Creativity and heritage: the great urban partnership

Heritage is where we come from. Creativity is the energy that shapes what we can become. The question is how to combine the two. Português  

Lisbon Seminar
4 April 2017

Monument to the Discoveries. Lisbon, Portugal. Public Domain.

Safeguarding heritage is considered by some to be a cost, even though a vast array of evidence suggests the opposite. It is generally accepted that, in the long term, it tends to provide significant benefits in economic and social terms, and also in psychological terms too, insofar as it enriches a sense of belonging and identity. Erasing the past, by destabilizing memory, fractures communities.

Creativity can help people, organizations and cities to unlock talent and develop their potentialities. It can unearth hidden resources and drive innovation.

Getting heritage and creativity to work together involves developing a common language and a mutual understanding of what each has to offer. We know, for instance, that refurbished and reused old buildings, industrial or otherwise, often become innovative urban start-up hubs - and that these can become social nerve centers, expressing a city’s vibrancy. 


When it comes to linking Heritage, Creativity and the city, a number of dilemmas arise:

   1.       What would be the right balance between heritage protection and urban development?

After a long period when the dominant tendency has been to expand their limits, over the last five years most capital cities in the West have switched to rehabilitation. Today, in almost every corner of a city like Lisbon, for example, you see it reinventing itself, with restoration works under way and interesting coexistence initiatives being carried out between old and new buildings. It is a paradigm shift.

The Lisbon municipality has recently approved a series of brand new regulations, and they seem to be working. However, given the scale of the ongoing urban transformation, there are people who disagree with many interventions, who do not understand their logic or feel that these interventions fail to respect the socio-historical context of their surroundings. How should we deal with disruptive architecture?

   2.       How are we to attune archaeological concerns with the needs of promoters?

Concern for heritage is running high, authorities are alert, and many interventions face archaeological constraints – we are dealing here with an old city, full of history: you can dig up a hole in the city centre or by the river and find plenty of Roman artefacts – and this might create some tension with heritage protection authorities. How can we avoid it?

   3.       How are we to think about urban mobility in the city, offering alternatives to cars that are practical and efficient?

The public space has been subjected to an intense intervention, squares have been renewed, trees planted in old axes, bike paths and more extensive pedestrian walks. On the other hand, cars have been discouraged and conditioned in certain central parts of the city and in old quarters. People feel strongly about being heard - and about prioritizing what has to be done in their city. Should we not invest first in the expansion of the public transportation network before narrowing down lanes in the old boulevards? Are there any viable alternatives to cars?

   4.       How to ensure economic diversity in the heart of the city? What good examples come to mind?

As a consequence of the very tough economic crisis we have gone through in the last ten years, plenty of traditional businesses have disappeared and haven been replaced by tourist oriented businesses. Despite the unprecedented emigration of our youngsters (our most qualified generation ever), those who remain have much to offer the neighbourhoods where they are establishing their businesses and develop their ideas. Many traditional neighbourhoods are feeling the vibrancy of the new entrepreneurs, and the large number of tourists arriving daily by plane or boat. Where is the limit? Which laws should be enacted to ensure economic diversity and to protect traditional businesses?

   5.      How to think about social sustainability when real estate prices keep on increasing?

We often neglect the social dimension of tourism and its effects on city dwellers. More and more citizens are unable to afford buying or renting a home in Lisbon´s centre. Are we failing to attract the younger generations to the city? And what are we doing about the elders? Should we not invest more in inclusive cities so as to make sure that cities respond to everyone´s needs, not only those of the tourists and the wealthy?


Lisbon, Portugal. Public Domain.

The future of the city

As Charles Landry writes in The origins and futures of the Creative City, cities face an escalating crisis that cannot be solved by a “business as usual” approach.

Cities need to rethink themselves, and this means all of the city actors: urban planners, the developers, the business sector, and cultural institutions and activists. Simplistic profit maximizing short term views miss many possibilities; rigid planning guidelines can reduce effectiveness; traditional approaches to the way in which cultural institutions should be run can have debilitating effects for the creative community.

Cities face an escalating crisis that cannot be solved by a “business as usual” approach.

Great cities possess five outstanding qualities. They are places of anchorage and distinctiveness;  of connection and reconnection; of possibilities and potentialities; places which favour personal growth and learning; and places of inspiration. It is by linking heritage to creativity that we can make this happen.

A high-profile seminar to be held in Lisbon in June will discuss how to combine the two. Hopefully, it will offer new ideas on how we can successfully combine them, and highlight why we should never neglect one of the most crucial resources cities have: the people who live in them. 

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