"Music cities": on why municipal governments should think of their music industries when planning

M.I.A. performs at the Sonar music festival in Barcelona in 2011. Image: Getty.

In 2013 in Adelaide, a report appeared under the heading, “The Future of Live Music in South Australia”. Written by music promoter Martin Elbourne, and backed by a variety of local and regional government agencies, it outlined how the industry, and those that live and work in South Australia, could create a more economically sustainable music scene for the region, boosting Adelaide’s creative and economic output. ​

It put forward 49 recommendations, including  reforming certain city ordinances and licensing policies. It proposed a “cluster development strategy”, to bring music, music tech and other sectors together in co-working space. And it called on the government to rethink where it located festivals, to revitalise city centre squares and public spaces.  

In the same year, the city of Montreal concluded a programme of culture called Montreal Festimania. An alliance of 11 of the city’s summer cultural events, Festimania was intended to raise awareness of Montreal as a festival city, for tourism, soft power and city branding purposes. Since that pilot concluded, a new policy has emerged called Quartier des Spectacle: a sort of “Montreal Festivals Quarter”, ​where ​most of the city's music and cultural festivals – from Montreal Jazz Fest to Just For Laughs – occur.

The infrastructure in the surrounding area has been improved with fibre-optic broadband, reformed licensing and city-led soft branding, all to make clear that the city is open for festivals and the businesses they attract.

Then there's Toronto, which formed an official alliance with Austin, and, like the Texan capital, began calling itself a “Music City”. It produced a report detailing what Toronto could learn from Austin’s pragmatic approach to hosting cultural events and music festivals, and what benefits it would offer for the local economy. 

Such policies have helped make Austin one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. In the hope of copying that success, Toronto, as of last year, has had a dedicated music industry support officer, a role that only exists in a handful of cities around the world. 

Many people have analysed local music industries, in reference to planning, policy and city strategy. But rarely has it been done with the city and its residents in mind.

What's changed over the last year it that it's not just the creators who are being analysed, but the facilitators, in the form of city authorities. “Music cities” have emerged from Canada to Australia, Africa to Scotland. Four cities around the world are crowned Cities of Music each year: this year's crop include Brazzaville, Congo, and Mannheim, Germany. A music industry association in Canada​, is producing the first comprehensive “Music Cities” ​analysis, staging over a dozen focus groups to understand, globally, what that term means qualitatively and quantitatively. ​

Historically, this debate has been led by the music industry itself – usually in an effort to lobby for better policy, more funding, recognition or, in some places, to be noticed at all. But this needs to change. If this debate is kept within the confines of the music industry, its impacts will remain focused on the music itself.

And this is to miss the point.  Supporting one’s music industry is not only about creating better, more sustainable bands. It is also about creating better, more vibrant, more sustainable cities. 

Take an apartment complex with a music venue or restaurant below it. With proper planning regulations and communication with developers, venues can be adequately soundproofed. Agreements with tenants and investors who understand pre-existing space use before they move in will save cities and developers money and time, that they'd previously have wasted on repurposing land use or fighting noise bylaw challenges.

There are other ways a music industry impacts on the urban environment, too. City festivals and their demand for connectedness provide further evidence that we need more intensive broadband capabilities; while compulsory music education develops more creative, engaged citizens.  More suitable, active venues provide better conditions for performers, and more reasons for transport systems to run later (this, after all, is one of the arguments that led parts of the London tube network to begin planning for 24 hour service at weekends). 

Finally, the legacy projects left by large-scale cultural or sporting events, like the Olympics or Capital of Culture programmes, are enhanced by greater engagement with creatives, who flock to such spaces after the events have concluded. I believe that supporting one’s music industry is the cheapest way to develop more vibrant, creative and economically prosperous cities. 

On Battersea Park Road in London, as you pass the development that was once a power station and will soon be luxury flats, you'll see placards advertising exclusive concerts and cultural events for residents. With proper licensing, foresight and planning communication, such events could enhance the livability of a district. Without it, they could just end up generating complaints, traffic and noise.

Shain Shapiro is the managing director of Sound Diplomacy, the world's leading music market development agency.

The first Music Cities Convention will be held in Brighton on 13 May


Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.


In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?

Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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