In Irene Tinagli´s recent article, “The Spirit of Urban Renewal,” the author argues that urban renewal can increase a city’s economic and social development, but only if the whole population is included. Cities need to create a mentality on how to see art, not only as objects to sell, but also as discussions and new innovative opportunities for their culture.  Where is the voice of the people? Is urban renewal beneficial for everyone?  Does the process of recreating or restructuring a city (urban renewal) serve only tourists, or does it help the locals to gain knowledge, participation, wisdom, and wealth?

Urban renewal efforts have been drawn towards “creative elements like art, culture, music and design to build up a new urban image, to attract artists, young professionals and innovative entrepreneurs.” This is done so that the city can develop an identity and a form of cultural cohesion. Urban renewal of a city is good, but only if urban renewal only contributes to an increase in tourism. It must  promote the education and cultural creativity of local citizens, instead of benefitting only an elite group.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz demonstrated the value of analyzing cultures, and states that it is our job to think critically when considering the implications of cultural institutions. Geertz argues, “Cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing meaning, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape” (Geertz 20). Geertz´s argument provides one with a road map for analyzing the role of cultural institutions role in improving economics, social development, and understanding of culture.  Geertz also refers to a phenomenon called thick and thin descriptions in order to make cultural evaluations. While using a thick description approach, our focus is more on the nuances and intricacies, and not just the shallow and visible parts of the culture we observe.

The Spirit of Urban Renewal argues that major cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao, Berlin, and Lille share a common feature, according to Tinagli,“ They are all massive formerly industrialized cities caught in a downward spiral of development.” The cities are now dealing with challenges to keep up with the social and economical development in the contemporary society of Europe. In search of changing their slow downward spiral, many of the aforementioned cities use art as a new and innovative tool to spur urban renewal. In order for urban renewal to succeed, everyone needs to be considered, not just the elite of the city. Tinagli believes that cities typically engage in two different forms of strategies: 1) “ education/micro-policies on a social-cultural plane” 2) tourism or infrastructure.

Formerly an industrial city, Lille, has focused on becoming a “vibrant, dynamic cultural center by means of educational programs of schools and universities” (Tinagli). Lille has established several cultural programs that allow a huge amount of different associations, both nonprofit and for-profit companies and shops to flourish. Lille has established a “generous system of grants accorded every year to artistic projects and all sort of activities and events” (Tinagli). Lille gave better opportunities to the people with better taxes and grants. This illustrates a strategy more centered on the local people in the city, and it is essential for the spirit of urban renewal to survive. Lille seeks to incorporate the whole population, allowing everyone to participate in cultural events. Careful consideration and engagement from all is needed in order to incorporate the local inhabitants in the cultural movement, and not exclude the poorer segments of the population.

I have personally witnessed the exact opposite in my own city, Oslo. Oslo recently built a beautiful opera house, with an overall cost of several million Norwegian Kroners. The opera house serves as a tourist attraction; however, if a visitor travels 500 meters across the train station, they will see an area consisting of primarily immigrants, higher crime rates, and less infrastructure. City planners must understand the effects of “urban development” in order to create a cultural understanding and feeling of inclusion. Sociologist Jürgen Habermas even argues that the word “public” requires people have access to everything (Habermas 1). This is not the situation in Oslo right now; lower socioeconomic classes are not included in the cultural picture. Oslo only offers educational programs to those who have the cultural capital to explore artistic institutions, not to the poor citizens that can’t afford it. This trend needs to change, if not, a greater separation between the different regions, classes, and people of the city would appear.

Oslo can learn from Lille, how to involve the poor, and establish a local identity of artistic expression. Without incorporated political beneficial offers, education, and grants, urban renewal will only benefit the city´s elite. If not, “gentrification” is likely to happen if Oslo doesn’t change. Gentrification causes the city´s less wealthy residents to move out to more affordable districts. It forces the locals to move, because the interest and popularity increases, along with prices and occupations. With time, locals can no longer afford their neighborhood. Cities cannot just look at the winners of urban renewal projects, but also must see how it affects the working class and the poor.

Urban renaissance, arts and culture: The Bilbao Region as an Innovative Milieu by Jaime Del Castillo Hermosa depicts a dilemma with urban renewal, and its actual functionality. Official statistics of the progress, display that in reality, urban renewal works for some, but not for everyone; this is traceable to the development in Oslo’s cultural life. There are clearly positives with urban renewal, but the renewal has proven to be more challenging than anticipated.

Urban renewal is not just remodeling a building; it is a profound process demanding everyone’s participation, including people of lower socioeconomic status. This is the only way to create a strong cultural cohesion. Participation and inclusion is not possible without political support, and incentives must be given at an early age. Only then can urban renewal of a building provide a cultural meaning for the majority of the population.  Urban renewal is a wonderful idea with all good intentions, but if the other variables like race, gender, education and class are not accounted for, it will only serve as a public tourist attraction, and not something the private or local population can feel connected to and benefit from. It can increase the overall immigration to the cities, which then again may lead to an increase in the overall economic, social, and educational prosperity, but can also lead to gentrification, which defeats the purpose of urban renewal in its entirety.

– Ole Korshavn Sandnes


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