Why does poverty in Lafayette, Louisiana, teach us about developing creative talent?

Edinburgh: not among the cities that's short of venues. Image: Getty.

Can a new perspective on urban regeneration change the way we develop creative talent?

This study on the city of Lafayette, Louisiana can change how we think about how our cities incubate and support creative talent. Reported in urbanism blog Strong Towns, the author, Charles Marohn, discusses the findings of a study his firm conducted on Lafayette.

They analysed how the city makes and spends its money, finding that lower income neighbourhoods earn more for a city than higher income areas. They map income inequality through property values, job retention and demographics, and compare what Lafayette spends in each of its wards against the amount of revenue, per head, it retains in tax. And Lafayette, like most mid-sized American cities, is a market failure. To break even, each tax paying household would have to increase their contribution by $8,000. This is not improbable. It is impossible.

Lafayette, like all cities, has grown outward, with wealthier suburbs and housing estates dotting the outer reaches of the city. These areas are richer than its inner city, per capita. But it is the dense inner city that is more economically valuable for Lafayette, not the richer, larger and more spread out suburbs. This is backed up by examining the demographics of each ward and comparing against each other, both the wealthy and deprived neighbourhoods.

In Lafayette, poorer areas have narrower streets and higher population densities. They are cheaper to maintain (as they are smaller) and interventions impact more people (because there are more people). Large acreages create more servicing costs, be it watering a lawn or fixing a street lamp. Therefore, Mahorn concludes instead of spending on larger, more geographically expansive projects, such as suburban subdivisions and the utilities to service them, smaller, more varied investments in poorer neighbourhoods make the most fiscal sense for Lafayette to continue to tread water and avert bankruptcy.

This thinking is not restricted to housing, infrastructure and utilities. As our cities – large and small – continue to grow and compete for new talent, Lafayette’s story has stark parallels to how we plan and maintain our cultural infrastructure, and music’s role in particular. Around the world, cities are involved in large scale infrastructure projects involving music, much of them complex, expensive exercises that are often over budget and controversial.

In Hamburg, the beautiful Elbharmonie opened seven years late and €700m over budget, in some assessments. In London, the proposed Centre for Music in the City of London is now in doubt, as there is no consensus on whether it is needed. At the same time, local schemes that support talent development - across all artforms - are struggling. In London, it is widely accepted that 35% of grassroots (i.e small) music venues have closed since 2007. While yet to be counted, it is estimated that such a percentage is true across the UK.

In Toronto, 2017 has seen two iconic venues close - The Hoxton and Hugh’s Room. Music education remains for the privileged few at the highest level, with STEM subjects seen as more important. And at the same time, community centres, youth clubs, programs for the elderly and other local initiatives are closing due to council budget cuts. While not restricted to music, the smaller spaces often lose out, while these larger projects continue. Cultural infrastructure grows outward, like the suburbs in Lafayette.

The development methodology in how we support music and creative talent in cities is much like what happened in Lafayette. In the end the system is unsustainable, seen as a market failure, with investment shifted from the grassroots to larger projects, because they are seen as being more economically viable. Similarly, the outward growth and focus on the suburbs was seen as a way to support wealth generation, like building a large concert hall or arena. However, too much of a focus on these initiatives blinded Lafayette to the most fiscally valuable residents, those in lower income, higher density neighbourhoods. And while their value stabilised, the services to support their growth stagnated.

Back in music, the live sector is in bullish health in many respects. The O2 Arena, for example, is Europe’s most ticketed venue. However, small ecosystems are struggling; And what’s missing here is while we recognise the value of an arena or a festival, we ignore the small venue, DIY rehearsal space or community centre. However, each grassroots music venue in the UK contributes £500,000 in direct investment in new and emerging talent, according to a new report by the GLA. But we’re developing talent in the same way we’re building suburbs and at the same time, ignoring the economic value the lower income areas bring.

The authors of the study state; “What is obvious here is that the poor neighborhoods are profitable while the affluent neighborhoods are not.” They go on to state that in the manner Lafayette’s coffers are spent, the less invested in poorer neighbourhoods, the more value, per dollar, they return to the city. This is compelling. To combat this, they argue for a redistribution of city resources to much smaller investments across poorer neighbourhoods, as many as possible, so the poorer neighbourhoods develop at the same rate as more affluent ones, and the gap between how much poorer and richer areas contribute to Lafayette shrinks.

Without that, the poorer area will still contribute more, but be poor. In regards to our cultural infrastructure, let’s take Lafayette as a lesson. If we ignore the value of our new and emerging talent infrastructure, their contributions will outweigh their growth. In other words, the more shining concert halls we have, the less talent we’ll develop to perform in them and the narrower talent development pathways that service these projects will become. By focusing more on smaller, more diverse interventions –such as improving equipment in a venue or improving permitting procedures – the pathway expands.

Shain Shapiro is director of the music consultancy Sound Diplomacy and founder the Music Cities Convention.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.