Here’s how cities can protect creative industries from gentification

Denmark Street, the historic heart of London's music industry. Image: Getty.

The way cultural infrastructure is built in our towns and cities leads to an inherent contradiction. Often, the more successful creative and cultural entrepreneurship – and the people that fuel it – is in a city, the more it exacerbates inequality and fuels gentrification. 

As Richard Florida notes in his article assessing the redistribution of the creative class, creative-led jobs in US metros have grown 72.5 per cent since 2005, compared to a growth of the overall workforce increasing by 13.6 per cent. This equates to an additional 11 million workers. And while some cities have expanded their creative classes more than others, most United States metropolitan areas have seen an expansion of their creative class and with it, an increase in house prices, rent and amenities. Cities are becoming more unequal

In the UK, the story is similar. The creative industries in the UK are now worth £101bn, which makes it Britain’s second largest sector, behind only banking. This equates to 5.5 per cent of the economy, and its growth current is double that of the rest of the economy, or even more depending on the impact of Coronavirus

But at the same time, music venues and nightclubs remain threatened. Some 130 Libraries closed in 2018 alone. Music programmes are in dire straits according to the UK Musicians Union. Britain’s high streets are also in crisis with shops sitting empty, despite a desire to use them for creative community benefit in many places. And like in the US, cities are less equal now than they were a decade ago. 

Despite the way the creative sectors have grown far faster than the rest of the economy in both the US and the UK, we face a crisis across our cultural infrastructure, which facilitates inequality. The places and spaces we need to create – and the land use, zoning and regulatory policies to support them – is not keeping up with the opportunities the creative class presents, which means the rise of it is paired with a dearth of those that benefit from it. 


As we’ve seen, the more creative a place, the more expensive it is. The more expensive, the less places one has to incubate content, despite contents’ success being the reason a place becomes known as creative. While many creators do create at home, many creative sectors still require space outside of one’s bedroom to create, whether it is via WeWork (with prices starting at $550 or £450 per month to hot desk, on average) or a recording studio. Even when cultural infrastructure is prioritised in mixed-use developments, it is often the sort of infrastructure you can see, rather than the sort of back office spaces that are necessary to the creative industries, despite being rarely seen by the public. 

In addition, concert halls, opera houses and ballet halls remain fixtures in most city centres. A glistening, new music venue is far more newsworthy than an affordable set of recording studios and rehearsal spaces. As such, we ignore the causality between the two. And with it, inequality grows, despite creative class related jobs and so-called opportunities increasing. 

For example, in the UK about 300 professional recording studios exist, with 200 in London. This is half of what existed a decade ago, according to the University of Nottingham. Sources of data related to back-of-house uses, like rehearsal spaces, are few and far between. In London, only 27 per cent of dance studios are fitted out for dance. New York City is addressing the issue by providing hundreds of hours of free rehearsal space, recognising such space is in short supply. 

Each of the creative class sectors is different, and as such, requires individual approaches. And planning departments are letting them down. For example, there is no mechanism to allocate future tax revenue to fund grassroots projects by calculating their predicted value to their communities. 

Take the UK for example. There is a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) structure that assumes that, for core infrastructure, such as roadways, transport and cycle lanes every £1 spent brings in £10 of economic benefit over two decades. So the expected property taxes that such land use would be subject to is unlocked as a loan, secured by the projected economic benefit the use will bring. London Underground upgrades, London’s Crossrail train system and road improvements all benefit from TIF financing, as do large, mixed-use housing-led projects. But cultural infrastructure is negotiated later in the community use provisions of development, a process governed by what’s called Section 106 obligations. There is no predictive modelling applied to grassroots cultural infrastructure, so it is not considered suitable for TIF funding, outside of large scale arenas or stadiums. 

We tried to put some financial meat on the bones of why investing in grassroots cultural infrastructure through a TIF-style model could work. So for a report commissioned by the insurance firm Legal & General, we attempted to calculate this. We took a venue in North London that holds 250 people and hosts live music, art and culture events 7 days per week. We had hard numbers related to people through the doors, drink purchases, merch, tax, salaries and liquor duty. We estimated its event programme’s impact on people eating out nearby, using public transit, minicabs and other infrastructure. 

And we found that the venue’s direct economic impact is £1.6m per year. Of that, £9,000 is paid per year in property tax. If a municipality took a 25 year approach to such a venue, that’s £225,000 in total property tax. 

Even taking into account an allocation for street cleaning, garbage pick-up and policing, a small TIF-style loan for a portion of that future value could have provided the premises with more start-up capital to accelerate its growth. This could be done for a recording studio, a dance company, or any business serving the creative class, and prioritised on the grassroots level, rather than large infrastructure projects. 

With it could come community amenity provisions similar to that a housing developer requires. This could include hiring locally, sourcing locally or contributing to a community infrastructure project such as a local garden, beautification or block party. Or it could be attached to environmental requirements, including adoption of green energy or commitment to sustainable development. If multiple businesses participated, networks could be developed to share best practices or develop stronger local ties. Resources could be pooled into renewable energy, or investing in local talent as a cooperative. 

Furthermore, if affordability is an issue, as it will be if the city is successful, commercial (or even housing) rents can be controlled to align with inflation so long as TIF funding is repaid with interest (i.e profit), either to the developer, municipality or both. 

But first we need a workable equation that outlines, and defends, the prospective value of these creative class businesses. And with the sectors growing at the rate they are on both sides of the pond, such an argument is possible. If we have a sector growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy and that is one of the main reasons people choose to live where they live, it must be further prioritised in land use – and value – planning. But instead, cultural infrastructure is either delivered due to personal preference or planning approval requirement. We can do better than this. 

In the US, there are further models that can be explored. In Austin, the redevelopment of the Austin Convention Centre includes an ordinance to increase the tax on hotel stays from 15 per cent to 17 per cent and allocating 15 per cent of the additional 2 per cent tax to support the city’s live music industry. Austin is, along with Nashville, America’s living lab of music meets gentrification. Both cities attracted ancillary sectors (tech with Austin, healthcare with Nashville) due in part to their promotion of each being a vibrant, music-filled city. 

Both cities have struggled to support the communities that supported this growth, because they are increasingly expensive. A salary of $55,000 means one can live comfortably in Austin. This jumps to $70,150 for Nashville. Each fill hotel rooms, attract conferences and drive tourism in part to their extensive music-related marketing and music scene. Austin’s experiment, expected to bring in over $3m per year, could be implemented elsewhere. But this money will be allocated in this instance to musicians, not infrastructure. 

Austin and Nashville are examples of the power of music, and the creative class in general, to drive growth. But both cities suffer from inequity in their creative ecosystems, which become worse the more each place is seen to succeed and remain cool, creative and hip. This is what happened in Brooklyn and Shoreditch, and solutions are not being implemented to ensure that those who remake places can stay in them once they change.

In both the US and the UK, now is the time to review planning, zoning and city ordinances so all of the cities whose creative classes are growing remain creative. In the UK, the implementation of the Agent of Change principle helps, but its implementation on the ground is yet to be tested. In the US, the prospective financing and investment theoretically made through Opportunity Zones could focus on creative infrastructure, but there’s no guidelines to prioritise culture, or compel investors to consider it intentionally. 

The creative class will continue to grow. The music industry alone is expected to double and be worth $80bn by 2050, according to Goldman Sachs. I have yet to encounter a city that does not want a thriving music and cultural scene, festivals and “music city” branding that means something. It attracts investors, shoots them up “best places to live” indexes and is worth bragging about. 

This requires recognition that with the development of creative jobs must come an increase in infrastructure financing, incentives and programs to not only support them to come, but keep them when they are there. If not, we’ll fuel more inequity through cultural development. And that would be a shame. 

Shain Shapiro is the founder and CEO of Sound Diplomacy.  

 
 
 
 

On boarded-up storefronts, muralists offer words of hope

The murals on closed storefronts aim "to end ugly wall syndrome." (Courtesy of Beautify)

In Los Angeles, Melrose Avenue has a new mural that reads: “Cancel plans, not humanity.”

It’s an artwork by Corie Mattie, a street artist who kindly reminds us of our togetherness under quarantine. She and many other artists are putting murals up across the US as part of the Back to the Streets campaign, which aims to add some color to the streets – specifically on boarded up storefronts and abandoned streets that feel deserted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to bring some beauty to the streets while everything is boarded up – “to end ugly wall syndrome,” says project founder Evan Meyer. “It’s to get people to care about their communities, be part of the process.” 


Many of the murals are painted on plywood panels that cover the entryways to independent businesses that have shut down during the pandemic. The project aims to prevent a sense of decay, especially as some businesses start to open back up while their neighbours remain closed.

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places quickly, when places are abandoned and don’t feel like they have love or life,” says Meyer, who is also the CEO of Beautify, a company that connects artists with places to make murals. Among the murals made during the pandemic, one at a department store says “Togetherness,” while another says: “You can’t quarantine love.”

“We’re seeing messages like hope, positivity and community,” Meyer says. “More than ever, it’s a time for community.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

With artist-led projects in L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and others, the goal is to get 1,000 murals up across America. Murals are also being painted in small towns in Iowa, like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and an earlier mural in New York City’s Rockaway Beach was created in 2014 with the same goal of bringing some life to neglected buildings that needed renovation after Hurricane Sandy

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places with broken windows, tagging and crime,” says Meyer. “A lot can happen if a place feels like it’s unwatched.” 

Los Angeles councilmember David Ryu endorsed the initiative in a recent blog post, saying it has helped boost morale on the streets of L.A. “When we brighten blighted walls, we improve neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It’s critical to have more business owners enlist their walls here to bring some much needed love and recognition to their establishment and their neighborhood.” 

The effort stems from a sister project called Beautify Earth, which has helped address a litter problem in Santa Monica’s commercial district. In addition to a cleanup force, the project has painted more than 100 murals on walls, dumpsters, utility boxes and garbage cans across the city.

On the Beautify website, artists can find business improvement districts, real estate developers, landlords and business owners who want to see something on their empty walls. Each artist who gets a commissioned wall through the Beautify website is paid 78% of the stipend, and Beautify takes a 22% administration fee. 

Meyer says he often explains to business owners that art can help their business.

“A lot of people have white empty wall space on their liquor stores, condos, park walls, even residential spaces,” says Meyer, adding that many are afraid to put something on their walls. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset. Art protects walls, it is a graffiti abatement strategy.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

Beautify isn’t alone in its field. Among the other cities that have similar mural projects, ArtPlace America has supported over 200 art murals across the US. Wynwood Walls, a public art project in Miami spearheaded by local developer Tony Goldman, has helped create a popular public art hotspot with murals by artists Shepard Fairey and Ron English. 

Chicago’s city government, too, has publicly funded over 500 murals through its Percent-for-Art program, which pays artists to paint walls on municipal buildings. A grassroots street art project in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, has artists painting murals in violent and marginalised neighbourhoods. Similar crime prevention ventures have been initiated in Topeka, Kansas, in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Toronto, Canada, which has placed over 140 murals across the city over the past decade. 


Artist Ruben Rojas has painted murals saying "You Can't Quarantine Love" in several spots across Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy of Beautify)

One artist working with Beautify’s project is Ruben Rojas, who is overwhelmed by the response to his mural, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” which has been painted in several spots across Santa Monica and beyond.

“Every day, I see the shares, photos of my murals, amazing captions and direct messages from folks that are truly heartwarming,” Rojas says. “I’ve seen this particular mural go around the world with ‘thank you’ messages from Johannesburg, Germany, and Italy. It really is humbling.”

Meyer says that kind of social media engagement shows how a mural can turn a plain old wall into a landmark. 

“Murals get seen,” he says. “People take photos and share them on social media. Nobody takes photos of your ugly white wall. Murals are the story of the local community.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.