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Cultural Political Economy of Small Cities

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Introduction: Cultural Political Economy of
Small Cities
Chapter · August 2011
DOI: 10.4324/9780203803844
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Anne Lorentzen
Bas van Heur
Aalborg University
Vrije Universiteit Brussel
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1
Introduction
Cultural political economy of small
cities
Anne Lorentzen and Bas van Heur
Theme and aims
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This volume highlights changes in the political economy of small cities in relation to the fields of culture and leisure. Culture and leisure are focal points both
to local entrepreneurship and to planning by city governments, which means that
these developments are subject to market dynamics as well as to political discourse and action (Lorentzen and Hansen 2009). Public–private partnerships as
well as conflicts of interests characterise the field, and a major issue related to
the strategic development of culture and leisure is the balance between market
and welfare.
This field is gaining importance in most cities today in planning, production
and consumption, but to the extent that these changes have drawn academic
attention it has focused on large, metropolitan areas and on creative clusters
and flagship high culture projects. Smaller cities and their often substantively
different cultural strategies have largely been ignored, thus leading to a huge
gap in our knowledge on contemporary urban change. By bringing together a
number of case studies as well as theoretical reflections on the cultural political economy of small cities, this volume contributes to an emerging small
cities research agenda (Bell and Jayne 2009; Jayne et al. 2010) and to the
development of policy-­relevant expertise that is sensitive to place-­specific
dynamics.
In taking this approach, the volume has three key aims. First of all, we aim to
contribute to the emerging research programme on small cities and go beyond
the current empirical studies in this area by combining theoretical development
with case studies. The theorisation of smaller cities in the context of complex
urban hierarchies remains underdeveloped, which limits a more comparative
understanding of the role of city size in urban change. Second, we hope to contribute to emerging research on culture and leisure economies by paying particular attention to the spatial and scalar dynamics of these economies, since a more
sophisticated understanding of these dynamics is necessary for the development
of sustainable urban strategies. Third, we aim to address not only the economic
development dimensions of culture and leisure, but explicitly highlight questions
of political governance and social equity.
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Culture and leisure: stable signifiers, shifting signifieds
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In focusing on the field of culture and leisure, we acknowledge that this field has
become one of the key sites of development attention for cities across the world
over the last two decades. There are many reasons for this, the most important
being the general expansion of cultural consumption (van Eijck and van Oosterhout 2005) and the culturalisation of the economy as such (Lash and Urry 1994;
Du Gay and Pryke 2002). In order to get a better analytical grip on this shift,
however, it is important to move beyond generic statements of societal change
and to specify what exactly is taking place, where and when. This necessitates a
preliminary unpacking of the notions of culture and leisure. In the mainstream
academic and policy debates, at least three distinct (although empirically intertwined) strands of argument can be identified (for a more extensive discussion,
see van Heur and Peters 2011). First, culture and leisure are seen to play an
important role in attracting tourists and other visitors. Due to globalisation and
increased mobility, cities have become sites to experience and urban landscapes
are redesigned in order to become attractive to the tourist gaze (Urry 2002). This
leads to the paradoxical situation in which cities market their supposedly unique
locational qualities to a global audience in strikingly similar ways. As a result,
cultural tourism plays an important role in the globalisation and homogenisation
of cultures (Nederveen Pieterse 2009), although it simultaneously can also contribute to the revitalisation of city districts and to the development of new
publics for local cultural workers.
Second, the discourse on the creative industries as engines of economic
innovation has profoundly shaped the debate on culture and leisure. In this narrative, the creative field of the city can be seen as a system of resources, providing materials for imaginative appropriation by individuals and groups as they
pursue the business of work and life in urban space (Scott 2010a: 123). The very
definition of what constitutes the creative industries is a continuing matter for
discussion, but most sectoral definitions highlight established cultural sectors
such as film, television, theatre, music, visual arts and design as well as new
media and ICT. The role of local governments is seen to lie in the support of
these networks and clusters of production and consumption. Highlighting the
entrepreneurial dynamics of creative work, the policy discourse on the creative
industries tends to emphasise the innovative potential of these sectors, but mostly
downplays the reality of underpaid labour (Banks and Hesmondhalgh 2009; Gill
and Pratt 2009) and the recurring exclusions along the lines of gender, ethnicity,
age and class within the creative industries (Oakley 2006).
And third, the debate on cultural planning offers a more inclusive and less
economistic approach by shifting attention towards the social relevance of
culture (Evans 2005). The idea that culture through cultural planning should be
placed at the centre of local government processes has been advocated by
leading consultants such as Charles Landry from the 1980s onwards (Stevenson
2005: 38). In the United Kingdom, the idea emerged that it was possible to dig
civic gold by tapping into a tradition of volunteerism and generating funding for
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cultural initiative (Stevenson 2004: 121). One problem, of course, is that
‘culture’ in this debate becomes such a broad notion that operationalisation turns
out to be rather difficult. Not only is culture expected to solve cultural policy
problems, it is also mobilised to address problems identified in other fields, such
as spatial planning, welfare and education (Gray 2006). All in all, however, this
more inclusive approach tends to aim for at least some kind of balance between
economic, social and cultural concerns.
Even this very brief sketch of these three distinct lines of argument shows the
complexity and diversity of the debate on culture and leisure. It also indicates
the necessity to pay detailed attention to exactly how the terminology of culture
and leisure is used in particular cities at particular times. As the following chapters in this volume show, even though virtually all actors in the cities discussed
have appropriated this terminology, there is great diversity in usage with actors
implicitly or explicitly drawing on one or more of the three discursive strands
just discussed in often quite idiosyncratic ways. This points to the strategic usage
of notions such as culture and leisure with actors referring to these notions in
order to achieve often quite different objectives. In that respect, culture and
leisure are best understood as ‘stable signifiers’ characterised by ‘shifting signifieds’ (Alexander 2007: 28). These signifieds shift through the contestation and
creative appropriation of terminology or, in other words, it is the shifting of symbolic boundaries that can contribute to the transformation of social boundaries.
Any cultural political economy that takes seriously the relative autonomy of
meaning construction will need to pay attention to these boundary disputes.
Cultural political economy and the analysis of urban
strategies
In referring to cultural political economy, we take our cue from what is sometimes referred to as the Lancaster School CPE project (Jones 2008) and which
has largely been developed by Bob Jessop, Ngai-­Ling Sum and their colleagues
and students. Drawing on a complex amalgam of Marxist political economy, the
regulation approach, institutional economics, critical realism and Antonio
Gramsci, the Lancaster CPE project aims to acknowledge the cultural turn in the
social sciences while simultaneously holding on to the ‘bigger’ claims of the
political economy tradition. The goal of CPE, in other words, becomes to resist
the temptation of ‘soft economic sociology’, which subsumes ‘economic or
political categories under general sociological (or cultural) analysis so that the
analysis loses sight of the historical specificity and materiality of economics and
the dynamics of state power’ (Jessop and Oosterlynck 2008: 1168). This can
indeed be understood as the key contribution of CPE in comparison to mainstream cultural economy: whereas the latter – with its grounding in a cultural
studies tradition – tends to be highly sensitive to the complexity of cultural-­
economic practices in specific sites, the CPE approach has developed a sophisticated vocabulary to conceptualise the ways in which these practices and sites
become stabilised (if at all) over longer periods of time and on multiple scales.
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Three key aspects of the CPE approach are particularly important for this
volume: economic imaginaries; strategies; and the role of variation, selection
and retention (for a more extensive discussion, see van Heur (2010) and the
chapter by van Heur in this volume). First of all, economic imaginaries play a
key role in identifying and giving direction to the kinds of economic activities to
be governed and regulated. Currently popular imaginaries are, among other
notions, the knowledge-­based economy, creative industries, smart cities and
resilient regions, but there is a potentially limitless reservoir of economic imaginaries available. Economic imaginaries function as shorthand reference to a particular set of economic activities within a much wider and uncontrollable range
of economic activities, and thus give a sense of control to policy makers and
other development agents. Second, in having identified particular subsets of the
wider economy through the notion of economic imaginary, it becomes possible
to devise strategies aimed at the governance of these subsets of the economy.
Although one can note strong similarities between CPE’s account of strategies
and debates on strategic planning (for example, by Patsy Healey 2007), CPE
emphasises a strategic relational mode of analysis that is sensitive to emergent
strategies as well as structural constraints. A strategic relational perspective
acknowledges the extent to which strategies are not simply selective (in the
sense that each decision includes and excludes), but also structurally inscribed.
Due to the historical layering of the effects of previous strategies, current strategies will tend to reinforce some forms of action and discourage others. And
third, CPE argues that strategies involve the selection and retention of the discursive dimensions of social phenomena. It is through selecting from a much
more varied range of possibilities that actors interpret events, legitimise actions
and represent social phenomena. If this selection is attractive to more than one
actor, discourses can become retained and stabilised in multiple organisational
and institutional environments. All authors in the following chapters move
beyond ‘soft’ forms of cultural economy by analysing in depth the development
of economic imaginaries, the dynamics of strategies and the complex processes
of variation, selection and retention in small cities around the world.
Small cities, big cities and urban hierarchies: the
relationality of smallness
In identifying the productive tensions between the stable signifiers of culture and
leisure and their shifting referents and in highlighting the need to adopt a strategic relational view of development strategies, it is clear that we can only
approach the ‘smallness’ of small cities as relational. Small cities, in other
words, are what they are through the relations they have and develop. Using the
vocabulary introduced above, this means we have to understand small cities not
only as structurally constrained (by being part of broader institutional environments and urban hierarchies), but also as sites for the development of strategies
that can transform these constraints. It is this strategic and emergent dimension
of the global economy that does not receive much attention in the geographic
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Introduction 5
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literature on city size and urban hierarchies. Most recent work in economic geography tends to emphasise the important role of agglomeration advantages:
bigger cities benefit from location economies (the co-­location of firms improves
the spread of knowledge between firms and provides a shared pool of qualified
labour) and urbanisation economies (increased density and diversity is beneficial
to innovation). In the cognitive–cultural economy, which is characterised by a
high level of computerisation and innovation and a large share of workers with
high levels of human capital (Scott 2007), big cities have the advantage of
hosting multiple universities, highly skilled labour, cultural amenities, creative
clusters, infrastructural facilities, transportation nodes and a vibrant urban environment. As territories they compete globally to attract businesses and labour as
well as tourists and have considerable resources to do so, such as inherited and
recent cultural and historical amenities (Lorentzen 2009: 838). Small cities, from
this perspective, can only lose. The smaller the city, it seems, the more limited
skilled labour, educational offer, cultural amenities, specialised creative production, urban ‘buzz’, and so on. Small cities either have to cope with leftovers from
earlier economic paradigms (traditional industries) or have to find a role in the
urban hierarchy as providers of cheap labour and affordable working and living
space. Older optimal city size theory, in contrast, argued that these kinds of metropolitan advantages only ‘apply up to a certain urban size, after which diseconomies of scale due to congestion effects take place and decrease the average
revenues of an urban location’ (Capello and Camagni 2000: 1480). This seems
to limit the extent to which cities can continue to grow and potentially offers
development opportunities for smaller cities, if these cities manage to capture
the ‘overflow’ of economic activity that can no longer be pursued in big cities.
Although smaller cities are awarded development potential in this narrative, it is
still largely in varying situations of peripherality, in terms of distance, dependence or structural difference, to larger metropolises (Ferrau and Lopes 2004: 54;
Lorentzen 2011).
The problem with these explanations is not so much that they constitute generalisations and thus ignore the specificity of particular cities, but that they generalise on the basis of historical and contemporary development patterns. In
particular in the literature that also aims to give policy suggestions, this often
leads to a type of argument that understands these patterns as useful indicators of
future development possibilities. In performing this kind of extrapolation, this
literature highlights the structural, sedimented context and downplays strategic
opportunities and, in doing so, tends to banish politics from the realm of the
economy (or, which is basically the same, it understands politics as a mere technique of adjustment to economic imperatives). Various strategic opportunities
for small cities, however, do exist and can be seen to be positioned on a sliding
scale ranging from adjustment to more active transformation. In developing
these future-­oriented strategies, it is important to emphasise that these cities capitalise upon the very heterogeneity of the urban world outside of the main
metropolises (Jayne et al. 2010: 1409). Small cities are never just ‘small’, but
represent different localised agglomeration processes, specialisations and path
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dependencies, population demographics and cultural identities (Garret-­Petts and
Dubinsky 2005). These differences often provide opportunities for development.
Smaller cities, for example, may be more transparent to actors seeking to join or
establish innovative networks. Due to lower levels of specialisation, cognitive
distances between the actors can be smaller, which facilitates the bridging and
bonding of innovative and creative actors. The advantages of small cities include
not only lower prices of land and housing, but also lower degrees of pollution,
congestion and crime. Walkability and natural surroundings allow for lifestyles
that are different from those in most metropolises. Smaller cities, in that respect,
are often seen as highly appealing to families, certain types of artists, and elderly
people. This appeal has potential economic value if cities can cater to the preferences of the wealthy, healthy and skilled segments of the population (Asheim
and Hansen 2009; Bell and Jayne 2009: 693–4; Scott 2010b).
More generally, it is through urban governance that the structural context is
interpreted, challenged and transformed. Potential is identified or ignored
through the lens of particular discourses and actors develop imaginaries of urban
futures based on their interpretation of potentialities and informed by their own
particular orientation, interests and biases. This, of course, also means that imaginaries may be of limited value owing to situations of path dependency and institutional lock-­in (Martin and Sunley 2006). In some cases, when realising these
dangers, urban development actors have sought to overcome such limitations by
inviting various actors – ranging from representatives of universities, trade
unions or businesses to artists, neighbourhood organisations and young people –
to visualise urban futures. Whereas in bigger cities, imaging may revolve around
the development into global cities, medicon valleys or creative cities, small city
imaging often addresses the reinterpretation of cultural and natural resources or
the redefinition of regional roles through the establishment of urban networks
dedicated to specific fields of activity (such as tourism, food, culture or education). In doing so, these small cities aim to challenge established urban hierarchies (e.g. Scott 2010b). New futures, to conclude, can be developed by new
actors through the identification of new opportunities related to particular global
market niches and it is through niche strategies that at least some small cities can
become global players in some fields and, in doing so, can challenge the
common images of what small cities are and can be. Smallness, in that respect,
‘is as much a state of mind as a taxonomic reality’ (Jayne et al. 2010: 1413),
which is best understood by a perspective that understands small cities as relative, relational, differentiated and complex phenomena subject to dynamic
change (Lorentzen 2011).
Chapter organisation
Following this introduction, the volume is divided into four parts and thirteen
chapters. The first part (‘Theory and methods’) contains three contributions that
critically reflect on the theoretical and methodical assumptions underlying small
city research. Bas van Heur (Chapter 2) conducts theoretical groundwork by
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investigating the ways in which small cities exhibit distinct sociospatial dynamics of economic development. Through a critical reading of the work of Allen J.
Scott and Richard Florida, the chapter highlights the metropolitan biases in the
work of both authors. In seeing small cities either as sites for routinised labour
or as specialised sites catering to global niche markets, Scott tends to
overestimate the role of economic logic and underestimate the role of politics in
contributing to the coherence of local production regimes. Florida largely
ignores the impact of uneven geographies on economic development and reifies
the preferences of the creative class to such an extent that his analysis becomes
geographically generic. Drawing on recent work in cultural political economy,
van Heur suggests that more attention should be paid to the role of economic
imaginaries and political strategies in shaping economic logics. It is thus of great
importance to understand how key actors perceive the city and its future, and
how different imaginaries undergo strategic selection processes by which actors
and imaginaries are included and excluded. The author illustrates this argument
by showing how these imaginaries and strategies are mediated through places,
territories, scales and networks.
Høgni Kalsø Hansen and Lars Winther (Chapter 3) challenge the popular
claim that a diversity of amenities has the potential to attract the location of economic activity to small cities. Their main critique is that the claim is ahistorical
and excludes the geographic context. Basic economic geographic mechanisms
work severely against location in small cities. Location economies imply that
co-­location of firms can help to spread knowledge among firms and provide a
shared pool of qualified labour. Urbanisation economies, density and diversity,
help reduce search costs and provide diverse inputs for innovation. Both types of
advantages increase with city size, and it is thus highly questionable whether
investment in amenities of any kind represents an effective factor in changing
the economic fate of small cities. Considering also that small cities often exist at
the bottom of steep urban hierarchies in the shadow of big capital cities, and that
labour, even highly qualified labour, cannot be shown to give amenities priority
over other factors when choosing place of residence, small cities may struggle in
vain. Exceptions would be traditional tourist destinations that can benefit from
location economies due to their inherited specialisation and small cities located
in large city regions that can benefit from proximity to the main urban centres,
but for other cities the preconditions to pursue an amenity growth strategy hardly
exist. Chris Brennan-­Horley (Chapter 4), in a way, offers an operationalisation
of the above argument that one needs to creatively appropriate terminology in
order to shift social boundaries by outlining a new qualitative mapping method
for research on creative industries in smaller cities. Combing mental maps –
printed maps as interview prompts for informants to draw upon – with geographic information system (GIS) techniques, Brennan-­Horley uses the city of
Darwin, Australia, to illustrate how different parts of the city play different roles
in the city’s creative economy. Three spatial themes are identified: creative epicentres; spaces of inspiration; and workplaces. Not surprisingly the city centre is
important as epicentre, workplace and inspiration, but even suburban locations
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and the natural environment are important, the latter both as inspiration and location for dry season creative activities. One of the lessons for small cities is then
that creativity shows an inherent geographic complexity that is, however, often
less visible and spatially concentrated than the creative clusters typical for bigger
cities.
The second part (‘Culture as an economic growth strategy’) of this volume
concentrates on the ways in which culture and leisure are mobilised in local economic growth strategies. Anne Lorentzen (Chapter 5) investigates a new trend in
local economic development strategies, according to which small cities in industrial and demographic crisis seek success as places of cultural and experiential
consumption. According to Lorentzen, a successful consumption, based strategy
requires high mobility and connections to the global flow of tourists, which are
obviously conditions that cannot be met by all cities. Despite this fact, however,
many small and peripheral cities have embarked on a consumption-­based strategy and Lorentzen illustrates her argument with reference to the Danish city Frederikshavn. Here, such a strategy gradually emerged from dozens of local
initiatives such as new cultural events, urban refurbishment and the establishment of new buildings for sport and culture. When finally after ten years the
actual strategy was formulated politically, achievements were not easily quantifiable in terms of jobs and growth, but were perceptible as a change in municipal
governance and as a shift in the place identity of citizens. Structural traits of
peripherality, such as low education and poor accessibility, do persist however
and indicate that culture based strategies cannot stand alone as economic growth
strategy. Heather M. Hall and Betsy Donald (Chapter 6) challenge the metropolitan bias of mainstream research on the cultural and creative economy through an
investigation of the peripheral mining city of Greater Sudbury, Canada. Describing innovation in the mining sector, remote health care, the use of the natural
landscape for cultural inspiration and the emergence of film and digital animation companies, the authors argue that creative opportunities do exist in these
types of cities. In order to identify these potentials, policy makers and researchers need to develop a greater awareness of the actually existing challenges and
opportunities that exist in the various economic sectors of these cities. At the
same time, isolation, high transportation costs, negative perceptions, limited
influence on central government decisions, and the problem of retaining skilled
workers constitute serious obstacles to the further development of peripheral
cities such as Greater Sudbury. For this reason, economic growth strategies
should focus primarily on creating job opportunities in combination with promoting qualities of place like affordability and natural amenities.
Douglas Chalmers and Mike Danson (Chapter 7) discuss the interplay
between economy and culture in the context of Gaelic arts and culture within
Glasgow, Scotland. While Gaelic cultural practice until recently has been
regarded as backward-­looking, it is now increasingly seen as forward-­looking
and as an important site for creativity, innovation and economic growth. Building on economic impact studies, the authors analyse employment figures and
income generation in Gaelic arts and culture, but also describe the main players
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in this sector and its impact on the wider Glasgow economy. Ranging from the
BBC Gaelic Unit to the Celtic Connections Festival and the Fèisean Gaelic
Musical Festival movement, the authors highlight the diversity of the audience
and the extent to which those who speak the language tend to be in higher-­status
positions and thus present a valuable resource for economic regeneration.
Although wider economic impacts appear to be relatively limited, these do seem
to be increasing and are largely based on services delivered by highly skilled
professionals.
The third part (‘Actors, networks, creative alliances’) takes a closer look at
the types of actors and networks that are emerge around culture and leisure
projects in small cities. Søren Smidt-­Jensen (Chapter 8) offers a detailed analysis
of the so-­called micropole strategy of the small city of Vejle in Denmark.
Informed by strategic frame analysis of Patsy Healey, Smidt-­Jensen shows how
the micropole strategy was informed by various notions of creativity, the creative class and the experience economy and how it was mobilised to transform
the urban quality and global visibility of the city. With a focus on new architecture the city was to become a highly attractive experience, ready to be consumed
by new citizens and visitors. Behind this strategy was a coalition of businesses,
politicians and civil servants, united by a shared strategic frame in relation to the
perceived future of the city. An expensive visit by Richard Florida aimed to convince the local community to support the strategy, which materialised in diverse
policies ranging from public health (new sports facilities) to tourism (flagship
buildings). Half-­way realised, lack of popular support, the financial crisis, and
competition for public resources from other neighbouring towns changed the
opportunity structure and resulted in a lower level of ambition. Alison Bain and
Dylann McLean (Chapter 9) discuss the creative capacity of two smaller cities in
Ontario, Canada. Similar to many other cities, the local governments of these
two cities have been inspired by the wider discourse on cultural planning.
Although both cities still have to complete their own cultural plans, they actively
participate in cultural planning forums, are members of the Creative City
Network in Canada, and have substantially increased public funding for culture.
The authors argue, however, that these formal planning networks obscure awareness of important informal and everyday cultural practices. This is illustrated
through an analysis of bridging and bonding social capital and the importance of
‘third places’ such as coffee shops, bars, galleries and universities.
Paul L. Knox and Heike Mayer (Chapter 10) analyse how small and more or
less peripheral towns in Europe are using themes such as sustainability, heritage
and culture to strengthen their role and position within the urban hierarchy. Following Ulrich Beck’s distinction between first and second or reflexive modernity, Knox and Mayer argue that the current era of reflexive modernity is
characterised by small cities strategically using the polycentric urban condition.
In developing networks between small cities, local territorial agencies can cooperate and disseminate information about best practices on various themes. These
networks can be top-­down (institutional polycentricity) as well as bottom-­up
(reflexive polycentricity) with the Cittaslow movement being discussed as an
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illustration of the latter. Ending on a critical note, the authors suggest that small
city development in the era of second modernity is realistic for cities with interesting natural amenities, a distinct urban structure or an historical legacy
expressed in local traditions, but much more difficult if not impossible for cities
that lack these attributes.
The fourth and last part of the volume (‘Culture, governance and social
equity’) investigates in more depth the relation between the governance of
culture and broader questions concerning social equity. Nancy Duxbury (Chapter
11) analyses how culture is involved in the strategic planning efforts in 27 small
cities between 10,000 and 150,000 inhabitants in Canada. She found that culture
plays an increasing, but varying role, depending on city size and its structural
characteristics. Duxbury identifies three major ways in which culture is mobilised in city planning, namely as quality of life, as economic development and as
downtown revitalisation with a cultural district. The smallest cities tend to focus
on tourism and quality of life and culture is almost exclusively volunteer-­based.
Medium small cities aim to be livable small cities, in particular for talented
people. They focus on cultural activities and integrate culture into civic planning. Larger small cities on the path to a postindustrial economy see quality of
life and place as important, but culture is also seen from a development perspective. Municipal support for culture becomes substantial here. Generally two different city roles related to culture emerge from the analysis: to support the
community’s proactive voluntary agents, or more actively to facilitate, strategically position and plan for the development of culture. Nina Gribat (Chapter 12)
reports from her research on the small and shrinking city of Hoyerswerda in East
Germany. Employing a governmentality approach, she directs attention to how
the future of a city is rendered governable and how particular subjectivities are
either part or not part of this future. Although the city is objectively in a bad
state, having lost almost half of its population and the majority of its jobs, one
can identify two contrasting narratives concerning an explanation of this situation and potential solutions for the future development of this city. One position
relates all problems to its Communist past which is seen as involving a culture of
subjection and lack of entrepreneurship and civic initiative. The new part of
town that was built under Communism is seen to exemplify all problems, and
demolition offers itself as the obvious solution. The opposing view finds considerable potential in this same new town. Not only does the new town represent
examples of different socialist architecture, in the face of failing state support
and highly functionalist urban planning, but also the population exhibited civic
initiative, involvement and creativity.
Finally, Jennifer Mapes (Chapter 13) analyses how nostalgia and mythologies
tied to American small towns are made tangible in cultural economy policies and
outcomes. Small towns seem to share the belief that a focus on the creative
industries and creative class are an effective economic development strategy and
that the sense of place of small cities creates unique opportunities. In this context
small towns become idealised and branded for their community cohesion, safety
and serenity. This is illustrated by findings from three cities in the American
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Introduction 11
West. Development actors in these cities seem to share a belief in the role of the
arts and creative sectors as amenities and as job creators and promote smallness
in order to grow. The classical small town, however, has largely disappeared and
must be recreated and restored through the building of new main streets and the
promotion of walking and bicycling in the downtown area. Despite the branding
of a sense of community, this very development in turn is in danger of being
socially biased, with exclusions taking place in particular along the lines of class
and ethnicity. This raises the difficult question to what extent one can promote
smallness in order to grow.
Conclusion: ways forward for (research on) small cities?
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By highlighting changes in the political economy of small cities in relation to the
fields of culture and leisure, this volume aims to move forward the debate on
small cities. Abstracting from the various contributions, we can identify at least
four important points that deserve more attention in future research on the cultural political economy of small cities.
There is, first of all, the need to investigate in more empirical detail the role
of economic imaginaries in informing local narratives and in shaping subsequent
development trajectories. In particular the appropriation of culture and leisure
discourses is subject to substantial local translations, but although this volume
has offered important insights, we still do not know much about the extent to
which debates on culture and leisure are spatially differentiated and the types of
actors involved in defining the terms on which the local debate takes place. The
question needs to be asked if the new debates on culture and leisure challenge in
any substantive sense more established political economic mechanisms at play.
A strategic relational analysis that pays attention not only to strategies but also
to the structural context within which these strategies operate can illuminate
these dimensions. This, in other words, is a call to pay more attention to the
political dimensions of economic development and the ways in which specific
power constellations shape economic imaginaries.
Second, the volume shows that although creative workers can be and often
are based in small cities, these cities suffer from limited agglomeration effects
and among creative workers there is a strong pull away from small cities to large
and more diverse metropolises. Other specificities have also been noted: creative
production in small cities is often spatially distributed (in comparison with the
clusters typical for bigger cities); creative workers move easily between different
locations due to short distances; and the natural environment offers an important
inspiration for creative work. More generally, it seems important to pay more
attention to the particular qualities of place of smaller cities and the attractiveness of these qualities for certain actors: young families, retired people and
somewhat more established artists have been noted in this volume as being
attracted to smaller cities. This raises the question to what extent creative industries debates on small cities are best subsumed under the more general heading
of quality of place and livability. Instead of focusing primarily on attracting
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12 A. Lorentzen and B. van Heur
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highly educated entrepreneurs, this would suggest an urban development strategy around themes such as local identity and leisure opportunities, and would
necessitate a widening of the scope of actors involved in the development and
execution of cultural strategies and programs.
Third, small cities seem to rely on distinct strategies of governance to regulate and support cultural and leisure projects. One factor explaining this difference is city size, since some of the evidence suggests that only the biggest of the
small cities commit substantial financial resources and planning capacities to
culture and leisure. In most other small cities, the governance of culture and
leisure relies on the local community, voluntary contributions and informal networks. The political decision to use culture and leisure in economic development
strategies almost always involves a certain amount of professionalisation and
thus leads to the emergence of policy experts. This in turn creates potential discrepancies and tensions between these experts and the local cultural sector.
Artistic resources clearly also do exist in small cities, but it may be quite difficult
for public authorities to capitalise upon them, because cultural networks are
often very flexible and eclectic. Traditional planning methods have difficulty
dealing with artistic communities of this kind. At the same time, small city governments are increasingly involved in translocal networks themselves and
various types of networks exist in which actors share best practices. This raises
difficult questions concerning the interaction between different types of networks
and the consequences of these interactions for local small city development.
Fourth, research into the dynamics of small cities leads to a questioning of
the status of smallness as such. This volume has emphasised the need to understand smallness in a relational as well as a contextual sense, dependent on the
particular city discussed and the particular argument pursued. Smallness from
an economic geographic perspective can be related to number of firms, size of
the labour market and diversity of supply, but also to the position of a city
within urban hierarchies. Following lessons from the literature on location and
urbanisation economies, small cities are less attractive than big cities and the
way forward seems to be increased agglomeration. This points to the decline
and perhaps even the end of small cities, but is that really what we are seeing?
What this type of literature tends to downplay is the constitutive role played by
economic imaginaries and strategies – and thus of agency – in shaping the very
development dynamics of cities of different sizes and their relation to each
other. What do such small city advantages as, for example, less congestion and
lower prices for housing imply for their prospects for development? In what
ways do current urban imaginaries on future development privilege metropolises and how do small cities try to develop alternative ways of thinking urbanity? How do particular strategies by small city actors renegotiate their position
within urban hierarchies in ways that contribute to the survival of small cities?
Although many of these issues are thematised by the various chapters in this
volume, more work will need to be done before we reach a situation in which
smaller cities are not simply an afterthought but key to the spatial imaginary of
urban studies itself.
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Introduction 13
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