The edge of cool – Why we should care about creative and cultural displacement in cities

It begins: an area near the city centre is less developed, artists and independent businesses move in, culture and creativity thrive increasing the area’s visibility and desirability. At which point a less fashionable (but richer) crowd arrives, rents and prices rise and the artists/independents, and original inhabitants, get forced out. Many of us intuitively feel there’s something troubling about this, and it has been a focus of much debate in London in particular, but our reasons for caring about it are often not entirely clear – which isn’t to say we shouldn’t care.

Some not so good reasons for caring about this

It is not that anyone actually says the below exactly, but it does sometimes sound as if it’s what they believe:

1. Great expectations: Optimistic views of the ability to preserve the character of places. It is possible to preserve buildings, but keeping the social and economic character of entire areas constant is much more challenging. Despite the best efforts of the Saatchi Gallery and Reality TV, the Kings road in London is not the cultural epicentre it once was.[1] Notting Hill was economically rundown for much of the post-war period and features in a string of artistic works about unusual lodgers (a beara gangstera guest called Guest); it is now one of the most expensive places to live in London.[2] Camden’s temporary Sunday market has become a permanent, hyper-real, tourist attraction.[3] Dazed and Confused asked if East London was dead? four years ago. Short of the state micro-managing business use and tenancy it is difficult to keep popular areas the same.

2. In search of lost time: focussing on a moment that will pass. It isn’t just rents that kill creative scenes, sometimes they naturally run out of steam.[4] Certain kinds of venue, such as clubs and music venues, cater for a specific demographic – often one that is younger and without children. A wish to preserve contemporary cultural hotspots is, in some cases, a focus on the experience of a generation. A generation that will move on and do other things, and on areas that in spatial terms may anyway not be that large relative to the city as a whole.

3. Place envy, of cities that are quite economically different. It is often noted that a number of other European cities – Berlin and Lisbon’s names frequently crop up – are considerably cheaper than London for creative workers. Berlin and Lisbon are great cities, but one (if not the key) reason why it is comparatively cheap to rent space in both is that both have experienced extended periods of economic difficulty, and in the case of Lisbon, depopulation.[5] This is not to deny benefits from having cheaper office and living spaces in London, but we should be clear about why other cities might be much cheaper – they may not be reasons we want to (or can) replicate.

There are though some better reasons for caring about this.

Some good reasons for caring about this:

1. Creative disruption: Destruction of creative ecosystems. It is arguable that the social networks of smaller scale creative businesses are particularly important in allowing them to form collaborations and source clients. This is something that isn’t yet fully understood, but is a focus of increasing research and is recognised in practice through the growth of creative co-working spaces.[6] An implication is that there are benefits from creative businesses co-location, something which urban change can disrupt. In addition, certain kinds of cultural venue depend on having sufficient levels of footfall, which is probably harder to achieve further away from the urban centres and transport networks. This also effects surrounding businesses that depend on trade from these venues.

2. Everywhere and nowhere: Distance has died and place has become more important. We used to believe that technological progress would result in people working anywhere and everywhere. In fact, the reverse has happened, technology has meant that we’re more concerned than ever about the places that surround us.[7] Understanding the role that creative and cultural activity can play in creating places people enjoy living and working in is an important economic agenda both in terms of the global race to attract talent, but also in terms of improving the well-being of the population as a whole.[8]

3. The hollow city: These trends affect access to, and diversity of, cities’ cultural offering. There are great benefits from publicly funded culture, but a city whose private cultural offering is pushed to the periphery is not an entirely healthy one. A diminishment of private culture implies an increasingly centralised view of culture – we all know what that looks like when carried to extreme conclusions. The state aside, a homogeneous vision of culture offered by big business is not necessarily an ideal replacement either. If one accepts that culture is important, then it should a) be in places that people can access and b) not be the exclusive preserve of the public sector or large corporations.

4. Representing: This highlights wider property supply issues to be concerned about. There are reasons why artists in particular are likely to be indicators of urban change. They can use space more flexibly than other businesses and so can move into less developed areas. However, as they are often freelancers and need to rent studio as well as living space they are also particularly exposed to economic change. This combined with arguably having greater visibility than many workers mean that the effects on them of increasing rents are more public. The issues about where artists live and work therefore reflect the wider problems of lack of supply in housing and commercial space markets.

We should care about the displacement of creative and cultural activity from urban areas, but we need to be clear about why we care to have a sensible discussion about how to deal with this. This is also about understanding places better. It’s about moving beyond anecdote and starting to systematically understand the role of creativity and culture in cities.[9] Something that’s becoming ever more possible through the growth in data on cities and our interactions with them. Indeed, Nesta will be looking at aspects of this in a new empirical research project on the geography of culture starting shortly.

This is not to suggest that data will ever lead to the role of creativity and culture in cities becoming a technocratic exercise. This is no #datawillsaveus. A better knowledge of the issues doesn’t necessarily remove difficult trade-offs. Using data to help understand cities should though, in the long-term, help us to preserve great old buildings, create inspiring new ones and culture-rich places where we’re all happier. That’s cool.

Acknowledgements: Thanks go to Sam Mitchell for his helpful comments. For an exploration of a wide range of cultural issues in London see the recent set of essays on culture published by Centre for London.

This article first appeared on Nesta’s blog.

John Davies, Nesta
John Davies is an economic research fellow on the creative and digital economy at Nesta. He is currently looking at activities at the intersection of art and technology, using social media and web-scraped data. He has also used Twitter data to understand the effects of events and analysed the UK’s creative and high-tech economies.

Prior to Nesta he worked as English Heritage’s economist and led their social and economic research team. He has also worked as an economics consultant and as a civil servant in a number of Government Departments.


[1] To give one example the Grade II listed Pheasantry on the Kings Road, home to Eric Clapton and Germaine Greer among others in the 1960s, is now the venue of a well-known Pizza franchise. For more detail on the Kings road see: Decharne, C. (2006). ‘The King’s Road: The Rise and Fall of the Hippest Street in the World’

[2] Michael Bond’s ‘Paddington’ (1958), Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970), Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Line of Beauty (2004). To say nothing of also featuring in Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners (1959) and Richard Curtis’ Notting Hill (1999). For descriptions of Notting Hill’s role in London’s cultural life in the second half of the 20th century see Miles, B. (2010) ‘London Calling A countercultural history of London since 1945’ and Glinnert, E. (2003), ‘The London compendium’.

[3] Visit Britain have described Camden market as the fourth most popular visitor attraction in London.

[4] The reasons why many clubs in the UK have closed in recent years are not completely clear, but one of the contributory factors in addition to increased rents is thought to be changes in how people listen to music and the growth of visiting festivals and bars acting as replacement. For a discussion of how pop music has moved around London see Stanley, B., ‘Sounds of the Street’ in Centre for London (2016), ‘essays on culture’.

[5] For information on the population of Lisbon see Lisbon Camera Municipal (2015), Lisbon in figures p11 and for a comparison of GDP per capita with London and Berlin see p13.

[6] Williams, S. and Currid-Halkett (2014),’Industry in Motion: Using Smart Phones to Explore the Spatial Network of the Garment Industry in New York City’, Plosone. Viram, T. and Malem, W. (2015), ‘Re-articulating the Creative Hub Concept as a Model for Business Support in the Local Creative Economy: The Case of Mare Street in Hackney’.

[7] Florida, R. (2002), ‘The rise of the creative class’.

[8] Fujiwara, D. and Mackerron, G.,’Cultural activities artforms and wellbeing’ (2015) find that doing cultural activities rank very highly in terms of effects on personal wellbeing in an analysis using data sourced from a mobile phone app.

[9] Part of this is also about distinguishing creative from cultural activity more cleanly. For a discussion of why this is more important see the recent publication by Hasan Bakhshi and Stuart Cunningham on clarifying cultural policy in the creative industries.