Digbeth sign posting
Image CC Jon Hickman

One of yesterday’s speakers at the kick off event for Creative Metropoles was the Chief Town Planner for Oslo, Ellen S. de Vibe. In her presentation she had a lot to say about how town planning can create an environment to encourage creative industries, and help the city to learn value its creative industries. I was fortunate enough to be sat next to her at the dinner in the evening, and she explained a little more to me about here idea that cities needs to surprise their citizens and visitors, to encourage exploration of the space.

What is interesting about this is if we relate to some of the current thinking about Birmingham and how it should organise itself and its creative industries. For example Stef Lewandowski‘s ambient creativity audit suggested that we need to sign post where creativity happens in the city, so that people can find it. There’s criticism here not of the annexation of creativity to East Side but of the fact that it doesn’t link invitingly to the main districts of the city. This chain of thought might lead us to think in terms of regenerating and re-landscaping the city end of Digbeth so that city visitors are drawn towards the creative hub.

Looking at this from Ellen’s perspective, maybe what we have already is correct? Maybe it should be a “surprise” to find the Custard Factory, The Bond, and Fazeley Studios? Because afterall, as Stef points out:

(it seems) Digbeth must only be for the locals, so I turned back. I mean – I should have taken the hint what with all the stop signs, and even sets of signposts that just point back into the city centre. This isn’t a place you’re supposed to go, right?

Perhaps then the Custard Factory should be the reward, the surprise, for venturing beyond the Bull Ring?

Another way of looking at this was suggested today at Kreative Oslo during a panel discussion on “Creative City Districts”. Here the delegate from Berlin suggested that their success in creating creative districts has come from “unplanned planning”: essentially giving some space for creativity, and letting the creatives organise themselves in a way that suits them.

A final point here, and coming back to the presentation by Ellen S. de Vibe is that if creative districts want the rest of the city to join them in their spaces, then it’s not enough to just be there: you need to give them something so they will find you. Events such as Supersonic seem to lead the way here in bringing attention to creativity in Birmingham, by bringing not just the normal Custard Factory crowd but local, national and international tourism to Digbeth.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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