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Compost Cities: A new way of developing urban creativity


The last twenty years of cultural masterplanning, biennials and me-too urbanism has finally revelaed its fruits – nothing at all! The city is no more ‘cultural’ than when we started.  We need  new models of urban culture and its production and propagation in the city, ones that look at culture as a production process as messy as Victorian industry rather than a series of santised objects or economically successful businesses , as Robert Smithson once said, “They must think art is dead… they keep putting it in mausoleums! In fact, culture is fungal, by definition:  and it grows in cracks and fissures in the city.



Cities are dynamic, living things, and they and the things in them bloom and decay, and this process is difficult, if not impossible, to manage. The current strategy among city governors and urbanists is to try and create an arts quarter, built around some edifice such as a venue or centre. However, this generally fails, for two reasons: firstly that the venue is a charity, and eventually money runs out, and secondly because culture is an underground thing, and most players do not want to be part of anything ‘official’, so go elsewhere.  We need a new transaction dynamic that is inclusive, and liberal, I call this the compost city.


The idea of composting is well-known to gardeners who use their waste to produce new fertilizer, but is less well-known in civic governance. The Compost City starts with the recognition that culture is an emergent phenomenon, and generally occurs in urban areas, and generally produced by ‘outsiders’.  Cutlural producers are wild things – they need to live in forests and not zoos.  When we analyse cultural quarters of cities – areas such as The Northern Quarter, Manchester; Rope Walks, Liverpool; or Clerkenwell or Hackney in London, we find there is a key duality – they are creative places, but also dangerous places.  In the first instance cultural players are drawn there for three reasons: the first is pschyo-geographic – that these places ‘have an edge’ , the second is market-based, that they are visible to the consumer,  and finally pragmatism: they are cheap to occupy.

The places of production of culture (above) are nothing like the places of consumption (below)



These areas are the spatial context and, as culture is emergent, then this spatial context ends up shaping the culture, making it unique and ‘place-based’. This is clearly obvious in Manchester, where the post-industrial derelict city shaped and finally branded its music as ‘industrial’ and then as ‘Manchester music’, which is very different from ‘Liverpool music’ produced only 50km away.


Although it may be possible to determine the apparently perfect mix of classes and peoples, for a creative city, as Richard Florida suggests, it is much more difficult to attract them to an area, even using architectural design. The reason for this is that the production of architecture and its permanence is much slower in development than the culture that it is responding to. This is put eloquently by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus: ‘The areas of consensus shift unbelievably fast: the bubbles of certainty are constantly exploding…increasingly there is a discrepancy between the acceleration of culture and the slowness of architecture’.  This means that we can never design and produce buildings quick enough for specific cultures, and there will always be redundant, ill-fitting buildings in the city, as the production of physical space in the city creates a time-lag, and this time-lag manifests itself in redundant infrastructure - fissures, and culture likes this sort of space.


The new urban dynamic and its management

We need a new dynamic, process-based city-culture model which is ecological and successional:

Decay: the key to the process is that redundant city infrastructure decays very quickly: business and people move out and property prices decrease. This spatial dynamic creates an environment I have coined ‘the collapsoscape’.  In the collapsoscape, almost any new intervention is guaranteed to fail, as the economics of speculation are in reverse: buildings depreciate instead of appreciating when finished. This creates an uncertain market that quickens the decline. Eventually all that is left is decaying buildings at rock-bottom prices.


Colonisation by producers: This ecology is perfect for alternative underground culture to grow, as creative people are generally on low incomes and are short of money, and rents will be peppercorn, and the general decay creates the edge that is needed. The place will be colonized particularly quickly if the redundant infrastructure is within walking distance of the places of consumption in the city.


Consumer awareness:  Comsumption of culture is key for its propagation: the people who are early consumers of this underground culture are of two types: firstly, those in rapture, young people, for example students from colleges and universities or dropouts from them; and secondly, usually by general revulsion, the establishment. Thus the area generally needs to be near or en-route to both these sectors’ zones in the city—for the first the university campus and secondly the Central Business District. This is important, particularly for visual arts, as the intended audience, both friend and foe, needs to be nearby. 


Recontextualisation: The use of this redundant space by alternative cultures ends its redundancy and the space is recontextualized and then rebranded as art/creative space. Larger market players in the creative industry flock to the area as they feed on young talent. This completes the turnaround, as this sort of space is very popular with media types and developers, because when rebranded, it creates a friendly street scene that is good to inhabit.: the edge has gone.


Regeneration  Now the area has new value, people begin to speculate, and the area regenerates. Underground culture then moves on, to cheaper more edgy haunts. This dynamic is seen clearly in Manchester with the later development of the Northern Quarter once Hulme had regenerated during the late 1990s and early 2000s.


Thus the redevelopment of the collapsoscape cannot be forced: like its collapse, its resurgence is emergent too. The dynamic of composting needs to be adhered to, and short-term fixes are difficult.  Creative industries are ephemeral and the contexts they create equally fleeting: Cities need to engage with the dynamic and work with it rather than against it, this means supporting the underground (the compost) , rather than the existing big players (the flowers).  The problem is cities usually do not want to engage in this way- either socially, economically or spatially, as it is too messy.  Which is exactly the issue: cultural production is messy.


Greg Keeffe

Professor of Architecture

Queens University Belfast.

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