“Culture is foundational.” A call to urban leaders

17 October 2023

At the 11-13 October 2023 Eurocities Culture Forum in Birmingham, culture experts, urban planners and local leaders came together to discuss the ever-growing significance of culture in an urban setting.

The main message emerging from the three-day event is that arts and culture aren’t mere embellishments, but rather, part and parcel of urban life and that should be treated as public goods.

During a crisis, don’t put culture on the backburner

Birmingham’s Councillor, Saima Suleman, Cabinet Member for Digital, Culture, Heritage and Tourism, opened the forum by showcasing the city’s dedication to cultural events. Despite financial constraints, Birmingham continues to be ambitious, advancing its artistic aspirations through partnerships and innovative strategies. For example, Suleman highlighted how the British city successfully integrates arts into sectors like health and social care.

In his eye-opening speech, Tom Fleming, Creative Consultancy Director, stressed that while culture is foundational to the identity and vibrancy of a city, it’s often overlooked or undervalued. Fleming urged cities to recognise the transformative power of culture, not just as an afterthought but as a core part of urban development, even more so in the current challenging times. He introduced the concept of civic creativity, a community-led social, economic and environmental change in local areas harnessing the power of the arts and creativity.

Watch the welcome and keynote speeches here
Councillor, Saima Suleman, Cabinet Member for Digital, Culture, Heritage and Tourism
Tom Fleming
Performance of a capella group 'Black Voices'

How cities do it

Different municipalities are already working on this. For instance, Glasgow will work on a new culture plan starting in 2024. The idea is to improve the city’s cultural reputation, ensuring everyone can participate. In Lyon, the municipality recently updated a cultural cooperation charter that connects cultural organisations and the local community. Stuttgart has a big project in the works, turning 85 hectares near the central station into a dedicated space for arts and culture. The design of this new hub is conducted in cooperation with local artists to ensure that the project meets their needs.

Watch the examples from Glasgow, Lyon and Stuttgart here

More examples were presented during the deep-dive working group sessions. Dr Patrycja Rozbicka from Aston University showcased a project mapping out cities’ music places across Europe. The information will help people in the music industry understand the bigger picture. Other speakers shared how their cities fund arts projects, like in Oulu. In Munich, a project combines good design, a commitment to the environment, with efforts to involve everyone in the community.

Birmingham stood out with its initiatives, particularly in integrating arts into public services and health. The city’s commitment to such programmes is a notable example of how culture isn’t just “nice to have” but essential. The ‘More than a moment pledge’ provided further inspiration, symbolising the arts sector’s commitment to equality and representation.

Through young people’s eyes

Students’ active participation marked one of the forum’s highlights. After participating in visits around Birmingham’s cultural spots, the youths shared their own fresh and insightful perspectives. The students were particularly impressed by institutions like the Steamhouse, which remains dedicated to nurturing young creatives even in challenging times.

Birmingham students participating in the Culture Forum

Sense Touch Base Pears, on the other hand, demonstrated how arts can be a beacon of hope, aiding those with complex disabilities. The students felt that these places made them look at Birmingham under a new light, understanding how past, present and future can be woven together by cultural threads.

If given the chance, culture can drive change

How can different sectors work together? Cities like Dresden, Kortrijk, Florence, and Ljubljana all shared their experiences highlighting how arts, culture and heritage bring people together or even solve problems before they start. For instance, Ljubljana is piloting a project in collaboration with the housing office where artists will create signage for people with dementia.

However, it’s clear that for cities to thrive, culture, heritage, and the arts must be intertwined with every other sector, not as an afterthought but as a driving force. For cities, one of the challenges is finding a common language between sectors and breaking silos. Examples like Birmingham’s use of arts in healthcare attests to the success of this approach. The hope is that it will become more common in cities across Europe.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer