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Downtown Resilience: Cultural Districts vs. Urban Workshops

Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, PA

Different but equally important

Cities and their broader economic regions are beginning to recognize once again the importance of creating neighborhoods that can readily attract, develop, and export robust economic activity and offer a high quality of life. These types of considerations are particularly important to regions that historically have been tied to large single industries, whether it is cars (Detroit), steel (Pittsburgh), government (Washington, DC), or military (Hampton Roads). Creative cities that foster a wide variety of industries provide the sort of robustness to changes in the market that regions require. Building creative places, therefore, is of citywide and regional significance to ensure continued economic competitiveness and resilience. 

But some confuse building creative places with building cultural, arts-focused districts. While both are equally important, they represent two distinct paths should a creatives-driven urban regeneration strategy be pursued: The Cultural District or the Urban "Workshop."

A City's Cultural District
Cultural districts are defined by the institutions that anchor them. Museums, large galleries, performance halls, and other civic-minded institutions provide the cornerstones of a vibrant cultural destination with a regional draw. Other uses, such as food/beverage, fine dining, educational facilities, performance studios, and artists-in-residence generally co-locate in this type of environment. The most successful of these are centrally branded, managed, and programmed and usually carry a higher fit and finish of the public realm than other parts of the city. Cultural districts typically lean heavily on philanthropic, public, and institutional investment and programming. This is art in its most formal sense.

Pittsburgh's Cultural District provides immense value to the city and region.

The City as an Urban "Workshop"
As residents, businesses, startups, and light manufacturing re-enter urban neighborhoods, a thriving and creative economy is returning to cities that contain essential traits. Where this transformation is taking place, a dynamic environment emerges with a rich combination of residents, studio arts, food, technology, craftsmanship, light manufacturing, and performance spaces. These types of districts are typically associated more with deregulation than regulation, mixing rather than separation of uses, and bottom-up development within a culture of constant tinkering. These types of districts require a sufficient supply of "old" (a term that refers less to age and more to adaptability and durability), cheap buildings that can affordably be repurposed. When assembled, they are often one of the hottest draws to a region. They have become critical to attracting and retaining talent in cities as they compete with one another for the best and most productive employees. This type of neighborhood speaks to our more vernacular creativity. 

Pittsburgh's Garfield has developed an arts scene very different, but complementary, to the Cultural District down the street.Creative places develop better ways to deliver traditional goods while capturing the value of more disruptive innovations. (Graphic Credit: New York Times and John Hendrix)

Side-to-side, the two are quite different. Cultural districts have the potential to develop relatively fast, creative urban "workshops" are incremental and a bit slower. Cultural Districts are typically financed, managed, and programmed by philanthropies, government, or another centralized institutions while creative places have more diverse, crowd-sourced funding streams and rely more on organic groupthink to manage programming. Cultural districts are top-down, their counterpart bottom up. Cultural districts are orderly and usually quite pretty. Creative places are, at times, chaotic and messy. The first is civic, the second is everyday.

In reality, cities need both types of development. Cultural districts celebrate community values while creative places are the economic engine. The two are not mutually exclusive and most often support one another. However, they are almost never the same place as the two rely on different types of innovations, leadership, and capital. To the extent that a neighborhood or district is going to experience a creatives-driven regeneration, it has the potential to be one or the other. It likely will not be both.

Occasionally, centrally managed Cultural Districts sponsor events that invoke the spirit of Urban "Workshops."

A Robot Repair Shop in the Cultural District's Project PopUp.