Gentrifying Cities Are Trying To Save The Art That Made Them Cool

Cities are resorting to unusual programs–like appointing a “night mayor”–to save their artistic souls.

Gentrification is spurring affordability crises in cities around the world. Amongst the first casualties, often, are arts and culture. As rents go up and cookie-cutter development goes in, artists are pushed out–robbing cities of their creative souls.


“[In] most major cities 4% to 12% of the workforce is employed in the creative economy–and the creative economy is dominated by microenterprises and self-employed people, those most vulnerable to the affordability crisis,” writes Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, a Toronto urban development nonprofit, in a new report on the issue. “No city has yet figured out how to address the scale of this challenge.”

Could the right policy help slow the tide of gentrification? It’s an idea that the World Cities Culture Forum–a network of more than 30 cities around the world, focused on arts and culture–is studying. The forum’s new report Making Space for Culturepublished in partnership with Artscape and BOP Consulting, looks at how some cities are approaching the problem. From creative placemaking projects and inclusionary zoning to social-purpose real estate and leasing city assets at below-market rates for cultural use, the report offers a tool kit to help other cities nurture and protect their artistic communities.

Yet policy changes like tax incentives and rezoning take time, and meanwhile, rents are rising. Is this a case of too little too late on the part of city governments, or can these strategies help retain arts and culture? Here’s what three gentrifying cities did to help artists–and the lessons they learned.

London: Singer Rumer performing at Half Moon. [Photo: courtesy of Greater London Authority]

London: Help Small, Indie Music Venues Stay Open (And Appoint A Night Mayor)

Before they were famous, musicians like The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Adele got their start in London’s small, independent music venues. But in recent years, many of these clubs have closed down–and new ones weren’t taking their place. Part of the problem? Rents are rising, licenses for these types of businesses are hard to obtain, and noise complaints are plentiful.

In 2015, the city set up a Music Venue Task Force composed of artists and government officials from multiple departments to consider the issue and come up with a plan to stop the decline. Their research showed that the city had lost 35% of its venues. The city developed a Rescue Plan, which involved naming a Night Mayor–an official in charge of advocating for nightlife interests–and changing building codes to ensure new residential development is soundproofed to mitigate against noise.

In 2016, the city saw no net loss in music venues. The report concludes that London’s efforts were successful–the city gave hard evidence about the problem, created a strong media strategy to advocate for why nightlife is important to the health and vitality of the city, and formed a task force with representation from all stakeholders involved.

San Francisco: Neon Lighting Event. [Photo: © Scott inn/courtesy San Francisco Arts Commission]

San Francisco: Sell Property To Artists, Not Developers

The San Francisco Bay Area has long embraced the tech industry, which is responsible for the region’s thriving economy. But that–in combination with the fact that 75,000 people have moved to San Francisco in the past decade while only 15,000 new housing units have been added–has led to astronomical real estate prices.

In 2013, a group of investors interested in preserving the city’s culture launched the Community Arts Stabilization Trust–essentially a real estate holding company–to help address the dearth of affordable space. Investors in CAST receive tax breaks for their contributions and CAST then uses the money to buy property and renovate it. Then, the trust leases it to arts organizations at below-market rates using a rent-to-own model to help stimulate long-term affordability. So far, two buildings have been renovated and leased under this model. Now, CAST is working on a mapping project to find more properties that could be eligible for this type of treatment in San Francisco and Oakland.

There are three big takeaways from CAST’s strategy. First, it takes a long time. Second, it necessitates significant capital. And third, it requires looking at properties that aren’t already on the market since it’s so competitive. To achieve its goals, CAST needed to partner with private developers and property owners who are sympathetic to the issue–and not driven purely by profit. In many cities, those partners will be hard to come by.

Sydney: William Street Creative Hub. [Photo: courtesy City of Sydney]

Sydney: Overhaul Planning Policy To Include The Arts

Sydney has already embraced progressive-minded mixed-use planning, but its definition of mixed-used tended to favor commercial and residential uses–not the types of space that creative organizations and artists need.

In 2015, Sydney launched a project called Creative Spaces and the Built Environment. The idea was to get a grasp on what types of spaces creative groups really need, convening public forums and workshops where artists, planners, architects, and surveyors came together to explore potential solutions to the lack of sufficient space. The effort resulted in a paper called New Ideas for Old Buildings, and its findings are now helping the city improve its policies that affect creative industries–for instance, how to regulate temporary performance spaces. The key takeaway here? To create better policy, involve arts and culture issues in branches of government, like planning, where they’re not always present.

No city has truly “solved” the problem of preserving arts and culture, but the report offers cities around the world a glimpse of how their peers are responding to the challenges of gentrification. You can check out the full report here.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.