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Creative cities

/ 04:25 AM November 08, 2019

We associate cities with traffic, pollution, high living costs, crime. Yet the exodus from the countryside to the cities continues, and the consensus now among development planners is we have to live with urbanization, because cities have always been drivers for growth, economically and socially.

The challenge today is to find ways to make that growth more equitable, sustainable … and human.

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This is where Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) comes in with its Creative Cities Program and Network. Established in 2004, the program gives the “Unesco Creative City” title when a city is found to have pushed creativity and innovation as a major part of its development. And the title is given in relation to one of seven Unesco categories: craft and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts and music.

There are only two Philippine cities in the Unesco list. Baguio was given the title of Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art in 2017, and just last week, Cebu City was declared a Creative City of Design. There are now a total of 246 Creative Cities distributed across 72 countries.

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Let’s start with a striking description of Creative Cities from Unesco director general Audrey Azoulay: “All over the world, these cities, each in its way, make culture the pillar, not an accessory, of their strategy”—strategy presumably of urbanization.

Curious about the cities that made it into the Unesco list, I downloaded a booklet from the Creative Cities site describing the network. Cebu City wasn’t a member yet when the booklet was published, but Baguio was in there, the writeup mentioning various crafts, the Panagbenga Flower Festival, “villages and center spaces for creation, production and training, especially for young people.” The booklet also referred to a Baguio City Creative Circuit that links existing buildings and venues involved in culture.

The writeups on the Creative Cities of Crafts and Folk Art always referred to some key artisanal products, all kinds of ceramics and pottery, weaving, metal work, even footwear and papier-mâché.

But more than having specialty crafts, what’s important is support from government, and from citizens for community projects. That starts with spaces for creativity, and that’s where we do poorly: I despair going to towns that have a large cockfighting arena but nothing for cultural activities. Well, sometimes the barangay basketball court is lent out for “culture,” like beauty pageants (sorry, but they don’t count).

We love fiestas, and the Unesco Creative Cities boast of all kinds of such activities. Call them festivals, fiestas, biennales, but what you see in such festivals are products of year-round educational activities that pass on skills to the young. I’ve written about our Schools for Living Traditions (SLTs), still associated with indigenous people’s communities and small towns. We could do well to have SLTs in cities.

I’m thrilled that Cebu is recognized as a Creative City of Design. This is where we see “culture” as more than traditions. There were several Chinese cities that fell under this category, and we can learn from them.

Beijing is in the list, and not because of the Forbidden Palace and the Great Wall. I was surprised to learn that the creative industries (another key word) account for $31.5 billion, or 12 percent of the city’s gross domestic product.

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I was surprised as well to see Shenzhen as a Creative City of Design. I thought that city consisted mainly of manufacturing plants, but it turns out it has 6,000 design companies, with some 100,000 employees; I realized I had overlooked the fact that Chinese technologies, for example cell phones like Huawei and Xiaomi, have come a long way not just in terms of technology but also in design, not just in terms of aesthetics but also ergonomics and durability.

In so many words, these are cities where culture spins off creative industries that then become important engines for the cities’ growth, generating jobs, income and, for the future, protection for people from joblessness, because so much of creative work cannot be replaced by machines.

Most importantly, these creative industries will save cities from becoming bleak and soulless.

I was silly enough to think I could write about all the Unesco Creative Cities and the lessons they offer us. There was just so much. I’ll return to those cities’ best examples and lessons for us, about what we can do toward sustainable urbanization through a fusion of science and technology with arts and the humanities.

A bit of boasting here: I know two of our University of the Philippines constituent universities—in Baguio and Cebu—have been active in working toward Creative Cities. The other chancellors, myself included, are challenged now to convince our own cities to strive for that Unesco designation.

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