Charles Landry

Renowned urban thinker imagines a bright, arts-based future for Belfast

When you think about Belfast how do you imagine the city? Maybe in your mind’s eye the city takes canine form - always by your side, faithful, familiar, supportive. Perhaps it calls up an image of a svelte, mysterious woman, its streets an open invitation to mischief and adventure. Or, for the less imaginative, it could just be a higgledy-piddedly agglomeration of steel, brick and human flesh. 

According to Charles Landry, one of the world’s leading authorities on city futures, the answer is remarkably straightforward: ‘Think of your city as if it were a living, breathing work of art.’

Landry, director of the consultancy firm Comedia and author of a series of influential doorstops on the role of culture in urban regeneration, is speaking to a packed Black Box about ‘how culture and place can re-invigorate the economy, enhancing the sense of self and confidence’, as part of this year’s Belfast Festival.

‘The city is a place where strangers meet, where many different things happen but it is also a place where there is communication. The big issue is how you change thinking about cities,’ he explicates in dulcet, Home Counties tones.

The crux of Landry’s work for the past quarter of a century has been 'city-making' or as he puts it, ‘getting citizens to fall in love with their cities.’

Throughout the evening’s discussion, which, at over an hour, is slightly overlong, Landry identifies the main challenge facing modern cities, Belfast included, as the management of two simultaneous dialectics: the citizen’s desire for both stimulation and calm and the tension between local identity and an increasingly globalised culture.

The sobriquets for the economy arising out of global changes in production processes are numerous - design, knowledge, ideas, creative – but for Landry the key to economic growth is putting culture at the forefront of urban planning. ‘What is the cost of not thinking about culture?’ he asks rhetorically at one point. 

Citing Richard Florida’s controversial work on the creative class – its central thesis is those working directly in and supporting the arts represent an ascendant economic class – Landry argues that all non-primary cities, those not global financial players, such as Belfast, must draw on their place distinctiveness and cultural assets to create a niche for themselves.

Landry conceives of urban society in terms of affect - ‘We need to look at how cities affect people psychologically and emotionally. How they facilitate happiness,’ he explains.

He contrasts this with the ‘pervasive ugliness’ that blights modern cities – citing examples such as tower blocks, flyovers and industrial detritus - and which, he argues, directly contribute to social problems like ill-health, crime and anti-social behaviour. Displaying photographs of dark, foreboding court houses in the US, he argues that such ‘ugliness’ condemns all as ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

The physical remnants of the recent past are something Landry struggles with. He’s obviously an opponent of modernism, implicitly accusing it of anti-aestheticism, but how he proposes dealing with the landscape we have been bequeathed is unclear.

‘We need to be culturally sensitive but artistically imaginative with the fabric of the past,’ he explains. His favourite city is Paris and he extols the virtues of its dense old towns and breezy boulevards but such an attractive past is absent from most cities, Belfast included.

A global traveller, Landry spends his time city hopping and is fond of comparing cities - references to Stavanger, Toronto, Seoul and countless others abound during the talk. While his global reach is impressive it can also create a flattened, context-free world view.

For example, he blithely assumes that interculturalism – the new linguistic framing for managing diverse societies that has replaced multiculturalism in policy speak – solves once and for all the thorny question of difference in the city, ignoring the continued, and growing, salience of issues around culture and religion in western societies. Similarly, in a very brief reference to the conflict here, he shows a picture of a peaceline in Ardoyne and suggests that Belfast has problems with ‘connectivity’ it needs to solve. Well, tell us something we don't know.

But there is much to admire and recommend in Landry’s thinking. The focus on ethics and sustainability in urban planning is both laudable and necessary – he criticises Dubai not for lacking creativity but rather its ethical failings. ‘Building a minus ten degree ski slope in the middle of the hottest place on earth is very dubious,’ he adds.

Landry illustrates his argument that art can be a pivotal regenerative and transformative urban force – first developed in books like The Art of City Making and The Creative City – with selections of attractive, engaging photographs from successful projects including the repainting of dank, grey tower blocks in Tirana, Albania, in bright, vibrant colours and the redesign of an abandoned industrial park in Leipzig, Germany.

The importance of creativity and innovation for the economy of the 21st century is a leitmotif of Landry’s thinking, but he does not expand on the specific policies and structures - what he calls the ‘hard and soft infrastructure’ - needed to support these bold aspirations. Instead he recommends the nurturing among the citizen body of an ‘embedded culture of imagination’ that, as a policy agenda, sounds uncomfortably nondescript.

Charles Landry may not give us all the answers but his provocative, impassioned presentation at the Black Box makes a powerful case for seeing and exploiting – in the softest meaning of the term - the value in Belfast’s unique culture and place.

Sympathetically managed and encouraged, the creative arts have the potential to realise a bright future for the city and all its citizens. Now, that’s the kind of message that should speak to the movers and shakers across the Cathedral Quarter and, hopefully, all the way up to Stormont. 

For more info on Charles Landry's work and writing click here

Peter Geoghegan