Why urban spaces are being reimagined as cultural districts

Cities are recognising the immense economic and social value of integrating culture in their local communities. Urban spaces around the world are being reimagined as cultural districts to serve this purpose.

What makes them distinct is not only their unique aesthetic appearance, but also their exciting menu of cultural offerings at world-class museums, large performance halls, art galleries, artist studios, libraries, educational institutions, music or media production studios, green spaces, arts-related retail outlets, and dining establishments.

Cultural districts deliver significant economic benefits to cities as they position themselves as hubs for attracting lucrative creative businesses, talents, tourists, and local residents to their abodes.

Dr. Douglas Noonan, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, measured the economic impacts of 99 urban cultural districts in the US, and found that they have a propensity to boost property values, incomes, employment, and turnover in the area.

Major tourist attractions

Cultural districts are major tourist attractions as they offer a glimpse into the city’s exciting cultural scene, promising many unforgettable experiences. They also promote the hosting of conventions, group tours, business meetings, or special events in their creative surroundings. The World Tourism Organisation estimates that cultural tourists make up 35.8 per cent of total tourism.

Additionally, research shows that regular access to cultural and creative activities improves physical and mental well-being, in addition to enhancing social cohesion, fostering cultural dialogue, and increasing citizen pride of their city’s unique culture and heritage.

Many cities have successfully revitalised urban spaces with exciting cultural districts that offer rewarding visitor experiences, such as Paris, Seoul, Melbourne, London, and New York. For example, the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong is considered one of the largest cultural projects in the world.

This marvellous 40 hectare urban space overlooks the mesmerising Victoria Harbor and brings together an exceptional menu of cultural offerings. The Hong Kong Palace Museum is planned as a 7,800 square meters of gallery space displaying remarkable paintings, calligraphy, decorative arts, and rare books.

Once completed, the M+ building will be one of the largest museums in the world dedicated to modern and contemporary visual culture. The Art Park is a gorgeous green space planted with a variety of flora and fauna for visitors to picnic, walk pets, ride bikes, relax, and play in.

Visitors can also enjoy many open-air performances, cultural events, and exhibitions, as well as grab a meal at the harbour-side restaurants and caf├ęs. The area will also include hospitality, retail, entertainment facilities, office spaces, and residential developments that are well integrated with the everyday life of the city.

Promoting art and culture

The Melbourne Arts Precinct is currently undergoing a massive transformation to become one of the top creative and cultural destinations globally. It currently has one of the highest concentrations of cultural and creative organisations in the world and is home to world-class arts education and training institutions, art galleries, theatres, music venues, public art installations, studios, creative co-working spaces, and restaurants.

Each year, these venues collectively deliver 3000 performances and exhibitions. The Victorian Government recently announced a $1.46 billion budget to add new facilities to the area, including a new 18,000 square meter public garden, a new gallery dedicated to contemporary art and design, a new performing arts gallery, transport upgrades, and spaces and facilities to support small and medium creative enterprises.

The Cultural District in Pittsburgh’s downtown is a sprawling arts and entertainment scene, attracting over 2 million visitors yearly. The 14-square-block area is dotted with seven top-notch theatres, a dozen art galleries, eight public parks and art installations, fifty dining establishments, and ninety retail outlets.

Furthermore, its year-long calendar is packed with exhilarating events and programs for visitors to discover a multitude of offerings, such as live entertainment, contemporary music, dance, visual art, classical music, operas, ballets, musicals, and films.

In recent years, the UAE has been the cradle of cultural and creative cities. Its city maps are dotted with a suite of sparkling world-class cultural attractions, such as book fairs, literary festivals, film premieres, art exhibitions, and live performances.

The city of Abu Dhabi, for example, is home to the Saadiyat Cultural District, which hosts state-of-the-art museums, such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim, Manarat Al Saadiyat, and Zayed National Museum. Recently, Abu Dhabi announced plans to invest $6 billion over five years to develop its creative industries. This will include investments in new museums, in addition to the performing arts, gaming, media, and music sectors.

Dubai also enjoys an avant-garde cultural presence with a terrific calendar of cultural events, such as Art Dubai, Dubai Design Week, and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The Dubai Design District is a trendsetting hub for creatives in the fields of design, fashion, and culture.

It offers a mix of commercial and co-working spaces, retail spaces, and warehouses. The “in5 Centre” enables aspiring students, entrepreneurs, and professionals to incubate their ideas successfully via access to creative workspaces, specialised facilities, workshops, events, mentorships, internships, and investors.

Recently, Dubai announced the Al Quoz Creative Zone project as a new creative hotspot, serving as a hub that offers rental spaces, facilities, services, and incentives for creative businesses and talents to thrive in the city. The Al Quoz Vanguards’ programme will attract world-class brands to set up shop in Dubai, further augmenting its image as a creative destination.

Indeed, the development of cultural districts in the UAE are much-welcomed assets for flourishing its economy and offering rewarding experiences for its visitors.

Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature



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