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.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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