The Missing Dimension: Why Culture Matters in Local Urban Development

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By Tonderai Chiyindiko & Caryn Green, 4 July 2023

This article is the second in a series of blogs and opinion pieces, providing a context for and presenting research findings from Sibikwa Arts Centre’s Urban Culture, Democracy and Governance Labs. Supported by the Commonwealth Foundation, this Urban Labs initiative is a pilot programme exploring cultural and creative approaches for pragmatic public participation in local policy development and implementation – actioning democracy in local communities across the City of Ekurhuleni.

Culture and Place-Making perspectives

Respected international authority on “the future of cities and the creative use of culture in urban revitalization”, Charles Landry, has authored several acclaimed books, one of the best known being The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators, where heputs forward the idea of culture as a hidden or missing dimension in urban or city planning. In his presentation titled Psychology and the City: The Hidden Dimension, which he shared at the 2022 Shukuma Mzansi! SA-EU Dialogue: Democracy in the Context of Culture organized by Sibikwa Arts Centre, he goes to great lengths to make a case for why culture is and remains the hidden and elusive dimension in the making of places and cities.

Local Government perspectives

Whereas in cities in the “global north” such debates actively happen, it is not the same for those in the “global south”. In South Africa, local government and city authorities seemingly have a generallaissez-faire attitude towards culture and creativity, and there appears to be little to no understanding of the importance of these practices in the development of people and places, with culture seen as an unfunded mandate of local government and reference to arts and culture limited to issues of infrastructure. This general lack of political will to bring it onto the agenda, may be a result of prioritizing the “real and tangible” issues of housing, energy, education, etc. over the hidden and intangible nature culture and creativity. This view minimises the potential role of culture and the responsibilities of the custodians of culture to promote the meaningful integration of culture in local development plans, for the benefit of cultural practitioners, the sector and our diverse society.

Cultural Policy perspectives

That cultural policy is described in Dr. Christa Roodt’s journal article Cultural policy and the landscape of the law in South Africa, as “authoritative documents formulated by state departments of arts and culture, local authorities or any other public institution that works in the cultural sector… poses problems for cultural communities [around] the relevance, effectiveness and efficiency of the current legislative framework on arts, culture and heritage”. However, recognising that cultural diversity is linked to broader behaviours and practices in society, prioritises culture-led inclusive and integrated development accompanied by a search for more effective mechanisms of protection for linguistic, cultural and religious communities, and a dependence on “cultural planning, cultural policy formulation and the adequacy of laws (in many areas other than arts and culture)”, as mentioned by Roodt. Researcher and academic, Mzo Sirayi who is a Professor of Drama, Cultural Policy and Cultural Planning clarifies this further in stating that “cultural planning would outline how the problems plaguing [South African cities] – traffic congestion, the absence of evening and late-night public transport, poor street lighting, and poverty – could be integrated with other urban policies”.

City perspectives

Landry, posits that “the city is a communications device and communicates through every fibre of its being” and this is true even for South African cities, of which you will hear different and varied accounts of how different people of various racial groups, economic status and other socio-economic “markers” experience the city. Cities are not only experienced in terms of the amenities they provide or how for example one rides the sleek Gautrain from the airport to Sandton in Johannesburg – but it goes beyond such niceties in that it is “the emotional and the psychological that creates the look, feel and atmosphere of a place” and city, as Landry further argues. 

Perspectives on practice

Cities are living entities, with unique traits, personalities, and idiosyncrasies and therefore it is key that the inhabitants see themselves in how the city physically manifests itself in terms of buildings and infrastructure. An example of this would be a visit to the famous KwaMai Mai Market in Johannesburg, which is a space that has existed for a long time, but which has seen a revival of late, mostly owing to the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. It is a place often misunderstood but it no doubt has its own personality as a space for black expression in various ways mostly linked to culture and heritage. In doing this, it brings us back to what most African cities from Lagos to Lubumbashi, Nairobi to Johannesburg and many others grapple with, which is “rural-urban migration”, otherwise called “urbanization” where much of the population moves from “rural” to “urban” settings.

Afro-Centric perspectives

The clarion call then is that African cities must emulate their global north counterparts (but in a way peculiar to their own realities and needs) and utilize culture to develop the kind of “new” cities they need to be, which means going beyond colonial and inherited meanings of what these cities are and should be. Sirayi makes a point that as “individuals respond to changing economic conditions with migration, which, in the case of South Africa, caused declining employment opportunities in its cities”, cities will need to be imaginative in how they tackle these solutions as traditional solutions have not worked. What this means is that nice-sounding taglines like Johannesburg’s “a world class African city” will need to be unpacked in detail by those who call the city home – and those who visit. One proven way to do this is to ensure that culture and creativity are no longer hidden or missing components, but become central to all that the city is and wishes to be.