Illustration by Ernst Haeckel. Art Forms in Nature.

This cultural life.

The cultural wellbeing and resilience of cities.

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” ― Mary Oliver

We find ourselves here, on a trajectory to somewhere — but we are not entirely sure where.

Hurtling faster than ever before — to an existence somewhere between catastrophic systems failure and ultimately extinction, or a robust and flourishing, regenerative future.

Some cities and regions are already vulnerable and failing, drenched in greed and corruption, rapidly depleting local natural resources, generating unprecedented biodiversity and habitat loss, resulting in vast inequality, poverty, hostility, crime, and civil unrest.

The opposite is also true.

There are cities and regions working determinedly and earnestly every day to restore and protect natural ecosystems and food production, strengthen the local social and cultural fabric, and enrich the dignity and wellbeing of all citizens into the future.

And then there is everything in between.

We are living it all — albeit unequally, despite having all evolved from the same beginnings. The same stardust, amoebas, mushrooms, and apes into cultural beings. Complex thinking, sensing and feeling creatures with an innate and insatiable need to connect, belong, make sense of things and wonder.

We have evolved to be complex, cultural creatures that can ponder our past, postulate our purpose and even predict various aspects of our future.

Civilisations have flourished and failed for many tens of thousands of years and the enduing wisdom and ways of being of our First Nations people demonstrates how we might live sustainably.

Cultural ecologies

Through our connections and interactions we generate and inhabit cultural ecosystems, cultural ecologies as vastly complex and as diverse as our physical habitats, yet far less understood and even more mysterious to observe, but crucially important to building identity and character of local places and the cultural resilience of our cities.

These cultural ecologies are alive, dynamically metabolising, interacting, responding, reacting, adapting, evolving, and informing everything. Shaping how we treat each other, how we express our values and what matters to us most, how we interact and collaborate, how we govern, what we tolerate and protect, grow, design, build, destroy, mine and manufacture, what is celebrated, lamented, protested and what is grieved.

Our creative and cultural life emerges from a rich ecosystem.

Eco is an ancient word that means house or habitat. Like any habitat the creative and cultural ecosystem of a city or region comprises a diverse range of interdependent and interrelated elements.

Makers, artists and cultural producers, audiences, spaces and infrastructure, venues, facilities, public places and public art assets, libraries, cultural sites and collections, bookshops, live music venues, artist studios.

Experiences, happenings, activities (busking, public space interventions and activities) and events (festivals, music, exhibitions, film screenings, performances) as well as art, cultural outcomes and products.

Education across the spectrum from school curriculum, courses, training, workshops, enterprise support and skills development and academia.

All part of a interdependent distributed network influenced by systems of governance and decision making, strategies, policies, roles, processes, funding, data, internal and external relationships and partnerships.

Building cultural resilience

Cultural resilience defines a place.

It can be seen and felt, it can be sensed and perceived. However, many of our existing systems, structures, policies, and processes that shape our places and ways of life, fail to recognise the rich spiritual, emotional, and intellectual complexity of our rich cultural ecologies.

It is evident in the vibe of a place, the ambience and aesthetic of a place, its mood, the mindsets, and the meanings. It is also apparent in the way people interact, their trust and regard for one another and their confidence in the capability, reliability, and honesty of the community. The capacity and motivation of citizens to contribute to the community and decision making is another indicator.

Levels of curiosity, imagination, expression, and creativity also provide valuable insight into the adaptive capacity of a community; the capacity of a community to seek and explore new ways of being, generate new ideas and then bring them to life. This is important in all aspects of society from considering the way we see the world to designing and developing enterprising innovations.

It is well recognised that innovation essential to productivity and competitive advantage which drives wealth and economic prosperity.

Innovation is essentially creativity, applied (through some sort of design) to create value — either as a cultural outcome, an industrial product or a new way of doing things — such as a systems change. Curiosity, imagination, awe and wonder are essential for the generation of new and diverse ideas.

Insight into one’s own thinking and behaviour as well as our affinity with each other, place and our natural world, shapes our individual and collective capacity to endure, predict and respond to diverse and changing conditions.

Cultural wellbeing can also be observed though the diversity, depth and integrity of artistic and cultural expression, discussion, and debate. The stories told through a city’s public art collection, and the nature of other artistic offerings. A city’s cultural artefacts and collections as well as the reach and relevance of the public programs presented by galleries, museums, and other cultural organisations.

It is through artistic and cultural expression that we can explore, understand, form, negotiate and renew our values. This is crucially important in our cities which are comprised mostly of strangers who share a place. People with different personal histories, customs, and traditions and at times vastly differing values and views of life and the world and with often profoundly different levels of influence and agency.

When cultural expression is oppressed, we protest. When protest is oppressed, we fight or flee or sadly struggle to simply survive, until it changes again.

The meaning of municipal life

Wherever we find ourselves amid this rich web of life, local municipalities play a vital role as custodians, curators, guardians, stewards, caretakers, and conductors.

Custodians of sacred artefacts, sites and places, collectors of cultural objects and artworks, landlords, guardians, and curators of stories in museums, galleries, theatres, and public space.

Conductors, attracting or repelling artists and cultural producers to live, produce and share their work and the stewards of processes that either incentivise or obstruct creative and cultural activity.

Municipalities also play a vital role in shaping local identity, honouring the natural and human history of the place, knowing, and celebrating what matters most to the local community.

After many years of working alongside extraordinary municipal leaders grappling with the glorious ambiguity of enriching the cultural wellbeing of local people in their communities, cities and regions, some common questions emerge when trying to consider the cultural impact on particular decisions.

When viewed as a set of lenses or a compass, which are by no means finite, these questions invite conversations that provide deeper insight into possible impacts and greater wisdom, beyond data.

Cultural Compass — by Urban Mind Studio

These questions allow for consideration of the possible and likely impacts of decisions on various aspects of cultural wellbeing and resilience, the vibe of a place, values, creativity, connection, and interaction.

Regardless of what challenges, disasters, and catastrophes we encounter into the future, the success and failure of cities and regions, and ultimately humanity’s existence, will be determined by cultural wellbeing and resilience.

Strengthening cultural wellbeing and resilience through considering the impact of all decisions on culture and building strong creative and cultural ecosystems is possibly among the powerful of ways to generate a prosperous future, for all humankind.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store