The Rise and Rise of Culture-Led Urban Development

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By Tonderai Chiyindiko & Caryn Green.

This article is the first 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 the City

In 2005, Steven Miles and Ronan Paddison wrote of the “rise and rise of culture-led urban regeneration” and in so doing brought to attention the role that culture could play to address some of the challenges cities experience such as governance and inequality.

In the same vein this brought upon the idea that culture could be utilized for cities to attract investment and promote economic growth, something which until that time had not been considered in urban planning and development circles.


Over the last several years, the buzzword has been “culture-led development”, and several cities across Europe have defined and put into practice this strategy in various ways. The title of “European Capital of Culture”, awarded (from 1985) to winning cities annually, has come to be one of the most sought after as cities scramble to ensure they cash in on the multiplied effects of the benefits such an accolade brings. To date more than 50 cities have received the honour.


In Africa, the placing of culture at the centre of city planning and development strategies has steadily gained prominence and a direct development of this was the awarding by the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa), of Rabat (Morocco) as the first ever “Capital of African Culture”. The initiative which is celebrated every 3 years aims to ensure that different African capitals benefit from the attention brought on to them by this award.

South Africa

In South Africa, there has been much more development given its status as the most developed on the continent.  Sometimes referred to as “culture-led placemaking”, it has seen major cities namely Cape Town and Johannesburg develop policy frameworks which embrace culture as a key driver for their economic development programmes and city growth strategies. Strategies and policies, however, are only as good as their implementation.

Cape Town, one of the first to develop what it called Arts, Culture and Creative Industries Policy (ACCIP) and whose Integrated Development Plan’s (IDP) overarching aim was to have the city be “…(a) prosperous city that creates an enabling and inclusive environment for shared economic growth and development” for its citizens. It remains as one of the better cases though criticism has been levelled due to how these strategies and policies have not benefited marginalized and underprivileged communities in the city.

In Johannesburg, the establishment of the Newtown Cultural District whose ambitious goal was to be “the creative capital of Johannesburg and South Africa: dynamic, vibrant, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan, boasting the best cultural offering in Africa” is a case in point. As a thriving ‘cultural district’ which at its peak had among other things dance studios, a school of photography, exhibition spaces, theatres, restaurants, a bookstore, an open public space for concerts and other events (which used to host one of the biggest jazz festivals in the country) and even a prominent national radio station as part of the development. Its demise has also been well documented and today exists as an example of how “not-to” do culture led urban regeneration. Only a few of the original tenants remain.

A more recent development has been the Maboneng Precinct, which describes itself on its website as a “centre of creative energy for Johannesburg’s urban artists…”. It has had its successes but also some major problems and today exists just like the Newtown Cultural District, as a shadow of its former self.

The case of local municipalities and small towns is even more dire, with almost 85% failing on almost every major metric of performance, good governance and integrity in 2022, without capable, accountable and citizen-centric municipal leadership delivering on their mandates to improve the lives of ordinary South Africans, much less considering cultural planning or culture-led development.

The Future for Culture and Cities in South Africa

While the concept of integrating culture for broad local development is not new, and we are seeing elements of cultural policy and planning guiding current strategies and frameworks for urban development, from District Development Models, Small Town Regeneration Strategies and Cultural Precinct Plans; translating these laudable policies and strategies into actionable implementation plans is challenged by the complexity, diversity and plurality of culture in South Africa. 

The South African Constitution guarantees and protects the rights of individuals and groups to enjoy their culture, more needs to be done by city authorities to ensure that they invest not only in infrastructure but also create an enabling environment for the full expression and enjoyment of that culture and heritage. The placement of culture at the centre of cities’ IDPs will ensure that Article 30 of the Bill of Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice”, becomes a lived reality for all.

A multi-cultured state, with a consistently increasing urban population, statistically depicted as over 67% in 2022 – where cultural diversity underlies the many policies and legislations developed over the past 30 years of democracy in South Africa, positioning culture as a human right, a central tenet of human, intellectual and social development, and a driver of urban development, the importance of culture-led urban development cannot be overstated as a key component of IDPs in their quest to regenerate spaces and at the same time develop sustainable, more livable, and safe cities.

Tonderai Chiyindiko is a creative industries researcher and consultant. He runs Artiate Africa, a creative industries research and consultancy company. 

Caryn Green is the CEO of Sibikwa Arts Centre and a PhD candidate with the Cultural Policy and Management Department at the University of the Witwatersrand.