The Creative Shift - Considerations on the 21st Century Approach to Cultural Urban Planning: the Case of Berlin | CLAUDIA SELDIN

20th Century Cultural Cities

The relationship between city and culture has received great attention in the fields of Urban and Cultural Studies in the last decades. In the past thirty years, numerous debates focused on the urban renewal of strategic areas of the cities, which had as a primary goal the creation of cultural images able to compete on an international level for investments and tourists. Although this global trend of creating attractive urban images is nothing new in terms of city promotion practices, it has been visibly reinforced after the deindustrialization processes that grew stronger in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s, later spreading throughout western Europe and, eventually, to other parts of the world. While technological developments allowed for the relocation of sections of the production lines to newly industrialized countries, cities that had relied intensely on the manufacture of consumer goods suddenly faced several economic setbacks: a decline in job offers, an increase in urban polarization and segregation and the degradation of the urban landscape, now marked by abandoned industrial buildings.

This picture of decline led policy makers to desperately attempt to revive the local economies (and the bankrupted real estate markets) by investing in new images of their cities as prominent cultural districts. In the early 1980s, US sociologist Sharon Zukin already highlighted a tendency of revitalizing former urban fabric through the creation of trendy lofts, art galleries, restaurants and boutiques in places such as the neighborhood of SoHo, in New York. The transformation of degraded industrial areas into new territories of culture and leisure evolved in the following twenty years. The idea of "loft living" (Zukin 1982) paved the way to the construction of full-on entertainment complexes in newly revitalized port and waterfront areas, with north-American cities once again leading by the examples of New York, Baltimore, Boston and San Francisco, among others.

In Europe, the renewal of urban space through culture has been largely associated with the implement of flagship projects in the shape of big arts and sports facilities, often designed by renowned (and highly paid) architects, in hopes of renovating punctual and strategic regions of cities in decline. This strand of urban renewal has contributed to the emergence of emblematic examples, such as Bilbao and Barcelona, in Spain b cities that eventually turned into models of "cultural planning" (Evans 2001) to be followed. While in Barcelona, the spread of cultural facilities happened in the larger context of the 1992 Olympic Games, in Bilbao, this strategy was based upon the construction of a branch of the Guggenheim museum designed by architect Frank Gehry. Though a few urban planners and city administrators have regarded both cases as successful due to an increase in touristic activities, the majority of the local populations have not shared this opinion. In Barcelona, even though the sports mega event led to a high-quality regeneration of much of the local public spaces, it also transformed the popular district where the Olympic Village was located into a middle class neighborhood, decreasing the options of affordable and social housing. Meanwhile, in Bilbao, artists, journalists and local political leaders denounced the creation of "islands" of culture and the consolidation of cultural ghettos (Evans 2001). Moreover, in both cases, the promise of increasing job offers and broader economic growth proved illusory because the type of employment generated in these cases frequently refers to temporary and poorly remunerated work in the hotel, food and sales sectors. Still, both examples became posters for the cultural cities and strategic planning of the 1990s, leading to a worldwide and still on-going pursuit of the so-called "Barcelona model" and "Bilbao-effect".

Part of Barcelona's waterfront urban renewal

The negative consequences of this type of "cultural planning" were not exclusive to the two Spanish cities. All over the world, the strategies connected with urban renewal have faced harsh criticism from scholars and social movements. Firstly, we highlight the instrumentalization of culture, as artistic activities and cultural facilities have become tools, used in the process of urbanization as facilitators for the economic development of a privileged few. Secondly, we emphasize the exaggerated preservation of certain cultural and historical sites, which have led to a freezing of the urban space, paired with a tendency towards homogenization of cities with very different characteristics. Lastly, we point out the disregard of local singularities and the adoption of generic urban projects, which have led to the production of simulated spaces, or as Michael Sorkin (1992) puts it, to the construction of cities as "theme-parks", where the creation of urban disguises is favored over that of contextualized spaces, filled with meaning. In the case of urban and architectural projects for major cultural facilities in empty, degraded or growing areas, the critics also point towards the spread of international formulas with a primary concern for the growth of the "spectacle" of the city b a concept already approached by French situacionist Guy Débord in the 1960s[1].

However, the most talked about consequence of cultural planning has been undoubtedly the phenomenon of gentrification. In other words, the renewed area, made hip by the presence of cultural amenities and of artists and trendsetters, goes through such a profound process of overvaluation that the people who used to dwell there can no longer afford the costs of housing and living, due, mainly, to real estate speculation. They are thus obliged to leave the region, now inhabited by middle and upper classes, in the search for cheaper areas. Ironically, this "abandonment" means that they take away with them the values "band traditions that originally characterized the region as a place of interest for the city's image and as a strategic area for real estate development in the first place" (Lees, Slater & Wyly 2008).

Up until the early 2000s, as the city became a showcase for culture and high-priced architecture, we watched the transition of importance from financial capital to cultural capital b then viewed as the new driving force of a city's economy. The emergence of cultural capital has been associated with a broader political and economic context of neoliberalism, in which the state's role is typically limited and, as public-private partnerships grow, the government loses control over public space. Within neoliberal administrations, the state goes from planner and regulator to speculator, allowing the urban space to be determined in the name of profit (Harvey 2012).

What we can observe since the mid-2000s, however, is that, even though we are still experiencing the strengthening of a symbolic economy within a neoliberal context, there has been a slight "shift" in the discourses that guide the cultural approach to city planning, which now emphasizes the concept of creativity. We are speaking, more specifically, of the strengthening and popularization of the notion of the creative city as a replacement for the now increasingly outdated notion of the mere cultural city directed mainly at tourists.

From the Cultural City to the Creative City

Although Landry & Bianchini (1995) had already mentioned the notion of the creative city in the mid-1990s, it was only after the consolidation of US economist Richard Florida's theory of the "creative class" (2002, 2005) that the concept of creativity took flight, becoming a new paradigm for the creation of urban and cultural policies. Florida's extremely controversial and highly criticized research proposed the rise of a new leading social class, essential for the economic growth of the contemporary knowledge-based cities. Characterized by being young, bohemian, "cool", diverse and tolerant, this class combines very different professionals - from artists to scientists, entrepreneurs and IT workers - all gathered in the same group of producers of cognitive capital. This because in the wake of the 21st Century, cultural capital is no longer the motor of global economy as preached by the aforementioned cultural planning policies. The present economy is largely based on high technology, research and the spread of information and communication (KrC$tke 2011). Thus, the creative class represents a consolidation of the transition from a society based on the production of consumer goods to the production of specialized services and knowledge.

Still according to Florida (2002, 2005), because the creative class is mobile and cosmopolitan, it possesses the choice of where to live in the world - a fact that leads to the constant search for the "best city" within the global context. This choice is based on the availability of a high quality of life and a very specific set of amenities. His research highlights that the presence of large and spectacular cultural and entertainment facilities is no longer as desirable as in previous decades, as the creative class prefers authentic places. Among the preferences: an alternative or even subcultural scene rather than big museums and pasteurized cultural centers; green areas and small local parks rather than big league sports stadiums; small cafés and bars rather than chain restaurants; and so on. Based on this logic, today's policy makers should focus less on the sole attraction of cultural tourists and, more on the sustaining and luring of this creative class.

The controversy surrounding Florida's "class theory" has been significant, with scholars criticizing its segregating character between winners and losers of the urban economy; the combining of very different people with diverse goals into one homogenous social group; and, more importantly, the glorification of a gentrifying group as brave urban explorers. Despite the criticism surrounding Floridabs bclass theoryb, the idea of creating specific policies in order to attract the creative class has been adopted by several urban managers and politicians in different places, including Montreal, Dublin and Berlin - all members of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, created in 2004.

Berlin: Poor but Sexy

As Colomb (2012) points out, the practice of place promotion in Berlin dates back to the beginning of the 20th Century, when, after an intense period of industrialization and urbanization, the city became a symbol of modernity. In the 1920s, Berlin was the fourth biggest metropolis in the world[2]; and several campaignssought to attract visibility to the city. At that point, Berlin was viewed as a mecca for artistic and cultural production, a noticeable center of modernist architecture and a reference for sexual liberation and cosmopolitanism. The fears provoked by the rapid transformations contributed largely to the spread of feelings of intolerance that would eventually play a role in the rise of power of the Nazi Party[3].

After the end of the war and the division of the city, consolidated in 1961 with the construction of the wall that separated the capitalist West from the socialist East, both sides tried to renew their images. While in the 1960s and 1970s there was a great contingent of bcold warb tourists, interested in the peculiar state of exception of the city, in the 1980s, the West Berlin marketing agencies made great efforts to attract a new type of visitors, spreading the notion of a young Berlin, where a rich subculture blossomed. This alternative cultural facet was evidenced by the official state recognition of the many residential and cultural squats that multiplied in the hip district of Kreuzberg, a popular destination for artists and bohemians.

After the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany between 1989 and 1990, the need to reshape the city's image as a united and emerging European economy was urgent. During the 1990s, the same strategies of cultural and strategic planning seen in other cities were applied in Berlin in an intensive and rapid manner. The local urban renewal followed a strict master plan that privileged the use of culture as a tool, as previously mentioned. The most emblematic symbols of this strand were, amongst others: the regeneration of Potsdamer Platz - a former no man's land area and now home to office buildings and the Sony Center (a complex of restaurants, film theaters, museums and shops); and the costly renewals of the Museumsinsel (museum island) and of the Reichstag (the parliament's building) - endowed with a glass dome designed by architect Norman Foster.

The Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz

By the beginning of the 2000s, Berlin had already been established as a cultural capital, but that status was not enough to keep it from being financially bankrupt. That is why, in 2001, with the rise of a new political coalition to power and the administration of Mayor Klaus Wowereit, new policies were created in order to emphasize Berlin's role as a creative city. The influence of Florida's theory became clear through Wowereitbs speeches, including his famous quote about the city being "poor but sexy". In other words, Berlin was bankrupt, but possessed an image of "coolness" which could be exploited in the name of profit. Therefore, the aim of new joint urban and cultural policies became the attraction, not only of cultural tourists, but also of skilled creative professionals from all over the world, able to ignite a failed economy through the accumulation of cognitive capital. In order to achieve that, the marketing agencies put together an image of an alternative city, where small cafés, seedy bars, graffiti art and subcultural squats merged to generate the cool and authentic factor proposed by Florida. Amongst other actions taken to consolidate the idea of a creative Berlin, we highlight: the concession of visas for foreign artists and professionals of the creative class; the successful application of Berlin as a member of UNESCO's Creative Cities Network (under the specialty of design); the creation of a new city slogan for the city - "be Berlin"; and the state support of start-ups and of creative clusters capable of regenerating degraded areas of the city.

One of these clusters consisted in the MediaSpree enterprise - an urban intervention taking over 180 hectares along the margins of the river Spree. Its aim was the construction of forty-four creative businesses[4] through a detailed plan that enabled the revitalization of local warehouses and abandoned buildings. Since the 1990s, the margins of the Spree were regarded as potential cultural places, especially during summertime, when bars and sun bathing areas were put together. They were also known for the adjacent housing and cultural squats that brought urban voids to life, adding to the local "cool factor" that would attract the creative industries in the following decade.

The Fight of the Creative Class

Since its conception, the MediaSpree has generated more controversy than positive impacts due to the sale of state land to private investors, the increasing real estate speculation and consequent gentrification. As is happens, with policies that use creativity as a tool, a large part of the "creative class" becomes the victim of gentrification. That is especially true for artists and other lower income professionals of the culture sector of economy. Ironically, in the case of the MediaSpree in Berlin, it was the creative class itself (or at least a good part of it) that took to the streets to protest against the very urban plan that favored creativity.

In 2007, a group of young Berliners, artists, local bar and club owners gathered to form one of the most successful social movements of the city in recent years - the "MediaSpree Versensen!" (Sink MediaSpree), with the main goal to stop the further (creative) urban development of the site. The movement was joined by members of important local squats, who were against the mega scale of the projects, the nature of the proposed businesses, the privatization of the waterfront and the displacement of local dwellers and small business owners. Among the slogans of the movement were "save your city", "fight for your city" and "shoreline of the Spree for all" (Spreeufer für alle). The many demonstrations led to a public referendum in 2008 and, in 2010, the movement grew into a great alliance of artists, university students, social collectives, ecologic groups, squatters and politicians under the new name of MegaSpree.

Protest against the MediaSpree on the façade of an old building.

The success of this action continues to inspire other movements against gentrification and hegemonic urban projects all over the city. In May 2014, a new public referendum drew over 700 thousand Berliners to vote against the transformation of the Tempelholfer Feld (a former airport turned gigantic park) into a site of luxury flats, proving that the locals are finally getting tired of the indiscriminate privatization of public space[5].

Tempelholfer Feld in the summer of 2013

Even though the resistance against the recent instrumentalization of creativity and its consequences has been gaining strength in Berlin, local urban plans still foresee the construction of over 137 thousand flats before 2025, leading us to believe this will not be the last we hear about social movements in the German capital. Thus, we can state that, if, in 2006, Richard Florida wrote about the "flight of the creative class"[6], glorifying the construction of urban space for a privileged few, now it is time to start talking about the fight of the creative class, as we take a closer look to Berlin and realize that producers of knowledge and culture should stand together with all citizens in order to claim our combined right to the city.

CLAUDIA SELDIN is a Brazilian architect and urban planner with a Master's degree in Urban Studies from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (PROURB/FAU-UFRJ). She is currently pursuing a PhD in the same field and at the same institution.

* The author would like to thank Prof. Lilian Fessler Vaz and her group at PROURB/FAU-UFRJ as well as CNPq and the CAPES Foundation, Ministry of Education of Brazil (PDSE - N. 19188/12-9) for the support of her research


Colomb, C. (2012). Staging the New Berlin: Place Marketing and the Politics of Urban Reinvention Post -1989, London: Routledge.

Evans, G. (2001). Cultural Planning: An Urban Renaissance? London: Routledge.

Florida, R. (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class, New York: Basic Books.

______. (2005). Cities and the Creative Class. New York: Routledge.

Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso.

KrC$tke, S. (2011). The Creative Capital of Cities: Interactive Knowledge Creation and the Urbanization Economies of Innovation. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Landry, C. & Bianchini, F. (1995) The Creative City. London: Demos.

Lees, L; Slater, T. & Wyly, E. (2008). Gentrification. New York: Routledge.

Sorkin, M. (Ed.). (1992) Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. New York: Hill and Wang.

Zukin, S. (1982). Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.



[1] For more on the theme of the spectacle, see Débord, G. (2004). Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press. 

[2] Only behind New York, Chicago and London.

[3] For more on the history of place marketing strategies in Berlin, see Colomb (2012).

[4] Including a branch for Universal Music (2001), the headquarters of MTV Europe (2004) and the O2 Arena (2008).

[5] For more on the Tempelholfer Feld, see Riceburg, J. (2014) at

[6] In the book of the same name.