Music can improve our cities. So why isn’t music urbanism a thing?

The crowd awaits a gig in Chicago, 2011. Image: Getty.

In Colorado a few years ago, a non-profit teamed up with the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) to tackle issues of truancy among high schoolers in a deprived part of Denver. Along with building new social housing and offering affordable, below-market rent to some of the tenants, the partnership hired a number of professional musicians to teach music production at an after-school program, housed on the ground floor of one of the developments.

The program, called Youth on Record, taught songwriting, production, DJ and other skills, and its success was staggering. The high school truancy rate of those attending the after-school program was cut in half, as they weren’t allowed to attend if they didn’t go to regular classes. In addition, a new income stream was created for local musicians who were paid to teach. Since the school was first set-up, the organisation has recorded albums, staged a community festival and improved the lives of hundreds of residents.

Halfway across the country, the famed STAX Museum and Soulsville USA Foundation in Memphis opened the “Memphis Slim Collaboratory” across the street from the museum, teaching local kids how to play, perform and record. In addition, they created a new music district, which promotes the history while supporting emerging talent. Their work led to the creation of the Memphis Music Magnet, a community organisation aimed at reclaiming derelict buildings and turning them over to music and the arts.

Heading east, in an industrial area outside downtown Boston, The Record Co. outfitted an industrial warehouse into a recording studio, offering cheap rehearsal and recording space for the city’s independent and DIY music community. Six years on, the studio operates at full capacity, has hosted over 1000 recording sessions over the past 12 months alone and has been approached by a number of landowners to create similar spaces, including commissioning a feasibility study to set up a grassroots music venue in the city. 

In Detroit, a number of residents across both music and real estate are turning the city centre around by creating music-led spaces in abandoned warehouses. Led by techno pioneer Dmitri Hagemann, who made his name at Berlin’s Tresor nightclub, the Detroit Music Foundation and the mayor’s Head of Customer Service, the city is looking at how music – in both its heritage and future – can be a tool in fostering regeneration, community activism and economic development. This includes creating a talent development partnership with Berlin and establishing awards, a museum and an ongoing public discourse on music’s role in rebuilding the city.

These programs are becoming more of the norm, rather than the exception. They fall under an emerging topic in placemaking and music industry circles, called ‘music cities’. Reports have been written, conferences are held and cities around the world – from Cape Town to Toronto, Santiago and Brisbane – are grappling with the concept of music’s role on urban development, placemaking and regeneration. When you expand upon questions of how to grow one’s industry or create new music or cultural festivals and investigate further, I believe that there’s an argument to develop a new body of scholarship and debate in city and urban studies. Let’s call it music urbanism.

If cities are living organisms ebbing and flowing within a changing, integrated ecosystem, then music is an indicator that can be used to measure the health and vitality of such an ecosystem. It’s widely acknowledged that music and a thriving evening and night time economy attracts tourists, increases vibrancy and builds competitiveness, but we must go further. Looking at music’s impact on the value of land and the health of communities can demonstrate an impact even greater than measuring vibrancy.


If one attaches music to urbanism – learning about the complex organisms that our cities are, and about how they operate – it provides unique insight into understanding the types of cities we want, compared to the types of cities we often create. Music is a proven tool to reduce social exclusion and loneliness. Taught with the same vigour as maths and sciences, it improves cognition and empathy. It enhances the perception of safety, such as when classical music is aired in subway stations during rush hour. It activates public realm and squares.

But we are not measuring this value. Music’s role in creating better cities, improving sustainability and promoting engagement is only ever loosely analysed. It is more often measured on the growth of the music industry – an important but not entirely inclusive analysis. The value of music per square foot of land, for example, is not considered; nor is the impact of the health of the music program down the street to the grassroots music venue on the corner or the impact of music on a city’s building codes, ordinances and regulations.

If we could predict these values, we could plan better. Otherwise, we can only treat music as an end-user use, implanted into a situation after the questions surrounding land, built environment, regulation, community boards, economic impact, viability and servicing have been answered.

Music is a unique tool to better understand how our cities are changing for better and worse for all of us. Music is often the first use to go in a newly regenerated area, or the first cultural form to be implemented in areas that needs regeneration. Most cities still interpret their planning and zoning laws to prioritise the value of land over what happens inside the building, and music venues, studios and recording spaces are not the most valuable uses of land in such a definition.

In addition, as cities become denser, what is sound and music to one person can be interpreted as noise by another. Despite living in closer quarters, we all need to sleep, and music venues are often the first victims when those of us who used to go out now have kids, jobs in the morning and grey hair.

If we trained and supported music urbanists, these challenges could be seen as what they are: scholarly problems that require research, market testing, intervention, policy and analysis. If we see music from the lens of an urbanist and vice-versa, music’s role could be blossomed across cities, positively impacting all our lives, as we all understand and acknowledge music, whatever language we speak.

So: I volunteer to be the first music urbanist. Please join me, and we can learn together.

 
 
 
 

How the big freeze of 1962-3 killed off Britain’s canals

Little Venice, London. This was actually 2010, but you get the idea. Image: Getty.

The English are internationally renowned for banging on about the weather. When British drizzle is compared to the hurricanes of the Caribbean or the cold faced by more landlocked countries, our complaining seems wholly unjustified.

Still, our weather can have ruinous effects on whole industries. The particularly cold winter of 1962-63 was the final nail in the coffin of a centuries old water-borne trade.

At one time canals played an essential role in the UK’s economy. In the early days of the industrial revolution, canals snaked across the map, connecting the coal mines of the countryside to the factories of cities. They fuelled the furnaces and kept the hearth fires burning, allowing for cities to rapidly grow in the closing years of the 18th century.

A map of British and Irish waterways. The canal network is in orange. Image: Peter Eastern/Wikimedia Commons.

Economics is rarely sentimental, though, and when more effective modes of travel came along the canals began their slow demise. Whereas European canals widened to accommodate for ever larger boats, the thin British canals –bar the mighty Manchester ship canal – slowly gave in to the supremacy of those new-fangled trains.

The rise of railway also saw the odd canal being bought and shut down by railway companies. In most cases this was simply about eliminating the competition, but in some the straight canals proved a perfect place for new railway tracks – the fate of South London’s Croydon Canal.

Still, the bargepeoples tightened their belts, and the canal system limped on as a viable option for freight until the early ‘60s, when nature came in with the knockout blow. The Big Freeze of 1962-3 was, as the name suggests, uniquely cold for the UK. Records going back as far as 1659 only recorded two winters colder, and the canal system froze solid.

Somerset, January 1963. The snow stayed for so long it stretched phone wires out of shape. Image: Howard Dublin/Wikimedia Commons.

Facing months of no service by barges, industries that had been reliant on the canals switched to alternatives on the rail and road networks. When the ice finally thawed, and with grim memories of that winter on mind, few returned to using the canals for freight. Besides having dire consequences for that years football calendar, the winter mostly finished canals as a component of British industry.

Luckily many of the canals themselves survived to be repurposed, first for leisure and more recently for living. London’s canal system currently holds around 5000 boats, 60 per cent of them permanent homes. These liveaboards, driven there by the desire for the slow life or the rest of the city’s crippling property prices, are changing the face of London’s waterways.
The water dwellers, along with those drawn to these lateral parks for leisure, have brought business back to the city’s canals. Now books shops, grocers, coffee shops and even bakeries can be found floating on the waters.

So next time the trope of the weather obsessed Brit comes up, you can scoff at other countries hailstones the size of Chihuahuas, or sun you can cook an egg in. Tell them that the weather has shaped British history, too – and with huge climatic shifts on the horizon, it shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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