in Peckham, south-east London
Bold Tendencies, an arts venue in a disused area of a multi-storey car park in Peckham, south-east London © Mary Turner/Getty Images

It would be easy to say that London has too much on its plate to prioritise culture — from just running a big city to a housing crisis, Brexit, terrorist attacks and the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower. But prioritise it we have. Sadiq Khan was the first mayor of London to declare culture a core priority alongside housing, transport and air quality.

London is not alone. Around the world, awareness has grown of the importance of culture if cities are to thrive in the 21st century. The paradigm has shifted and the notion of culture as a core ingredient in urban policy has gone from niche to mainstream. Whether that is Bogotá embracing street art, Berlin giving heritage status to its underground clubs or London saving the Southbank Centre skate park, the birthplace of British skateboarding, it turns out that we care quite deeply about the granular, gritty stuff — what some might call the “intangible heritage” of our cities.

If you think about it, it is logical that culture matters to us. It is in London’s DNA and creative tribes have defined our identity through the decades. In the 1960s The Rolling Stones and The Who were on pirate radio, Mary Quant started a miniskirt revolution and Soho was home to artists such as Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. The 1970s saw punk explode — a short movement with extraordinary longevity, which remains a perennial influence on fashion catwalks and a thriving subculture in Japan. The New Romantics and Britpop followed and now Grime is a big creative force, changing the face of music.

The Kentish Town Forum live music venue in north London
The Kentish Town Forum live music venue in north London © Simon Sarin/Redferns

In London today, creativity, technology and business collide in Shoreditch, where east London meets the City. To the south, in Peckham, an artists’ takeover of a decrepit town-centre car park, Bold Tendencies, has arguably boosted property prices more than any expensive marketing campaign could have done.

This is not just storytelling — it is backed up by data. Four out of five tourists say culture is the main reason they visit, according to research for the mayor of London; the creative industries generate £42bn a year for the capital’s economy, by GLA Economics’ figures; and London is the most googled city in the world for “culture”.

It is not now enough for cities to just have great transport and efficient roads — they also need a soul. They need culture and creativity. As the artist Grayson Perry once said: “Life without art would be a series of emails.” Imagine your life without music, film, design, craft, art, theatre and books. The same goes for cities.

The Tate Modern gallery extension — the Switch House, aka the Blavatnik Building
The Tate Modern gallery extension — the Switch House, aka the Blavatnik Building © Charlie Bibby

But there are some big challenges. It is hard to be a creative in London. Pay is low, intellectual property is under threat and the gig economy is a challenge. City Hall studies show that London is set to lose 30 per cent of artists’ studios in the next few years and in the past decade we’ve lost 50 per cent of clubs and 40 per cent of grassroots music venues.

These grassroots creative spaces are vital incubators for the next generation of artists, musicians and DJs. It is harder than ever to break into the creative industries, and with the average age of musicians headlining festivals rising from mid-20s to over 40 in recent decades, we can see a problem brewing. It is what finance people might call living off our capital assets.

Talent drain is a worry, amplified by Brexit. London’s success is dependent on people and ideas. Built on decades of immigration, with more than 300 languages spoken every day, diversity is central to our success as a world city. As the great philosopher Paddington Bear once said: “In London everyone is different, and that means everyone can fit in.” Our significant creative economy is reliant on the best talent — the pattern-cutters, the game designers, the photographers, the animators, the one guy in London who can allegedly mend a Stradivarius violin. The creative workforce is one of our biggest assets.

The Southbank Centre skate park, near the National Theatre
The Southbank Centre skate park, near the National Theatre © Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The news is not all bad and if we grab the opportunity it can be spectacular. First, we have a seat at the table. Culture is no longer seen as an elite night out for the champagne-sipping classes — it is what we watch on TV, it is the music we listen to on our smartphones and at the festivals (and car parks) where we hang out. It builds confidence and raises aspiration among young people, whatever their background, and we must make it accessible to all. It is a way to open our minds, connect with others, play and imagine.

Business and policymakers have grasped the potential of culture to help deliver positive growth and change in almost any context, with depth and sophistication. It is being hard-wired into planning, regeneration, health and social policy in imaginative ways. Developers want to embed culture in big schemes across the capital. Tourism is championing all kinds of culture — big and small, mainstream and hidden gems. London’s Night Czar is part of a global movement of cities including Amsterdam and Berlin which are reimagining the night as a playful, positive and creative space.

Second, there is significant progress on infrastructure. We have Tate Modern’s brand new Switch House, a glorious new Design Museum in Kensington, a cultural district in the pipeline for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, and a new Museum of London in West Smithfield Market in Clerkenwell. Dagenham, to the east, is transitioning from cars to content, with plans for a new film and TV studio complex. Grassroots music venues have stabilised for the first time in a decade, new artist studios are being secured and LGBT venues such as The Joiners Arms have been saved.

The Design Museum, in the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington
The Design Museum, in the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington © Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

We are learning from other cities and trying new ideas. Following San Francisco’s lead, a creative land trust is planned to secure permanent affordable creative studios, with bridging finance to help buy them. Creative Enterprise Zones will be tested, with the mayor, councils and developers offering incentives such as workspace and business support to help artists put down roots in the areas they have helped regenerate.

The creative economy is in a good place, with its workforce growing four times faster than the economy at large. In the future, content will be king. Creative people are the authors of original content and you cannot automate the imagination. Recent research by Nesta, formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, concluded that 87 per cent of creative jobs are unlikely to be automated, meaning that creativity will shore up our global position in the future.

So do we need culture at a time like this? Absolutely. Our creative muscle will help us reassert our values as an open, ambitious leading world capital that is welcoming to all. What could be more important at this moment than fending off global competition, boosting the economy, bringing in millions of tourists, breathing life into rundown parts of town, feeding our imaginations and protecting the weird and wonderful things that make London London.

Justine Simons OBE is deputy mayor for culture and the creative industries and chair of the World Cities Culture Forum

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