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Building Livable Communities

Most of our cities and towns have become more “live-able” in the past 30 years in that people genuinely want to live here. However, these increasingly dense places must be sustained as livable communities. For this purpose, urban planners, museums and cultural organizations (my specialism) need to engage with the organizations and institutions that build communities through health and well-being initiatives, affordable housing, education, senior living, welcoming immigrants and job creation. These partnerships are explored in my recent book, Cities, Museums and Soft Power[1]

“Soft power” is a concept that was developed by Professor Joseph Nye in the early 1990s to explain how influence can flow from persuasion, attraction and agenda-setting rather than the hard power of military and economic means. In the past four years “soft power” has been increasingly discussed as part of global cultural diplomacy. However our book focused on the application of “soft power” to communities and especially to how museums, heritage and culture can help build society-minded networks that accelerate cultural change and empower citizens to create more livable communities. We identified 32 ways for cities and cultural organizations to co-activate their soft power. Here are four of them --

1. Learning for a Lifetime

This is especially important because people change jobs and move more often than previous generations. Continual upskilling is important for everyone. And the liveable community is one where people learn together – in public schools, libraries, community spaces and museums.

2. Bridging and Bonding

Sociologist Robert Putnam[2] identifies these two behaviours that build social capital, by which is meant the ability of people to solve problems together: bridging occurs when people of different backgrounds share ideas; while bonding is when people from similar backgrounds (or with similar ideas) come together to support one another. We have seen how in the past 20 years, digital technology has tended to reinforce bonding of homogenious groups even when society has become more heterogenious. Cultural organizations too often bond people who have similar education or cultural values – just look at our cultural boards! Sustainable communities create opportunities to connect people of different backgrounds making space for new ideas -- and that’s what cities need.

3. Power Diffusion

Civil society institutions have the greatest capacity for soft power because they share power. Power diffusion is to soft power what power concentration is to hard power. Successful civil society cultural institutions have diverse networked boards, advisory councils, outward looking policies, opportunities for hiring and advancement reflecting the diversity of the community, and meaningful volunteer and internship programmes.

4. Cultural Commons

Cities are recognizing the value in their histories as a way to attract creative industries, investment, new residents and tourists through heritage and arts districts, adaptive re-use of heritage buildings and cultural tourism. These special districts provide a sense of place, linking past, present and future in a complex changing community. A heritage building will have a meaning for newcomers that is quite different from the meanings ascribed by historically minded preservationists which is different again from the meanings of indigenous people. Celebrating the diversity of stories in a place creates a “cultural commons” rather than an “attraction”.

[1] Gail Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg, “Cities, Museums and Soft Power,” The AAM Press, 2015. [2] Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone” Toronto, 2000