Unlocking Urban Potential: Culture’s Transformative Power

21 September 2023

Cities worldwide increasingly recognise culture’s transformative power in driving sustainable and inclusive urban development. However, despite growing awareness of its strategic value, significant challenges remain in leveraging its potential effectively. Tom Fleming, Director at Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy and expert in cultural policy and the creative industries, sheds light on key takeaways and common challenges cities face in harnessing the power of culture to create more vibrant, cohesive, and inclusive urban environments.

The Untapped Potential of Culture

Fleming emphasises that culture can be a foundational force for city-making globally. It can contribute to creating safer and more dynamic cities. However, culture often finds itself on the periphery of policy investment and partnership, even in cities considered cultural leaders. This disconnect between opportunity and delivery is a growing concern.

“The pandemic exposed the structural fragility across the cultural sector, and when we need culture even more, the sector’s capacity to deliver is diminished,” says Fleming. Every city possesses a unique cultural heritage and a set of conditions that define its identity. These cities also have a sustainable resource in the form of talent. Yet, they often struggle to create the conditions necessary for talent to thrive, renew heritage imaginatively and sustainably, and strategically impact a green, inclusive, equitable economy. “Every city serious about the role of culture seeks to develop tools to unlock its value with differing degrees of success,” adds Fleming.

In addition, the cultural sector is often responsible for delivering value and outcomes for civic partnerships, city-making, talent development, and innovation. However, the industry faces significant gaps in investment and skills, digital transformation, and infrastructure fit for purpose. “If we’re going to exact or maximise the value that culture brings, we need to support the cultural sector to reach out and fulfil its potential,” summarises Fleming.

Addressing the Structural Issue

Cities can play a crucial role in addressing these structural challenges by centring leadership, strategy and partnerships in culture. Fleming suggests cities must champion culture’s broader role by building inclusive partnerships with the cultural sector. Culture should be at the forefront of macro strategies influencing urban planning, economic development, social cohesion, environmental sustainability, and more.

If we’re going to exact or maximise the value that culture brings, we need to support the cultural sector to reach out and fulfil its potential
— Tom Fleming

An interdisciplinary approach recognising cultural significance in different strategic agendas is vital. Engaging with communities and involving younger generations in cultural policy development can foster trust and bridge cultural and generational gaps.

Investment is also crucial, and cities should seek to attract co-investment from various sources, including government, private sector, and other public streams. “Culture is not trying to attract funding from a position of strength because the capacity of the cultural sector too often falls short of its potential to deliver impact. We need to support stronger, more inclusive and innovative cultural ecosystems, which in turn will generate multiple types of return on investment. We can’t just provide minimal public funding and expect culture to be a panacea,” explains Fleming. “We think culture can also sit in the foreground concerning the environmental agenda, for example, and be given the tools to deliver impact. It should have a stronger voice and be more confident in its investment request.”

Cities are also finding other ways to fund their cultural policies and activities. For instance, civil society organisations partner with municipalities in Portugal to apply for a national social innovation programme, fostering activities related to culture, social innovation, and civic engagement. This programme encourages co-investment through public-private partnerships at the local level.

In the UK, the “cultural compacts” initiative brings together the cultural sector, education, health, and commercial development sectors to prioritise culture in attracting inward investment and talent.

Other examples include Dusseldorf’s collaboration with a big company from the energy sector in cultural infrastructure and growing cultural patronage models that attract funding from high-net-worth individuals, local enterprises, and residents.

We can’t just provide minimal public funding and expect culture to be a panacea
— Tom Fleming

Civic Creativity and Growing Trends

The concept of civic creativity, first developed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in the UK, can redefine the relationship between cultural organisations and their local communities. “Cultural institutions don’t necessarily have as a central strategic goal to impact their context, though they are usually rooted in their community.” However, these organisations often find themselves compelled to adjust their strategic goals based on national funding criteria, prioritising contextual impact. Through civic creativity, cultural organisations are invited to focus on their local context, fostering their strategic capacity to drive sustainable and inclusive development within a specific place.

Fleming emphasises the importance of building professional skills and enhancing leadership literacy to meet the evolving demands of the cultural sector. He also points out that with upcoming challenges like hyper-urbanisation, the global South sees grassroots movements led by younger generations reimagining cultural spaces outside the traditional infrastructures. These movements offer inspiration for their European counterparts and raise questions about the relevance of the cultural sector in an era of shifting cultural production and consumption, where digital technologies are pervasive.

Cities are also where growing synergies between culture and other urban policies are taking shape. As Fleming noted, the culture sector can deliver different strategic outcomes beyond the intrinsic value of culture, for example, social inclusion, job creation and city attractiveness. However, the demand to contribute to these must be backed by financial, training and political support.

Tom Fleming will be a keynote speaker at the next Eurocities Culture forum on 11-13 October 2023.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer