In our major cities, it is the city center and central business districts that have been most affected by the changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. It felt most intensely in central London, where trading fell by 52%, while outlying communities and suburbs saw a combined drop of 27%. The appeasement of business districts and city centers, reconfigured and priced according to where we work rather than where we live, has been felt everywhere. In 2021, Paris saw its economic activity 37% drop. In Madrid, it is estimated 5.4% of the workforce lost their jobs during the first two pandemic waves. The return to normal in London, the UK’s largest city, is still lagging behind smaller regional towns. London saw footfall growth of 3.1% in January, compared to 7.1% in smaller cities.
This created what was mentioned to “Zoom Towns,” locations close to major cities where property prices have risen due to the possibility of working from home. In the United States, growth was most widespread in adjacent towns or suburbs, according to The Economist. Living close to the big city, but with room for a home office for those who can afford it, continues to challenge the conditions that supported city centers and business districts before Covid-19.
In May 2021, urban planner Richard Florida wrote an article for Bloomberg, wondering if this change would lead to the death of the business district. Another way to look at this, whether or not the business district or business center of our big cities continues to decline, is the opportunities for smaller communities not just as Zoom Cities, but as places that can make the most of central activity. neighborhood and create new experiences for residents and businesses. In communities of all sizes, this happens. And it’s driven by investment in the creative economy.
When business was centralized in a particular neighborhood, so was its creative economy. In London, Soho was home to the film industry and Shoreditch was home to emerging music. Williamsburg in Brooklyn took on the same role. And while attendance remains well below pre-pandemic levels in major cities, it’s culture and the creative economy – and the businesses that trade in them – that are seeing an increase in activity, and that increase not limited to large cities. Communities of all sizes benefit. And this diversification can only be seen as positive.
Some industries can only thrive in certain places. Heavy manufacturing requires natural materials, access to shipping lanes and brownfields. Investment banks need access to a stock exchange and high-speed broadband. Agriculture requires land away from cities. But the creative economy – especially the parts of it where intellectual rights are created and monetized – can happen anywhere. A barn in the middle of nowhere may be a historic recording studio. Sculptures can attract tourists in distant places. And it is this recognition of the value of the creative economy that is growing everywhere, and this is partly due to the reduced importance – or changing nature – of the central business district and, for many of us , from the big city.
For example, in Cremona, Italy, a city of 80,000 people southeast of Milan, the city has invested heavily in a state-of-the-art education center, the Stauffer String Academy, dedicated exclusively to the construction, teaching and promotion of stringed instruments. There is history here, as Cremona was home to Stradivarius and remains one of the last centers of violin making in Italy. A similar initiative is underway in Morehead, Kentucky, a town of 8,000 in the Appalachian hills. Here, Morehead State University, the local higher education institution, has developed a one-of-a-kind system Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, with the largest such archive showcasing its regional music. This led to the integration of music into the region’s workforce development strategy and a plan to develop a new international festival to showcase the unique musical and cultural heritage of the city and the region.
Additionally, in Barrow-in-Furness, a small coastal community once called the ‘the unhappiest place in the UK’a new cultural project, supported by £17.5m in funding, specifically targets creative people from the North West to settle there, through a new four-year cultural plan. Other communities, such as London, Ontario, have earned a UNESCO City of Music designation as a tool to compete with neighboring Toronto for artists and creatives.
One opportunity that has emerged from the changing nature of cities and towns throughout the pandemic, and the resulting migration, is the chance for art and culture to drive economic development everywhere. While multinational corporations will remain based in major cities – Hollywood will always remain in Hollywood, for example – communities around the world are realizing the opportunities that the creative economy brings, and this is in part due to the changing nature of the hubs- cities and business centers the districts. And with it, culture and the creative economy are priorities in their economic development plans. Instead of becoming an exception, or something that happens once in a while, cultural development becomes the way to grow as we emerge from the Covid pandemic.