Workshop: ‘Urban Development’

online, 24-26/11/2021

An online workshop was organized on 24–26 November 2021, in the framework of the European Jean Monnet CECCUT network (, which analyses the European Capitals of Culture (ECoC) initiative as a tool for urban cohesion in cross-border areas,. The event brought together academics and stakeholders in charge of cultural and cross-border projects. The aim of the sessions was to discuss the topics of urban development and culture in a (cross-)border context.

The ECoC initiative can play a major role in transforming the image of cities, and in particular of certain areas that appear to be unattractive. This is particularly the case for cities perceived as being in economic decline. This image transformation is based first of all on the development of cultural events capable of attracting attention on a national and international scale. In addition, this change is based on three types of spatial policies:

  1. The reorganization of particular places in the city. These can be historical centres, such as the troglodyte heart of Matera in Italy, which was represented as a national disgrace before becoming a UNESCO site highlighted during the 2019 cultural year. Such places may also be more peripheral sites, for example working-class neighbourhoods, such as Wazemmes in Lille in 2004, or former industrial wastelands, such as those mobilized for Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg) in 2022.
  2. Cultural representation in the sites. A trend is emerging within these redeveloped sites, and even beyond, in the cities. This refers to the visibility of culture in everyday spaces, with the development of street art and urban art, and the installation of murals, for example in Charleroi in Belgium, in Esch-sur-Alzette or even on the Romanian-Serbian border with the ‘Whispering Wall’ project in Teremia Mare. These projects change the relationship with culture in a city, and initiate a process of communication between the artists and the local population in the districts where the murals are installed.
  3. Work on the connections between these places. The aim of the network developments is to reconnect a city through cultural development and thus break down the boundaries in that city. In Esch-sur-Alzette, for example, a footbridge will link the city centre and the former industrial wasteland of Belval, which is spatially isolated from the rest of the city. Accordingly, works of art should structure this pedestrian and cycle route. Pathways have similarly been set up in Marseille, ECoC in 2013, to link different districts. Such facilities are also planned in the cross-border ECoC of Nova Gorica/Gorizia between Slovenia and Italy; facilities studied in the framework of the Horizon 2020 European research project ‘Urbinat’.

These different transformations of the city, with the aim of strengthening the place of the arts and artists in a space for the purposes of urban development, are not without any risk of creating tension. They can give rise to two main types of issues related to the appropriation of the city:

  1. The challenge of gentrification. A confrontation may arise between the public authorities in charge of development and the representatives of civil society from working-class neighbourhoods, with the risk of the gentrification of these neighbourhoods in the background. The transformation of the city through culture and the focus on working-class neighbourhoods by developers can be perceived as a public policy that can ultimately lead to the increased marginalization of the less-privileged classes. The less privileged may then be forced to leave the area, because their income is not high enough to access a property market that has become more expensive through the urban renewal programmes and the arrival of a new population with greater economic capital. This sort of tension existed, for example, in Matera.
  2. The challenge of the encounter. The second confrontation is linked to the bringing together of different communities. This can result from the setting up of pathways, leading to the meeting of tourists and vernacular populations located in troubled neighbourhoods, as was the case in Marseille. Moreover, tensions can also arise between artists and local populations.

It is not always easy to overcome these tensions and misunderstandings. Artists, and places dedicated to artistic practices that are open to their urban environment (such as cultural ‘third places’), can create links in a city. In the context of Esch-sur-Alzette, ECoC in 2022, several cultural third places have been or will be created to overcome socio-spatial borders in the city. In Matera, the Open Design School, which initially caused tensions with the local working class, was eventually accepted thanks to its openness to the immediate environment. It should also be noted that the artistic field can be broken down into several segments, including artists with a national/international reputation and those whose recognition is more firmly rooted in the local territories. This mobilization of the local artistic sphere can be privileged in certain cases, for example in the creation of the Faber cultural centre installed in a former soap factory of Timisoara, in the mobilization of the ‘Us in Traian’ association in a troubled district of the same Romanian city, or in the development of the ‘Fairy Tale Bridge’ project, also in Timisoara. The stated aim of these initiatives is to engage the participation of inhabitants from disadvantaged neighbourhoods in projects to redevelop places, such as squares or bridges, through culture. In addition, major events linked to the development of urban space are designed with a view to bringing planners and residents closer together (for example, the Timisoara Architecture Biennial). The economy of culture supported by the European Capitals of Culture initiative in these reallocated places should overcome existing boundaries, not create new ones. In this respect, in the field of the creative and cultural economy, the European networks of ECoC can be central to thinking about the economy of culture outside the boundaries of the city. This is particularly the case for the network ‘ECoC-SME: Actions for inducing SME growth and innovation via the ECoC event and legacy’ (2019-2022) funded by the European Interreg programme.

The evaluation of urban development through culture must be based on both quantitative and qualitative indicators. Nevertheless, it appears that funders mainly look for quantitative indicators. This evaluation requires relatively precise upstream work based on the context of each European Capital of Culture, the size and history of which are always particular. The evaluation is perceived as a political tool that serves to highlight each ECoC, while at the same time being an instrument that triggers reflection to prepare the actions to be implemented and the means to achieve them upstream. There is an attraction for quantitative indicators, such as the number of people attending shows, but these indicators are not always relevant for measuring the impact of cultural projects on the daily life of urban populations and their relationship with Europe. It is difficult to make some political and economic actors understand this, but the real value of culture, in terms of the experience and the feeling, cannot be quantified. We are dealing with an individual and complex relationship with cultural works and the places that host them. Semi-structured interviews can be one way of overcoming the difficulty of quantifying the benefit of culture in urban development. It should also be noted that in the framework of the evaluation, negative opinions from the territory are not brought up, even though they are important for the development of cultural policy. Furthermore, it is necessary to carry out long-term analyses to measure the impact of the ECoC initiative and in particular, studies before, during and after the cultural year to identify the changes that have occurred. We need 10 to 15 years to appreciate the changes related to cultural policies in a city.

There is a lack of a European qualitative audit tool for monitoring ECoC. This would be very useful, particularly for cross-border initiatives, as the presence of a border adds a further dimension to the complexity of the audit (different ways of conceiving the evaluation on either side of the border, different authorities coordinating the monitoring, etc.). Projects with European funding, such as Interreg and Horizon 2020, have indicators that can be used to assess the impact of measures taken by all the actors involved. There are also evaluations carried out by individual cultural centres involved in a multitude of partnerships. In addition, each project relies on an evaluation based on its specific content. There is therefore no lack of evaluation procedures, but ultimately, the positive (or negative) experience of the cultural events associated with initiatives such as the European Capitals of Culture requires a transversal reflection on the observation of cultural practices.