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The Regeneration of Post-industrial Spaces Through the Arts and Creative Industries

By Jonathan Denis-Jacob
October 12, 2010

In recent years, city planners and policy-makers have paid considerable attention to the arts and creative industries because of their potential role in regenerating post-industrial spaces.  In many cities across Europe and North America, former industrial spaces, such as old warehouses, showrooms and factories, have been left behind by traditional manufacturing activities due to deindustrialization and industrial restructuring processes.  Some have disappeared,  while others have relocated in suburbs or abroad, seeking out more modern production facilities as well as lower land and labour costs. As a result, many inner city neighbourhoods which used to rely on manufacturing industries have gone through a long period of decline, unable to reinsert themselves in the productive fabric of the city. The regeneration of these spaces has remained a significant challenge for urban practitioners since then.

Yet, this may be changing, for good.  The rise of the cultural/creative economy has opened up several opportunities to revitalize these spaces.  Culture-led regeneration projects in post-industrial areas are even in high demand in cities like Toronto and London.  For example, Liberty Village, a post-industrial area in Downtown Toronto’s West side, was almost totally deserted only a few years ago. But a regeneration project based upon the provision of affordable workspace for artists and creative industries as well as on innovative design principles successfully brought the area back to life. The regeneration of the area continues and the neighbourhood is now home to more than 7 500 jobs, the majority of which are in the creative/cultural sector.  In London, the phenomenon is even more striking.  Former industrial sites are rapidly being converted into creative /cultural production spaces and entire neighbourhoods are emerging as creative hotspots. The Truman Brewery at Brick Lane in East London is perhaps one of the most interesting examples of an adaptive re-use of a post-industrial space, with several retail spaces, a large market, affordable workspaces for artists, arts venues and, not least, its funky/edgy atmosphere.

Why such a sudden interest for post-industrial spaces in cities? First, industrial restructuring and the transformation of the nature of work it brought about certainly play a role. Cultural and creative industries have grown significantly over the past twenty-five years, now accounting for about 7% of the national economy of Canada and the UK.  Also, their work and organizational attributes make them particularly well-suited for location in post-industrial urban fabrics. A majority of cultural/creative firms are small-sized, independent and unstable organizations. They need affordable and flexible workspaces and leases. They also require being in a place that is well-connected to formal and informal networks, that nurtures creativity and that enables them to keep abreast of currents trends and opportunities.  All these features are almost always found in post-industrial spaces in inner cities, not in post-war suburbs.

The emergence of cultural and creative industries in post-industrial spaces can be interpreted as the assertion of contemporary economic activities in the inner city. In effect, cultural and creative industries are not merely consumption activities. After all, they also contribute to the employment structure of cities (and that of the inner city for that matter).  As well, they are associated with emerging lifestyle and living forms, such as Live/work studios, which benefit urban liveability and accommodate a variety of uses. In fact, these so-called “creative districts” are genuine examples of where urbanism should be heading: liveable, mixed-use, environmentally-friendly and respectful of the city’s unique heritage and urban fabric. However, culture-led regeneration also has its downside. As we have seen in London and elsewhere, after some time, many spaces become gentrified and creative firms are progressively forced out as land prices go up. They often end up being replaced by non-productive uses (such as pure residential), although these spaces have always been productive in nature. The challenge for planners and policy-makers in upcoming years will therefore be to achieve the regeneration of post-industrial spaces while maintaining their mixed-use and productive nature.   

Conference Board of Canada. 2008. Valuing Culture. Measuring and Understanding Canada’s Creative Economy. Report.  Economic Performance and Trends. August 2008. 72 pages.
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