Category Archives: creative clusters

Preliminary Literature Review – Creative Clusters in Western Context


What are creative clusters? Are they “building clusters” or “people clusters”? How to define creative clusters seems to be the fundamental question at the beginning of this research. According to UNESCO (2006), creative clusters are the geographic concentration which “pool together resources into networks and partnerships to cross-stimulate activities, boost creativity and realise economies of scale.” This definition reveals the components that form the notion of creative clusters. First of all, the “geographic concentration” means proximity in which people can meet, interact and inspire each other. Secondly, networks and partnerships are crucial to build a vibrant vision for clusters. Furthermore, a creative cluster is eligible to produce creativity. Finally, clusters have economic implications that contribute to the overall creative economy.

The above definition paints an idealised image for creative clusters. It echoes Landry’s vision (2000: 133) of “creative milieu”, which is “a place – either a cluster of buildings, a part of a city as a whole or a region – that contains the necessary preconditions in terms of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’  infrastructure to generate a flow of ideas and inventions. Such a milieu is a physical setting where a critical mass of entrepreneurs, intellectuals, social activists, artists, administrators, power brokers or students can operate in an open-minded, cosmopolitan context and where face to face interaction creates new ideas, artefacts, products, services and institutions and as a consequence contributes to economic success.”

The question however is whether those elements always coexist in a creative cluster. This is the central inquiry during the course of examination. This review will further explore the notion of creative clusters by looking at the theoretical aspects of recent debates. The aim is to develop ideas and parameters for clusters, rather than to prove a fixed definition in a determinate way.

Economic or Culture

Creative clusters without doubt have a significant contribution to local economy. The geographic concentration and proximity provides economic advantages ranging from agglomeration of creative knowledge and skills, shared resources and mutual help among other benefits. (Evans 2009; O’Connor 2007) To some extent the economic benefits make the creative economy comparable to other industries, and position it positively in the economic system. However, it is always difficult to combine “culture” and “economics” within cultural policy making (O’Connor & Gu 2010). In many cases, the success of creative clusters is not simply measured by economic profits.

The value of creative clusters far exceeds measureable quantities. Bell and Jayne (c2004) show the concern that the pursuit of capitalism and economic growth without considering “social justice” in contemporary urban development may cause a severe social and spatial segregation. Landry (2000: 60) also points out that “financial capital becomes only one asset among many, including human, social, physical, natural and cultural capital”. Significantly, creative clusters can promote creativity and contain sociocultural meanings.

The difficulty of combining culture and economic factors is demonstrated in the process of gentrification, which entangles cultural industries in a ubiquitous development cycle. Artists moved into the areas of cheap rent first, and then the Middle class or developers replace them by bohemian residences. This is seen in Zukin’s “Loft Living”. In the book, Zukin (1982) depicts a more complicated relationship between art and real estate markets by “showing a process of consumption-based ‘landscaping’” (O’Connor & Gu 2010). As O’Connor (2007:35) describes, “the story of how artists in Soho won their battle against the developers – who wanted to knock down this old industrial area and destroy the lofts which had become home to many of New York’s leading artists – only then to lose it again as rental and property values went sky high, is well known.” He later concludes that although gentrification is “often intoned than actually examined”, two facts are rather obvious. First, “culture”, often perceived as “cool” and bohemian characters in urban environment, always adds value to urban real estate. In a sense, it triggers culture-led urban regeneration. Second, “the urbanity of city life”, partly driven by commercial activities, actually facilitate cultural activities.

Bottom-up or Top-down

A spontaneous or planned approach to forming creative clusters stirs debate. Historically, creative clusters developed informally (as also mentioned above in gentrification): artists find the cheap space to set up studios (Butt 2008). In the last ten years, the clusters have shifted from a spontaneous and organic evolution to a planned process, mostly driven by political agendas for economic and cultural prosperity. However, in many of these “planned” districts, often described as “dead doughnut”, has nothing creative been produced, except driving up local real estate prices (Porter & Barber 2007; Rossiter 2008). Therefore, Butt (2008) argues, “manufacturing a successful creative sector from scratch is an almost impossible process – creativity is not generated, it emerges.” The advocacy for bottom-up activities can be also seen in other literature on cultural planning and creative quarters. Westbury (2008) points out, “there is no easy way to buy or build a culture. Culture has properties that defy planning. The more you grab at it, freeze it and attempt to set it in its place, the weaker it becomes.”

Although the organic growth of clustering appears to be more favoured than a rigid planning process, Porter and Barber (2007) argue that either “hands-off” or “hands-on” approach has their disadvantages, for instance, driving up real estate prices that leads to exclude artist community. By using many European examples, such as Manchester’s Northern Quarter, Sheffield’s Creative Industries Quarter (CIQ) and the Temple Bar, they claim that “non-intervention may be no longer an option”. Thus the question is actually what the appropriate ways to manage the creative clusters are or what sort of intervention can help foster successful creative clusters.

This is not an easy question to answer. Two things at least are clearly stated in many cases. First, the establishment of a partnership between public and private sectors and an association within community groups is required. O’Connor (2007: 52) indicates that “there is a certain naivety in thinking that adequate intelligence can manage a complex creative cluster. In fact this only works if a certain set of values are being shared.” Second, “soft planning” emerges as “more diffused, fragmented, and flexible modes of governance” (Porter and Barber 2007). Recently Arts NSW has launched an Empty Spaces program ( which is an example signifying the shift from traditional governing structures to responsive and community-based organisations.

Production or Consumption

To transform the city into a hustle and bustle area has been the main goal in urban regeneration policies. The new urban life is partly (or in large part?) formed by consumption activities, including cafes, restaurants, bars and some cultural venues, which enhance the perception of vividness and vibrancy.  In his book “The rise of the Creative Class”, Florida (2003) describes the magnet for creative professions coming to a city is the quality of life, or a sort of diverse and consumption-based lifestyle. He further explores this lifestyle by using the term “Street Level Culture” which includes a “teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between participant and observer, or between creativity and its creators” (Florida 2003:166). Currid and Williams (2009) emphasise the significance of the “social milieu”, “the geographical concentration of social networks” to creative industries. In their collaborative project “The Geography of Buzz”, they mapped over 6,000 events in New York and Los Angeles in order to prove the importance of cultural consumption patterns in the cities.

However, this consumption-dominated interpretation of creative industries is widely questioned within and outside academic circles. Scott (2000) provides insight into “cultural products” and their interwoven relationships with “the cultural geography of place”. In some ways, he is “concerned with cultural production rather than consumption” (O’Connor 2007:39). In his imagination “Re-industrial City”, Hill (2010) advocates that some light manufacturing industries, such as “rapid prototyping, 3D printing and various local clean energy sources”, would return to the city in near future. “Made in Midtown” project ( illustrates the real engine in New York’s Garment District is far beyond the glory of flagship stores and runways. It includes a sophisticated production chain that requires many highly skilled specialists including pattern making, sourcing, cutting, sewing, showing, marking, grading and manufacturing.

In fact production and consumption is not irrespectively detached. Evans (2009) argues that the planning of cultural activities should be spatially located close to the “production chains”. Bell and Jayne (c2004) reveal that the foundation of post-industrial economy is actually the interrelation of economic and cultural production and the spaces where the production and consumption activities occur. Zukin (1998:830) also points out “sociability, urban lifestyles and social identities are not only the result, but also the raw materials of the growth of the symbolic economy”.

Local or Global

O’Connor and Gu (2010:125) argues that although “the creative industries are often presented in terms of ubiquitous creativity and global communications, they are very much rooted in particular places”.  They further explain this embeddedness “is also about a reflective engagement with the cultural and social and environmental context of these localities” (O’Connor and Gu 2010:131). From their point of view, creative clusters are something very local and the advantage of clustering effects is an incarnation of “tacit, locally embedded skills and know-how” (O’Connor 2004:132). This coincides with Port and Barber’s (2007) criticism when they saw the disjunction between some urban regeneration projects and local culture. By asking the questions such as “what culture and who is represented”, they try to establish a relation between clusters and local identity, and link creative industries to everyday life. In this regards, the resistance of Florida’s creative class and the defence of indigenous culture can be also seen in the literature. (Evans 2009; Oehmke 2010)

It is clear that “local” is crucial to the development of cultural industries. Nevertheless, the definition of “local” becomes more complex in the context of rapid information exchange and floating urban experience. On the one hand, it contains a place specific aspect. On the other hand, it transcends static traditionalism. The meaning of “local” is largely influenced by an influx of dynamic communication, hybrid culture and dense network.  It is understood as “social relations” by Zukin (1998). She thinks that although the globalisation phenomenon, such as supermarkets, office towers and urban enclaves is inevitable, localised “social relations” make the space unique. The “Made in Midtown” project reveals, for instance, fashion is regarded as a symbolised identity that is locally supported by “an interdependent network”, various specialists, accessible storage space, active entrepreneurs, immigrant labour and multicultural designers. Because of this, new comers are able to join the “local” quickly “making New York a fashion start-up capital”.

City or Suburb

Compare to the above topics, the discussion on the city and suburbs is more related to the spatial planning discourse. The decline of manufacturing based economy led to the recession in many European cities. “Rediscovery” or “revitalisation” of the City has become a slogan that aims to transform the post-industrial cities into a society based on the provision of knowledge and innovation since 1980s (O’Connor 2007). Scott (2000) reveals that the aim for a dynamic, interactive and energetic urban life is the key drive to this movement.

At the same time, the promotion of cultural industries acts as one of the catalysts to this process of economic, cultural and social changes. The City tends to be “a primary point of intervention for cultural industry policy in creative city policy making” (O’Connor 2004:131). One of the most successful examples is Charles Landry and the Comedia. In the last 30 years, they have worked cultural consultants on projects such as “cultural venues and quarters, street markets, alternative retail, new forms of public art and signage, urban landscaping, architectural and larger scale regeneration projects, and campaigns such as the ’24 hour city’” (O’Connor 2007:34).

In Australia, a similar experience started first in 1990s, Melbourne after economic recession. The City Council initiated a number of strategic urban policies in order to attract people moving to the City. Two of them are worthwhile to mention. The first one is Postcode 3000 which encourages people to live the Central City Area through the provision of incentives. Second, the endorsement of Grids and Greenery strategy set up a framework for the improvement of streets and public spaces where public life thrives. (Rob Adam’s presentation in the City Edge conference, February 2008) In the mean time, the unique pattern of laneway network provides a lot of “fine grain” spaces, which were affordable for start-up creatives during early 1990s (Allchin 2008).

More recently, “A Revitalised City Centre” is addressed on the top of the list of strategic goals in the Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan ( Both physical and nonphysical initiatives were set up including the enhancement of public domain quality, the establishment of small business partnerships and the development of unique retail activities among others. It is still too early to see the impact of this plan on transforming Central Sydney. Nevertheless, some creative businesses, including the Gaffa Gallery and Paper Mill, have received support to relocate their home to the City Centre.

Although many cultural policies focus on the City Centre, “creative suburbs” have also drawn attention recently. In the countries where suburban population comprises largely of the total metropolitan population, it is necessary to look at how creative infrastructure can be established in suburbs. Brennan-Horley (2010) demonstrates his findings in Darwin where the interconnection between the City and outer suburbs is distinct by using the integrated methods of “qualitative interviews and mental maps”.


From what I’ve discussed above, the notion of creative clusters is very fluid. It is comprised of a number of parameters around the issues such as economic, culture, top down or bottom up governance, production, consumption, local or global identity, geography locations (city or suburb) and others which I have not included here.  To some extent, the assemblage of those parameters conceptually draws an outline for a creative cluster which varies in different situations. Despite the difficulty of precisely defining it, a few principles are distilled from the previous discussion. First, to clarify what potential role the clusters have in relation to the wider creative topology of the city is important to understand their performance. Second, the comprehension of local context including history, culture, demography, planning regulations and so on, is the precondition of examining the clusters in specific cases. Third, without critical analysis, the risk of having an idealised model or utopian vision for creative clusters may cause a homogeneous formulation or the repetition of stereotypes. Lastly, the idea of creative clusters as the “interface” – spatially, culturally, socially and symbolically – emerges to produce creative networks, cultural congregation, meanings and memories. These four principles will guide the investigation of creative clusters in the following steps.


Allchin, C. (2008) The fine grain: revitalising Sydney’s lanes, Sydney: City of Sydney, available at

Bell, D. & Jayne, M. ed. (c2004) City of quarters: urban villages in the contemporary city, Ashgate : Aldershot, England

Brennan-Horley, C. (2010) ‘Multiple Work Site and City-wide Networks: a topological approach to understanding creative work’, Australian Geographer, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 39-56, March 2010

Butt, D. (2008) ‘Can You Manufacture a Creative Cluster?’, Urban China, Special Issue, Creative China: Counter-mapping the Creative Industries, Vol.33

Currid, E. & Williams, S. (2009) ‘The Geography of Buzz: Art, and the Social Milieu in Los Angeles and New York’,

Evans, G. (2009) ‘From cultural quarters to creative clusters: creative spaces in the new city economy’, in The sustainability and development of cultural quarters: international perspectives, eds Legner, M., Stockholm: Institute of Urban History

Florida, R. (2003) The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, Melbourne: Pluto Press Australia

Hill, D. (2010) ‘14 Cities: Re-industrial City’, City of Sound,

Landry, C. (2000) The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators, London: Earthscan

O’Connor, J. (2004) “‘A Special Kind of City Knowledge’: Innovative Cluster, Tacit Knowledge and the ‘Creative City’”, Media International Australia, special issues on Creative Networks, No. 112, pp.131-149

O’Connor, J. (2007) The cultural and creative industries: a review of the literature, London: Arts Council England

O’Connor, J. and Gu, X. (2010) ‘Developing a Creative Cluster in a Postindustrial City: CIDS and Manchester’, The Information Society, 26: 2, 124-136

Oehmke, P. (2010) ‘Squatters Take on the Creative Class: Who Has the Right to Shape the City?’, Spiegel Online,,1518,670600,00.html

Porter, L. & Barber, A. (2007) ‘Planning the Cultural Quarter in Birmingham’s Eastside’, European Planning studies, Vol. 15, No. 10, November 2007, pp. 1327-1348

Rossiter, N. (2008) Introduction to Section2: Information Geographies vs. Creative Clusters, Urban China, Special Issue, Creative China: Counter-mapping the Creative Industries, Vol.33

Scott, A. J. (2000) The Cultural Economy of Cities: Essays on the Geography of Image-Producing industries, London: Sage

UNESCO (2006) ‘What are Creative Clusters?’,

Westbury, M (2008) ‘Fluid cities create’, Griffith Review Edition 20: Cities on the Edge

Zukin, S. (1982) Loft Living: Cultural and Capital in Urban Change, London: The Work Foundation

Zukin, S. (1998) ‘Urban lifestyle: Diversity and standardisation in spaces of consumption’, Urban Studies, Vol. 35 (8), pp. 825-839


Paper Mill Fundrasing

A Sydney-based artist collective, the Paper Mill, has found a new home in the middle of the city. As part of the CBD Laneway Revitalisation program, the City of Sydney has decided to allow them to use a large space at Ash Street (next to the Recital Hall) temporarily until March 2011. The artists who specialise in paper-based art will be offering “classes, workshops, talks, exhibitions, launches, studio residencies, projects, gallery openings and a zine library”.
 Before the grand opening on 7th September, the Paper Mill will run two fundraising events this week. Please come along if you are around Sydney.
Event 1
7:30pm – 12pm Wednesday 25th Aug – Band night at Oxford Art Factory, 38-46 Oxford St, Darlinghurst
Event 2
6pm – 9:30pm Thursday 26th Aug – Theatrical performance spectacular at the Paper Mill, 1 Angel Place, Sydney

creative clusters in beijing

I’ve been working on mapping creative clusters. As a starting point, I try to find out the spatial relationship between clusters and the cities from the aspect of urban planning and history. I believe that a creative cluster does not emerge from nowhere. It should have certain connections to the city where urban conditions are formed by the constant interweaving of political decisions, economic status and social climate.  In a sense, the clusters are rather intentional.

Here is some initial thoughts on Beijing. The ideas originate from an interesting sketch by Shveta Sarda. The sketch skillfully illustrates Beijing’s spatial plan by only using a few blobs and lines. It looks lack of accuracy, but clearly transmits the information of how the city is structure. It tells a story that the various ‘urban organs’ are placed in relation to the centre, Forbidden City and the rigid axes.  What interests me mostly in relation to my research project is that the map indicates some locations of where clusters might be. Several obvious ones are mapped out, such as 798, suburban artist villages and the film city in the south.


It also reveals some underlying rules that bind cluster topologies with spatial distribution, at least in Beijing. Michael Keane in his paper ‘Great adaptations : China’s creative clusters and the new social contract‘ identifies six types of creative clusters in China: specialist agglomerations, artist zones and cultural districts, ‘related variety’ model, media content cluster clusters within existing industrial zones, stand-alone cinema and television production centres and incubator model. This classification method outlines various types of  function in different clusters.

Besides functional classification, how those types are spatially located is also worthwhile to look at. Some types are easily observed. For example, the second type, although being called a generic name, ‘artist zones and cultural districts’, is actually referred to old city districts according to its definition. The old city centre with abundant heritage and rich cultural legacy always attracts creatives. In Beijing hutong neighbourhoods within 2nd Ring Road is an example in this category. Historically, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. Sadly, hutong has recently experiencing demolition and redevelopment, replaced by wide boulevards and high rises (see The Da Zha Lan project). However, many of Beijing’s ancient hutongs still stand, being converted into creative uses, such as Nanluoguxiang and Fangjia Hutong. They mainly cluster around the area to the north-east of Forbidden City.  Because of their location near the embassies and ‘middle class city’, these clusters draw large foreign crowds.

Another kind of clusters which recycle old warehouses and factory buildings is also popular, because of cheap rents and creatives’ obsession with industrial estate. 798 Art Zone is a well-known instance. It used to be a group of old decommissioned military factory buildings and later discovered and occupied spontaneously by artists in late 90s. Then through a process of gentrification it now becomes “a center of Beijing’s nascent bourgeois-bohemian community” with scores of galleries, lofts, publishing firms, design companies, high-end tailor shops, and cafés and fancy restaurants setting up.

I also find another map of Beijing which was made in 1988 before the booming of real estate markets. On the map 798 is only one of factory districts in the city fringe. Other industrial lands (in brown colour) mainly cluster around the south-east corner and far west. As the urbanised area sprawled dramatically in last twenty years, the previous city fringe becomes part of the inner city area. Many of industrial companies have moved to the outer city, giving way to residential development or other uses. However, some of them may still remain, potentially for creative industries. It will be very interesting to know where they are. Rod Simpson in Creative Sydney 2010 delivered a stirring talk on creative planning opportunities in future. One of the options that he suggested is to effectively reuse brownfields for the purpose of increasing creative capacity. It is worthwhile to use a similar methodology to look at the situation in Beijing.

The next type may not even be regarded as a creative cluster. The reason I mention here is because it has possibilities to be evolved to a creative one. 1988 map shows that a number of universities including Beijing and Tsinghua University are located at the north-west corner.  Those universities are still there now, while their campuses have expanded and drawn more students to the area. Many R&D institutions and high-tech enterprises cluster at Zhongguancun, an area adjacent to those universities, forming one of the largest technology hub in China. Interestingly, the name Zhongguancun to Beijingers is an abbreviation for these markets, where pirated software, gray market imports, refurbished and DIY products and fakes are widely perceived as being as common as legitimate products. Although it is hard to image those multi-storey office buildings in Zhongguancun as an artistic precinct, the area has creative potentials due to large student population, proximity to universities and year round bustle and hustle.

The last type I’d like to mention here is artist villages which are scattered around Beijing’s suburban areas. From 1984 to 1993, the avant-garde artists worked in run-down houses near the Old Summer Palace in northwestern Beijing, until their eviction. They then started moving to the eastern Tongxian County, more than an hour’s drive from the city center. Aside from political pressure, the soaring of property price contributes to terminate the dream of finding a spacious studio space in the inner city.

In the places such as Songzhuang, Tongxiang and Caochangdi (next to 798), thousands of artist houses were built in last ten years.  Although avant-garde art being frowned upon by the central government, the local governments have encouraged artists to move into the community using tax incentives and cheap land, in order to increase revenue through rents and tourism. The previous peasants become ‘creative landlords’, turning vast farmland into studios, galleries and hotels. These villages are very ’emergent’ due to lack of masterplans, shaping an alternative creative landscape in Beijing’s suburbs.

Above is a quick summary of some nascent thoughts. Further investigation needed.

made in midtown

Made in Midtown is a study of the Garment District in New York initiated by Design Trust for Public Space partnered with the Council of Fashion Designers of America. I have been watching this project since last year when they posted an EOI for a multidisciplinary team. Later they assembled a group of interesting fellows, including Interboro Partner, Alport and others. The result has been published here recently. The website is well designed in my opinion.

Here is the project background from the website.


More than a million New Yorkers pass through Midtown every day, but few know that the neighbourhood between 34th and 40th Streets, and Broadway and Ninth Avenue, houses one of the largest manufacturing clusters in New York City. Here in the Garment District, hundreds of small factories and suppliers work closely with designers to create the latest styles that make New York City a global fashion capital, and influence the clothes we wear everyday.

“Made in Midtown” is an interactive, multi-media study about the creative industry centred in the Garment District. Featuring videos, comics, maps diagrams, and written profiles of people at every level in the fashion industry, “Made in Midtown” shows what makes the District essential to New York’s fashion industry, and why it matters to all New Yorkers.

Ultimately this story is about much more than fashion. It’s about one of the last neighbourhoods in Manhattan that has not yet been remade by recent waves of new development. It’s about jobs, immigrant workers, and startup businesses. It’s about the decisions city officials make to support certain kinds of businesses and land-use developement, whether it’s baseball stadiums, high-rise condominiums, or light manufacturing.

Fashion is one of the most dazzling commodities in New York. Behind the spotlight, fashion industry also has the most complicated business process, from sourcing to designing, exhibiting, marketing and retailing. This research on the Garment District tells us a story about how those components inhabit the city centre, function and network. 

Moreover, two facts strike me.

First, it explains the importance of geographical proximity that brings convenience and opportunities for interaction. It also means saving money and time. “At multiple retail prices and quantities, designers choose to produce locally as opposed to overseas.”

Second, rather than a “cultural quarter” mixed with “diverse activities”, the Garment District is formed by an intensive network that “enables entrepreneurs to start fashion companies without the enormous investment required to hire staff, buy specialized equipment, or rent space – making New York a fashion start-up capital“. The cluster is placed vertically in which designers and specialists intimately stick to each other, shaping a dense and efficient production line. The intensity is a real power that drives the glory of fashion industry.

Indeed, New York is delirious.