World Cities and the Magic of Culture

A reoccurring term in a lot of what I have been reading lately is cultural ecosystems.  It is the idea that no cultural activity lives in isolation.  Instead, any kind of museum, performing art, or grass roots arts organization gets it strength because of its location near, and connection to, other organizations with similarly artistic goals.  Now, the traditional definition of an ecosystem is a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment.  So the way I translate its use in the cultural sector is that cultural ecosystem means both the institutions themselves and the kind of people, land, and building space that inhabit or support those institutions.  Another way I see it is that an ecosystem refers to those things both tangible and intangible that make a designated area “work”.

Culture is of course one of those terms that can seem to mean anything and everything.  And I will say right now, I will not be offering much help on narrowing down its definition!  Instead of giving you my interpretation of what culture means, I will instead say just a thought about some things I think it does.

Lets start simply.  When one thinks culture, one thinks art, museums, dance, literature, unique traditions, rituals, things that are tied to certain religions, or nations.  Where do these things happen in the most concentrated fashion?  Urban settings, cities.  So, lets look at cities for an example of what culture can do.  Just the other day I can across a heading from, “Tokyo is a marvelous mix of modern living and old-fashioned manners, slick high-tech gadgets and cutesy cartoon mascots.”  An entire city of over 13 million people and centuries of history wrapped up into a tidy little sentence.

How is it that these cities can be distilled to titillating descriptions while holding within their geographic boundaries infinite ideas, potential, and questions?  Culture.  Culture is like a flavor, something that can be easily described yet in reality change depending on who is preparing the food, what oven being used, or if you prefer olive oil or butter.  Flavor is at once the stable descriptor and constant innovator, culture is at once the crystalized identity of a place and  the tip of the iceberg of the real deal.

According to a the United Nations Trade and Development Report from a 2010 conference (pg. 25-29), the creative sector is the second or third largest economic sector in major cities such as Tokyo, London, or New York.  These cities have a cultural ecosystem that is certainly doing work.  How?  The report suggests that it is because the creative sector in its very nature allows for the unplanned to unfold.  In the sectors ability to absorb the needed “waste” that occurs with experimentation and innovation, new ideas flow easily and frequently.  As a result, these cities are able to reinvent itself easily.  This constant turnover and growth is intriguing and appealing to many, as the cities soon are able to literally offer something to everyone.  That’s pretty magical if you ask me.


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