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ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Arts and culture can put a city on the map Add to ...

In Stratford, Ont., the Stratford Shakespeare Festival plays a central role in the local economy. Launched in 1953 and now North America's largest not-for-profit theatre company, the festival sells $32-million worth of tickets during its April-to-November season.

For each ticket sold, patrons spend $288 on local dining, shopping and hotels (30 per cent of festival-goers come from outside Canada). “There's a lot of activity that happens uniquely because there's a theatre here,” says Antoni Cimolino, the festival's general director.

But if the City of Stratford has transformed itself from a railway and furniture-making town into a theatrical and culinary destination, it's no tourist trap. Many residents work in farming and manufacturing, and the city of 32,000 owes much of its pleasant character to an extensive park system.

In urban planning and consulting parlance, Stratford has a high quality of place. “It's a real town,” Mr. Cimolino says. “You go into some communities that are based on tourism and you can't buy a pair of socks. Everything looks plastic. That is not the case in Stratford.”

Increasingly, Canadian cities are striving to create a unique identity – and give themselves an economic boost – by making culture an integral part of their appeal. In recent years, they’ve been catching up to their global peers’ cultural planning efforts, says Greg Baeker, Toronto-based director of cultural development at the economic development consulting firm Millier Dickinson Blais.

Across Canada, such plans encompass cultural amenities and urban design, as well as the economic role of creative cultural industries, Mr. Baeker says. “Cities are beginning to try to look at these issues less in a piecemeal way and more in a holistic and integrated way.”

As part of a strategy to draw new businesses and residents, as well as overnight visitors, Stratford has strengthened its cultural offerings – a key element of quality of place. Mayor Dan Mathieson says the resulting blend of artistic and epicurean experiences, including a food festival linked to the region's agricultural roots, is helping to bring jobs to town.

In November, Royal Bank of Canada will open a $400-million, 400,000-square-foot data centre in Stratford. A new breed of settler is arriving, too. “We're starting to see a lot of those people who can live anywhere decide to take root here, and they might telecommute or commute to work,” Mr. Mathieson says.

Culture can mean big economic benefits for cities of all sizes. Last year, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival had an economic impact of almost $140-million and generated about 3,000 full-time jobs, according to the Conference Board of Canada. With revenue of $59-million, it yielded more than $75-million in taxes. Nationally, the Conference Board pegged the economic impact of the cultural sector at $85-billion in 2007.

Among cities worldwide, Glasgow is a pioneer of cultural planning, Mr. Baeker says. Designated a European Capital of Culture in 1990, Scotland's biggest city invested the accompanying EU funding in an integrated plan. “Culture-led economic development with quality of place at the centre of that is what they've been doing ever since,” Mr. Baeker says, adding that Seattle, Wash., and Austin, Tex., have seen similar success.

When Mr. Baeker works with a community, one of the first things he does is map its cultural assets. This includes creative industries and art galleries, but also heritage districts and conservation areas.

On their own, Mr. Baeker warns, cultural resources won't transform a local economy. Besides making a city interesting and attractive to talented people, they form just one part of an economic diversification strategy, he says.

Saskatoon, Sask., did cultural mapping with Mr. Baeker as part of the research for its new Culture Plan. Kevin Kitchen, the city’s community initiatives manager, helped spearhead the plan, which aims to integrate culture into all aspects of city building.

During community consultations, employers stressed the importance of arts and culture, including a symphony orchestra and thriving festivals. Among them were representatives of the University of Saskatchewan, Mr. Kitchen says. “When they're trying to attract not only national but international talent, these are some of the things that help sell the university.”

As important as symphonies and festivals are to quality of place, municipal governments shouldn't overlook good urban design. Michel Trocmé, a partner at Toronto-based urban planning and design firm Urban Strategies Inc., notes that his hometown just opened Sherbourne Park ahead of the waterfront development that will occur next to it.

Thanks to this early investment in quality of place, the City of Toronto can sell parcels of land to developers for a premium. “The other way of looking at it is that you're also pro-actively inviting business into your city by doing those sorts of things,” Mr. Trocmé says.

Among Mr. Trocmé's current projects is a waterfront development in Singapore. On the one hand, he says, the city-state has a sophisticated planning process. On the other hand, “Many parts of Singapore still feel very much like a kind of '50s and '60s approach to city planning, where the peas don't touch the chicken, and that doesn't touch the mashed potatoes.”

In its winning pitch to Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority, Urban Strategies invoked the mix-used development that works so well in Toronto: low-scale neighbourhoods next to medium- and high-rise buildings. On individual blocks, upstart businesses coexist with Class A office space, and housing accommodates young families and retired couples.

“So there's something here in Toronto that we sometimes take for granted,” Mr. Trocmé says, “but which is a fantastic model for how cities, especially like Singapore, can create this much more living diversity that is really about quality of place.”

Getting started

Three ways to create a better “quality of place,” according to Michel Trocmé, partner at the Toronto-based urban planning and design firm Urban Strategies Inc.:

Think of cities as city regions: “Often we’re focusing on city centre projects – ones that are quick wins or have a sex appeal that gets a fair bit of political mileage – and we’re forgetting about the Scarboroughs and the Etobicokes [suburbs] of the world.”

Be smart about high-density development: “As you make things more dense, you’re doing a number of fabulous things. You’re increasing the sustainability of a place, for sure. But how you bring things together in a way that isn’t a total mess – but on the contrary, maximizes the benefits of each one – gets more and more critical.”

Don’t sacrifice quality for speed: “Now we have these cities that are mushrooming overnight, especially in Asia. The challenge there is how to create quality of place in a city that doesn’t have the same time to mature as the cities we’ve learned to love in North America and Europe and elsewhere.”

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