Nurturing Arts Districts for the New Economy

The economy is in the toilet and it is hard, some would say impossible, to talk about the future. "Arts districts"? You have got to be kidding.

In spite of the pessimism, ULI San Diego/Tijuana hosted a seminar earlier this month entitled "Powering Innovation Economies," held in conjunction with Art San Diego 2011, the San Diego Contemporary Art Fair, to emphasize their belief that "cities that harness the emerging dynamic of innovation into their economic development strategies will be the ones that leverage themselves into the ranks of great cities in the 21st Century."

Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh who is now a ULI Senior Fellow, said what everybody was probably thinking: what can you do in this woeful period of economic malaise? "It's a question of priorities," he said. Cities have the money. They just aren't spending it on their future.

Bravo for Murphy and ULI/Tijuana. The world is looking for a vision of the future, and the ULI is well positioned to provide that new vision as well as a strategy to get us moving again. It's really simple. If a city doesn't invest in its future, there may not be one.

Admittedly the Urban land Institute (ULI) -- the largest worldwide research institute devoted to land use -- has been promoting the development of "arts districts," or as they are also called, "creative industries districts," in cities across the country. But they could and should be doing more, and more cities should begin creating arts districts as a matter of economic survival.

These arts districts -- particularly ones designed to serve as incubators of creativity -- are concrete evidence that a new creative and innovative economy is taking shape. Although essentially real estate developments, the arts districts are intended to serve the "creative industry" that according to The Americans for the Arts, is one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy.

It is becoming clear these districts are the new engines of economic development, not only for the creative industries but for all enterprises.

John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado and former mayor of Denver, talked about the importance of collaboration. Somehow all seven counties in the Denver metro area along with the commercial sector found that working together was in everyone's best interest. The competition he said, was not retail establishments like coffee shops, bars and restaurants but television. He advocated getting people off their couches and into vibrant urban centers. Not surprisingly, Denver was soon seen as the Capitol of creativity and innovation representing the whole region.

John Alschuler, Chair of Friends of High Line, a non-profit organization supporting New York City's creation of a mile-and-a-half-long elevated park running through the West Side of Manhattan -- and providing over 70 percent of High Line's annual operating budget -- said that even without the cities' financial help, private/public partnerships can work.

Also speaking to the audience of architects and developers, artists, art and culture institutions, business and public policy types was Carol Coletta, director, of ArtPlace, a new collaboration of the nation's top foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. Formerly President of CEO for Cities, Coletta said, "If you're going to be an innovative economy have to be able to attract and retain innovative people to power the innovative economy, because that's what it's all about." And she emphasized, places that are "walk-able" and have all the "aesthetics" are most in demand by the new workforce.

Entrepreneurs Pete Garcia, and David Malmuth, who also chaired the seminar, see the combination of technology and art as the next wave of economic development. Together they discussed San Diego's arts district. Called I.D.E.A. for Innovation, Design, Education and Art., the proposal is gaining widespread acceptance as more San Diegans learn what it can mean for their region.

"Co-location" and "collaboration" they said, is the secret to nurturing this kind of development, and they and others who participated agreed that more city leaders, business executives, and educators need to understand "the new black" as ULI San Diego/Tijuana calls it (innovation), and the critical role artists and art institutions can play in fashioning these creative clusters.

Yes, there are cynics. We have been sold too many real estate deals to have much faith in the development de jour. Yet, this effort offers promise of a very different future. One that recognizes our economy has changed, and that we need to think differently about land use and jobs, and the emerging creative and innovative economy.